How to Pair Craft Beer and Food

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Beer and food go hand and hand – arguably beer is the most versatile beverage to pair with a meal. As a beer geek, I’m often the only one at the table drinking beer alongside the main course at restaurants or dinner parties. Wine is great, but beer – craft beer – has an equal seat at the table.

Beer pairing doesn’t need to be intimidating. Usually, trusting your instinct is a great start. Matching flavor intensity of the food and beer is probably the most crucial aspect. Unbalanced flavors tend to shift in one direction, taking away from the pairing rather than adding to it.

It’s also important to be careful generalizing both the food and the beer. Take a simple cheeseburger, for instance. Topped with ketchup and bacon creates a completely different taste than mayonnaise and lettuce. Instead of looking at what beer style works with general food items, it’s useful to first consider the balance of flavors in the specific food.

When pairing beer and food, think about three main outcomes:

  • Complement: Similar flavors that naturally follow the same profile. Sweet with sweet, sour with sour, bitter with bitter.
  • Contrast: Opposite or contrasting flavors that create balance. Sour and salty, bitter and sweet, cool and spicy.
  • Supplement: Flavors combined together to be something completely different. Think about the unique flavors of sweet and salty, or strange combinations like cheddar cheese and apple pie.

How to Pair Craft Beer and Food

Designing the perfect beer and food pairing requires experience, instinct, and experimentation. We’ll help get you started with some of our favorite pairings for a delicious craft beer accented meal.

Pairing food and beer is meant to be fun and approachable. Don’t be afraid to try new things and get creative. The possibilities are nearly endless and even if you don’t find the perfect pairing, you’ll still be left with some great food and great beer!

Oysters

Craft beer and oysters has to be one of the world’s greatest flavor combinations. Oysters have a unique salinity that keeps you going back for more. There are all kinds of oysters and connoisseurs of these molluscs can better describe all of their unique subtleties. Generally, oysters have a range of saltiness and sweetness, among a range of other complex flavors.

For very salty oysters – like Atlantic Malpeques – a crisp pilsner is a great choice to cut through the salinity and refresh the palate. Sweeter oysters, like many Pacific varieties, pair well with a sour beer like Berliner weisse or Belgian lambic.

Sushi

Most sushi goes well with classic Japanese lager – you know, the big names like Sapporo and Asahi. In our opinion, there are tons of craft lagers that pair even better. For a straightforward pale lager and sushi pairing, go for a pilsner like Victory Prima Pils or Firestone Walker Pivo.

For creamier and more unctuous fish, like fatty salmon or tuna, a darker beer can compliment the buttery and silky textures. An altbier or dark lager can offer a bit of roasted complexity while still being crisp and refreshing on the finish.

If you want to mix it up a bit, sour beers can be incredible to throw in the mix. Lighter sushi like scallop, or strong funky flavors like in sea urchin (uni), can be complemented with a funky saison or mixed fermentation ale.

Steak

Steak and a big red wine is definitely becoming an increasingly dated pairing, however tasty it may be. The rich, fleshy steak pairs seamlessly with a full bodied and tannic wine, but it can sometimes come across cloyingly heavy. For a more balanced pairing, stick to beer!

If you’re a fan of the heaviness of a classic red wine pairing, try a beer with ample body and underlying sweet notes. A barley wine – assuming not too sweet – can match well with steak. Try Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, barrel-aged if you can find one.

A more unconventional pairing would be to match hearty steak with a lighter, more refreshing beer. Lightly acidic beer, like a tart saison, can help break through the fattiness of beef. This works to cleanse the palate and compliments a well-seasoned steak.

Hill Farmstead’s Arthur is an incredible selection to pair with a medium-rare rib eye. Lemony, full bodied, and bright, the beer’s complexity meshes organically with the savory and fatty beef.

Roast Chicken / Rotisserie Chicken

Everyone should have a roast chicken recipe in their cooking repertoire. If you’re not a cook, you probably know the best rotisserie in your neighbourhood to fill those primal needs. Classic, simple, and comforting, roast chicken is a staple in many cuisines around the world.

Juicy chicken pairs pretty freely with nearly all beer styles. It’s surprisingly versatile despite its simplicity.

If you’re looking for a food to pair with NEIPA, roast chicken is your friend. Those beers are notoriously hard to pair with food due to their overpowering fruitiness from all those hops. The fruitiness goes well with most roast chicken recipes, adding to the meal’s flavor while still being very refreshing.

Pale lager, saison, and Belgian blondes are also exceptional beers to pair with this simple delicacy.

Southern Barbecue

When you get the smoker out, there’s nothing like sipping on refreshing light lager as the meat slowly cooks. When it comes time for the meal, you’ve got plenty of delicious options to pair with your freshly smoked barbecue.

