Eight Tips to Help You Pair Like a Pro

By Julia Herz

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of The New Brewer, the journal of the Brewers Asssociation, publishers of CraftBeer.com.

The Big Event

In July, the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program hosted a media roundtable dinner in New York City, our highest-profile pairing demonstration to date.

Media in attendance included such prestigious outlets as Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living, Men’s Health, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, Time, and Every Day with Rachael Ray—with a waiting list, no less.

The Catch

The most complicated aspect of this meal was that we did not have the ability to do a full taste test with both the food and the pool of considered craft beers. Seriously, we had to work on instinct and applied some very basic principles (which I’ll share with you later) and trust that the power of craft beer’s influence and enhancement of food flavors to win over the crowd—and to our delight, the craft beer performed.

Media Roundtable Menu

The Good News: Practice Builds Confidence and Vocabulary

Five years ago, I publicly admit, that I could not verbally describe why I liked particular pairings for the life of me. Being new to describing pairings can seem like being visually impaired and not having reference to the primary colors. Yes, to me it was (and can be) that difficult. But the good news is, the more you practice the easier it gets and the more your descriptor vocabulary expands.

I can now say that we’ve done this type of thing enough times that I finally feel I’ve got enough tools in my belt to stand up and describe pairing principles and what I’m personally perceiving without being at a loss for words, but my journey continues every day.

I wanted to share with you the principles I used in preparation for the media roundtable dinner. These principles have evolved over time, but since the beginning, they’ve helped me ground my palate, while exploring and experimenting with pairing after pairing.

Julia’s Pairing Principles Cheat Sheet

  1. Don’t just pair to the protein. That’s where wine got in trouble! Pair to the preparation, protein and ingredients, and take into account what interactions will occur.
  2. Match intensities. As Randy Mosher teaches: “It is simply common sense that delicate dishes work best with delicate beers. It is equally true that strongly flavored foods demand assertive beers. With beer, flavor intensity involves a variety of qualities such as alcoholic strength, malt character, hop bitterness, sweetness, richness and roastiness.”
  3. Present two craft beers per course. Having two different beverages with the same course often creates loyalty in the room where people tend to like one of the beverages more with the food than the other. This technique also allows one to tangibly compare how contrasting elements and complementary flavors evolve as the result of tasting two different craft beers with same dish.
  4. Raise the experience. My goal when pairing is to get the combination of food and beer to work together in a way that raises the experience beyond what one would get when just sampling that beer or food on its own.
  5. Generally, like calms like.
  6. Sweet (beer or food) calms a sweet food or beer. A sweet eisbock, old ale, or imperial IPA will calm and stand up to a sweet dessert.
  7. Acidic matches acidic. An acidic beer like an American Belgo style sour ale (with lactic acidity) will match the acidity of ceviche.
  8. Acidic calms fat and salt and fat and salt calm acidity.

Interactions: Complement, Contrast, Cleanse

Each pairing has complement, contrast, and cleanse all happening at the same time. However, sometimes what you get from a pairing will lean more toward complement or contrast depending on interactions occurring.

Malt (complement and contrast)

  • Complement: Kilned/roasted flavors (caramel/roast/coffee/chocolate) harmonize with grilled, roasted and smoked foods.
  • Contrast: Sweetness from malt soothes heat in food and calms salt.
  • Contrast: Roasted flavors calm sweetness in foods.

Hops (cut, contrast and complement)

  • Cut: Bitterness of hops cuts through rich foods.
  • Contrast: Bitterness of hops contrasts with sweet of malt and food.
  • Complement: Flavors of hops (herbal/citrus/floral) resonate/complement.

Alcohol (Contrast)

  • Contrast: Alcohol is a solvent and opens the pores on your tongue, thus intensifying your heat experience. That’s why 12 percent ABV wines are train wrecks with spicy foods, and lower ABV craft beers shine as they soothe heat.
  • Contrast: Alcohol also contrasts against sweet flavors.

Carbonation (Cleanse/Cut)

  • Cleanse: Carbonation scrubs the tongue and prepares palate for the next bite.
  • Cut: Carbonation cuts through the richness of food.

Other notable things about carbonation:

  • CO2 heightens aromatics of craft beer and lifts them out of the glass toward your olfactory senses.
  • CO2 enhances mouthfeel (how the beer feels on your tongue, e.g. creamy or prickly).
  • CO2 expels from beer as temperature rises. Watch out for foaming and don’t serve in frosted glasses.

Tip: Pour a beer with the goal of expelling CO2 to heighten aromatics, and also so you ingest less and don’t fill up.

My Pairing Mentors

Much of the influence in my approach to pairing has been what I’ve read or seen in presentations from pairing pros including Ray Daniels and the Cicerone® Cerification Program; Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer; Chef Adam Dulye; Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table; Lucy Saunders of BeerCook.com; Marnie Old and Sam Calagione’s He Said Beer, She Said Wine; Ray Isle of Food & Wine magazine, and many, many others. I also credit multiple introspective tastings and conversations with Andy Sparhawk while we negotiate and work to nail pairings at the Great American Beer Festival® media luncheon.

Julia HerzJulia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, is a homebrewer, BJCP beer judge and Certified Cicerone™. Despite her extensive experience, she will always consider herself a beer beginner on an unending journey to learn more about craft beer. Additionally, for interesting articles on small and independent craft brewers check out Delicious and follow Craft Beer Muses on Twitter.

Julia Herz is the Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, co-author of the free CraftBeer.com Beer & Food Course, as well co-author of Beer Pairing (Voyageur Press). She is a life-long homebrewer, BJCP beer judge and Certified Cicerone®. Despite her extensive experience, she will always consider herself a beer beginner on an unending journey to learn more about craft beer.

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