By: Marty Nachel



The When, Where and How of Proper Pairing

For far too long, beer’s participation in American gastronomy had been anywhere from inconsequential to non-existent. The blame for this lay squarely on the shoulders of corporate brewers who made beer with nothing significant to contribute to the dining experience. Even where beers of character existed, beer and food pairings generally occurred as a matter of agreeable happenstance.

With the advent and subsequent growth of the craft brewing industry, however, it quickly became evident that “happy accident” pairings weren’t going to cut it in the world of finer dining or, even beyond pizza, pretzels and mustard-slathered hot dogs, for that matter.

Such is the demand of and for quality beer. The range of styles from light to dark, dry to sweet, mild to robust, there is a virtually unlimited number of culinary combinations to be made. And because it also has the added flavor attributes of grainy roastiness, hoppy bitterness and occasional acidic sourness, there are no easy, axiomatic rules to play by. A rubric was needed; guidelines, however basic, became indispensable.

The “how” part of beer and food pairing is at the core of the subject matter, but the “where” and “when” also play a vital role. Let’s explore those first.

To fully enjoy any beer and food combination, you have to factor in time and place. Grilling chicken on the backyard barbecue on a hot August afternoon begs for something cold, light and refreshing like a wheat beer or a blonde ale. At the opposite extreme, a steaming dish of shepherd’s pie on a frosty winter evening deserves the complement of a rich porter or stout, served lightly chilled.

Well-hopped beers such as Pilsners, steam beers and India Pale Ales make excellent aperitifs, as do some mildly acidic beers such as Berliner Weisse. A solid post-prandial beer list might include a mild brown ale or a Kolschbier to aid in digestion. As the day is winding down, nothing can match the malty excesses of beers like barleywine, doppelbock and Russian Imperial Stout -served slightly above room temperature.

Before we take a look at specific pairings, let’s review some important guiding principles for any successful beverage and food pairing. These are what need to be achieved, depending on what is being served. I call these the all-important “Four C’s” of pairing:

  • Calm. To soothe or diminish spicy heat or intense flavors.
  • Cut. To mitigate or minimize richness or fattiness.
  • Contrast. To emphasize dissimilarities such as sweet-and-sour or sweet-and-salty.
  • Complement. To marry common or similar flavors.

There is also a lesser-known “Fifth C” that is somewhat unique to beer (it’s a benefit wine can’t provide): Cleansing plays a default role in beer and food pairing because beer is carbonated. The tingly carbon dioxide bubbles help to scrub the palate of heavy or cloying flavors and keep your taste buds lively.

Be aware that there are definitely some pairings that don’t play nice together. Certain beers, due to their higher hop content, acidity or alcohol level, can actually intensify flavors to the extent that they can become unpleasant, such as bitterness and spicy heat. It’s always best to avoid these wherever possible.