Ribs, pulled pork, and brisket are fatty, decadent, and delicious. There’s nothing wrong with pairing them with that same American Light Lager. Usually barbecue goes hand in hand with massive portions, so keeping the beer light helps get through the meal without exploding.

On the other hand, dark and rich beers can elevate the flavors to another dimension. Perhaps a little on the nose, but rauchbier – or smoked beer – is a fantastic complement.

For sweeter dishes and sauces, a lighter smoked helles or smoked pilsner pairs perfectly. For heartier and more savory plates, like brisket, reach for a smoked marzen like Schlenkerla Marzen or Suarez Stands To Reason

Fish and Seafood

Fish is typically served with fresh flavors, like bright pilsner, blonde ale, saison, and moderately hopped IPA.

For fried fish, we can look at a number of options. Fish and Chips harmoniously melds with English bitter. In a pinch, go for a subtly hoppy APA like Mirror Pond by Deschutes Brewery. A dry porter can also be a great contrast to the greasy and crispy batter and salty fries.

Fatty fish – sablefish, tuna, or salmon – can be complemented with heavier stouts like Brooklyn Black Chocolate or Bell’s Expedition. The full, sweet, and roasty beer rounds out the richness of the fish and pulls out a bit more of the inherent sweetness.

For shellfish, like shrimp, lobster, and clams, it’s best keep it simple. Fresh, citrusy beer like witbier, hefeweizen, and Belgian blonde allow the subtle sality to come through. Often cooked or served with butter, a lighter beer can cut through the fattiness and help refresh the palate.

Spicy Food

Whether you’re in the mood for Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, American, or Mexican cuisines, beer is your friend to help quell the heat.

Generally, spicy food pairs well with bitter beer. Bitterness actually amplifies spicy flavors, slightly igniting the heat. At the same time, the freshness of the beer cools and cleanses the palate. West Coast IPA, like Russian River’s Blind Pig, is a great selection to go with a wide variety of spice.

For very spicy dishes, like vindaloo or extra-spicy chicken wings, opt for a lower ABV but full bodied beer like a stout, mild, or witbier. The sweetness on the back-end combined with the drinkability will quell the flames and provide a cushion against the heat.

Pasta

Pasta is just about as diverse as beer itself. For that reason, pairing really depends on the type of pasta and dish you’re eating.

For red-sauce, classic American style spaghetti and lasagna, the rich and carb-heavy plate is dense and packed with flavor. For that reason, a nice light bodied pilsner or American pale ale pairs nicely. Make sure your selection isn’t too bitter. Trumer Pils is a great bet, as is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Creamy and cheesy dishes like carbonara or cacio e pepe pair nicely with spicy and fresh blonde beers like saison or Belgian pale ale. A bit of bitterness can help cut through the creaminess. On top of that, an element of spice pairs perfectly with black pepper and herbs like parsley and basil.

Pasta is usually best when kept simple, and the same philosophy can be extended to the beer pairing. Bright, light, and refreshing beers make great matches.

Dessert

At the end of the meal, the beer doesn’t have to stop flowing. No matter what you serve for dessert, there’s a beer to pair with it.

Fresh fruit desserts go great with lighter and fruity beers like witbier, saison, and lambic. Cooked and stewed fruit, like cherry or apple pie, tend to pair better with richer beer…think stout or porter.

For chocolate, darker beer is the obvious pairing. And is it ever good! A nice chocolate cake with a rich and roasty stout can be a dream pairing. Stouts also pair perfectly with desserts made with nuts, dried fruit, or coffee.

If you’re like me – skip dessert and opt for a thick, sweet, and delicious imperial stout. Often heavy enough to be a dessert in their own right, they can also pair quite well with cheese to finish off the meal…

Cheese

Cheese and beer is another classic combination. With the variety of cheeses at grocery stores and speciality shops, the pairing possibilities are limitless. It can be a bit confusing to find the perfect match.

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to pair beer and cheese based on intensity of flavors. For a strong blue cheese, a beer with a big punch of flavor is a great place to start. Look to stouts, barley wines, or sour beers.

Belgian lambic or American wild beer sometimes has an inherent funkiness not unlike some aged cheeses. Use these distinct and unusual flavors in beer to complement the strong and funky cheese profile.

Subtle cheese, like Brie or young Gouda, matches seamlessly with blonde ale – either American or Belgian. The limited bitterness in the beer allows the creamy and softness of these cheeses to shine.

For sharp cheddar, manchego, or Monterey Jack, sweeter pale beer makes a great contrast of flavors. Try an English bitter or American Pale Ale with a bit of caramel undertone.

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