Beer is Food
Chef Brian Funk's tips for the ultimate pairing aim to boost your bottom line
There are many different types and styles of beer, and the range of flavors between them is enormous. Additionally, different beers are better during different seasons and taste even better when served in the right glasses.
Due to the sheer volume of beer varieties, trying to pair beer with food on your menu can seem like a daunting task. But, creating an excellent beer and food pairing menu in your bar or restaurant can also be a huge boost to your bottom line. To ensure you find the right beers to complement your food, you should first understand different flavors of beer, general types of beer, and four distinct guidelines for food and beer pairings.
Definition of Tastes in Beer
Beer paired with steak
To make a good pairing, you’ll first need to understand the different flavors present in beer. When describing the taste of beer, there are a few buzzwords that you'll come across again and again. Here are some general definitions to help you understand how flavors in beer are typically described:
Hops: Many times, people use "hoppiness" to describe how bitter a beer tastes, but not all hoppy beers are bitter. The taste of a hoppy beer depends on when hops are added during the brewing process. The earlier hops are added, the bitterer the beer. Hops themselves have a versatile flavor and aroma that enhances flowery and fruity flavors in beer. Many breweries also rate how bitter a beer is with an IBU number. IBU stands for International Bitterness Units, and the higher the IBU, the stronger the bitterness.
Malt: Malt comes from barley grain, and it’s usually roasted before it’s added to brew. Roasting barley gives beer a nutty flavor and toasty aroma. Plus, during the roasting process, the sugars in barley caramelize, bringing out a slightly sweet, caramel taste.
Dark: While it may seem more like a description of the color, dark may also be used to describe the taste of beer. Dark beers are made with malt grain roasted until it reaches a dark color. Dark beers are typically roasted longer than malty beers, giving them a richer, heavier taste. The malt's nutty, caramel flavor turns to darker notes of chocolate and coffee with a longer roast time.
Light: Light beer is usually known for having a clean, crisp taste that is refreshing. Light beers typically don't have a strong flavor and aren't very bitter or hoppy. As a result, most of them have low alcohol content.
4 Guidelines for Food and Beer Pairings
Friends drinking beer with pizza
When it comes to pairing food and beer, there aren't many strict rules to follow. Trying new and unique pairings can be interesting, and there are only a few pairings that will clash and taste bad. If you want to get the most out of your pairings and enhance the flavors of the food on your menu, try to keep these guidelines in mind:
Contrast: Pairing food with beer that has a contrasting flavor can be a dangerous game, but it can have big payoffs if done correctly. To make an ideal pairing by contrast, you want to pick a beer or dish that has one strong, dominant flavor, such as sweet, rich or oily. If a dish has flavors that are too complex or mild, the flavors will muddle together. You want a dish with a distinct taste that shines through without overpowering. An excellent example of a good contrast pairing is oysters and stout. Oysters have a strong, briny flavor that stands up well to the rich and chocolatey flavor of the stout.
Complement: Complementing flavors is one of the simplest ways to make a delicious food and beer pairing. Match rich foods with beers boasting heavy and rich flavors, like stouts or porters. Pair lighter fare like salads and fish with light beers. Fruity and wheat beers are the perfect complement to fruit tarts and other desserts.
Cleanse: You can also use your beer as a palate cleanser. This pairing is ideal for dishes with strong or overpowering flavors such as spicy Indian cuisine or fatty, fried foods. For example, a nice pairing would be a light beer with spicy Korean fried chicken, as the refreshing beer provides needed relief from the heat. This pairing also works in the opposite way, and you can use fatty foods, such as fries or nuts, to cut through the bitterness of IPAs.
Don't Overpower: Keep in mind the levels of flavor in your food and beer. Many medium and dark beers have ultra-rich flavors that can overpower certain types of food. For example, you wouldn't want to pair salmon with a pint of Guinness because the flavor of beer will completely dominate the taste of fish.
How to Pair Beer Based on Style
Different types of beer vary greatly in color, alcohol content, taste and mouthfeel, so if you want to create a good pairing, you must first understand the different styles of beer. Below, we've included a table that you can reference to make a quick pairing. You can also read on for an in-depth guide on how to pair beer and food based on style.
Light lagers – Spicy food, burgers, salads
Wheat beers – Spicy food, fruity desserts
India pale ales (IPAs) – Steak, barbecue and Mexican cuisine
Amber ales – Pizza, fried food, smoked pork
Dark lagers – Pizza, burgers, hearty stews
Brown ales – Sausage, sushi, fish
Porters – Seafood, coffee-flavored desserts, game meats
Stouts – Chocolate desserts, shellfish, Mexican cuisine
This table only lists general pairing ideas, but if you want to fully understand how to pair any beer with any food, you need to have a working knowledge of different flavor profiles in the most popular styles of beer. In addition to offering single pairings, you can enhance your menu by offering food pairings to go with your tasting flights.
