A little over a week ago, I gave a talk on beer pairings at Dig-IN. What surprised me is that my talk filled the speakers tent. Given the level of interest I observed, I thought it might be a good idea to carry the conversation over to the blog.
It all starts out with the ingredients. There are a number of ingredients and steps to making beer and as any homebrewer can tell you, it's a lot like making a soup. The increased number of ingredients are only one of the reasons that pairing beer with food is not only easier than pairing wine, it's also more diverse. Pairings can either be complimentary or contrasting. While contrasting pairings are certainly more interesting, they're also more difficult and can be very off-putting if not executed correctly. For this reason, I recommend everyone start off with complimentary pairings. It's not only easier to pair similar flavors, but you won't ruin the meal if the pairing doesn't work.
Beer is mostly water and it's difficult to pair water with anything. With enough effort, you probably could pair the effects of the mineral and chemical content of the water with food, although you might come across looking like a fool if you simply stated that you paired this beer with a grilled steak because it was dry and chalky. Instead, let's simply treat water as the canvas for the beer, and look to the other 3 main ingredients.
Malted barley provides the sweet character you associate with beer. It can be malted in ways that bring out a number of flavors, including bread, chocolate, caramel, coffee, smoke and biscuits. An increased presence of malt will bring out more of these flavors, increase the alcohol and create a heavier body. Decreasing the presence of the malt, or using lighter or more neutral malts, will make a more clean tasting beer with little aftertaste and will lend itself better to effervescence. When pairing with food, the type of sweetness, or lack thereof, in the beer plays a very strong role. The alcohol content and body of the beer are also important and should be appropriately matched with how strong the flavors are in the dish. You don't want to overwhelm the food with the flavors of the beer, or vice versa. While matching sweet flavors with each other may not sound daunting, be aware that food with high acidity will have the opposite effect and actually increase the acidity.
If beer is treated as food, then hops are the spice. This is an important analogy when it comes to pairing beer and food. Spices compliment the main ingredient(s) and are also complimentary toward each other. In terms of beer, hops aren't necessarily the only spice involved. Brewers also add other spices to their recipes, which can add even more complexity to both the beer and the pairing. Hops not only provide bitterness to the beer but they also provide a number of other flavors, such as citrus fruits and various herbs. Pairings can be created off both the bitter experience and flavor of the hops. The bitterness of hops have an interesting effect on the palate. The bitter sensation actually cleanses the mouth of fatty and creamy flavors. As you've likely experienced before, a fatty piece of meat or a creamy soup can coat the mouth and the resulting sensation traps the flavors. A high bitterness in beer will quickly cleanse that sensation and leave your tongue ready for more. But as with any spice, the more you add, the more the spices become the main player in the dish. While hops work well with spicy food, they will actually amplify the spice instead of subdue it - so watch out when pairing an IPA with habaneros!.
If there is a wildcard in beer, it's yeast. All of the ingredients have a specific flavor, but once yeast gets involved it does so much more than create alcohol. The type of yeast, temperature of fermentation and length of fermentation all drastically change the flavor of the beer. Something as simple as yeast can make a wheat beer taste of bananas and cloves, or become slightly tart and lemony. With yeast, the best rule of thumb is to taste the beer before you pair it. One cannot assume that just because the beer is a Belgian Tripel, that all Tripels will taste the same. Different yeasts can drastically change the flavors in the beer. When drastically changing yeast types and moving in to sour beers, pairing moves in to an entirely different realm. Sourness not only combats salty foods, but it has a similar cleansing effect with fats and creams as hops do. If you're familiar with pairing wine and food, the acidity of a sour beer, as a result of the yeast, can work the same way as the acidity of wine.
Although pairing beer with food opens up a whole new world of experiences and enjoyment, that doesn't necessarily mean that every beer is ideal for pairing. Many beers with strong, intense flavors are best enjoyed on their own. Extremely sour beers and hoppy beers well in excess of 100 IBUs are two examples of beers that would simply dominate anything they are paired with. The idea of pairing beer with food is to achieve a balance. The beer and food should compliment each other, adding their own flavors and creating new flavors without detracting from each other.
In the coming weeks I will focus more on individual style pairings in an effort to provide more examples of how the nuances of specific beers can meld with the flavors of food to create interesting and enjoyable experiences.