Tasting flights allow your customers to try several different types of beer, and they are an excellent way to increase sales. To create the best food and tasting flight pairing, you want to use a dish that has simple and universal flavors, such as burgers, fries or pulled pork, because there's a lesser chance of the food clashing with your beer. Learn about the major beer flavors below:
Light beers are best known for their pale, yellow color and refreshing taste. This style of beer is also one of the most versatile, pairing well with a variety of dishes.
American Pale Lager
Taste: Light lagers are among the palest types of beer, and they are well known for a crisp, refreshing taste. Most light lagers do not have a strong flavor, and they are rarely hoppy or bitter. This style of beer is one of the most popular in the United States, and many well-known brands fall under this category.
Pairings: Because light lagers have such a refreshing flavor, they're ideal for pairing with spicy dishes. The crisp, clean taste of these beers can cut through the spiciness of food and provide much needed relief from the heat. Pairing hot dogs and light beer is also a popular option at baseball games. Additionally, light beers are an excellent complement to lightly flavored dishes such as salads and noodles.
American Pale Wheat
Taste: Wheat beers are brewed with a mixture of wheat and barley grains, which gives the beer smoother texture and lighter carbonation than other styles. The wheat itself doesn't add much flavor, so many brewers add citrus and other fruity accents to the beer.
Pairings: Like light lagers, wheat beers pair well with spicy foods, as the light flavor is a welcome relief from the spice. Also, because many wheat beers are flavored with fruit, they are an excellent pairing with sweet desserts and pastries.
Medium beers are characterized by their color, which ranges from light gold to dark amber. This category of beer is vastly different than light beers, and many medium beers have strong bitter, hoppy flavors.
India Pale Ales
Taste: India pale ales, better known as IPAs, are one of the most popular styles of beer in the craft brewing scene today. Distinct characteristics of IPAs are a medium amber color and bitterness. To make the bitterness more palatable, many brewers add citrus or herbal accents to the beer. In addition to standard IPAs, there are also double IPAs, which are made with even more hops and have a strong bitter flavor.
Pairings: Because of the sheer volume of IPAs on the market, there are no hard and fast rules for food pairings. Lighter IPAs pair well with fried and fatty foods, like barbecue and mozzarella sticks, because the rich and meaty flavor of the food helps reduce bitterness. For the same reason, IPAs are excellent for pairing with steak. If you're looking to pair a dish with a double IPA, then aim for food with a strong flavor that stands up to the bitterness, like Mexican food.
American Amber Ale
Taste: Amber ales are characterized by medium mouthfeel and colors that range from amber to deep reddish-gold. These beers have strong flavors of malt, and there are notes of sweet caramel that complement the roasted malt taste. These beers, however, do not have an overpoweringly sweet flavor, and many amber ales have a dry, crisp finish. Although the flavor from the hops isn't strong, they give these beers a light, flowery aroma.
Pairings: Due to the dry, crisp finish, amber ales are excellent beers for cleansing your palate. They pair well with foods with a strong flavor, such as barbecue and jerk chicken. Additionally, if you're looking for a beer to pair with pizza or bar food, amber ales are the perfect option. The notes of caramel and sweetness in the ale also complements smoked dishes.
Amber American Dark Lager
Taste: There are several types of lager, and dark lagers have a distinct taste. This style of beer is made with roasted malts, and often caramel syrup is added to sweeten the beer. Roasted malts give the beer a nutty flavor, and caramel provides a slight hint of sweetness, though it's not overpowering.
Pairings: Dark lagers are popular in Europe and for good reason. The roasted, nutty flavor of malt makes a perfect complement to hearty sausages and heavy stews prevalent in European cuisine. The toasty elements in the beer also pairs well with crispy foods, such as pizza and burgers, because the bready aspect of the beer complements starchy crust.
American Brown Ale
Taste: Brown ales aren't as hoppy or bitter as other medium-colored beers, and instead have hints of chocolate and coffee like stouts and porters. Additionally, English varieties of brown ales usually have a dry, nutty flavor. Beer aficionados and craft brewers tend to turn their noses up at brown ales because they lack the extreme flavors and hoppiness that is fashionable nowadays, but these are tasty beers that pair well with many different foods.
Pairings: Brown ales are versatile for food and beer pairings, and they are famous for pairing well with just about anything. The dark, rich notes of chocolate and coffee complement heavy meat dishes like sausage barbecue and roast pork. Plus, because they lack strong bitter and hoppy flavors, brown ales can pair with delicate foods like fish, rice and even sushi.
Many people expect dark beers to be very bitter and overpowering, but porters and stouts often have a mild flavor. These beers are also characterized by a nearly black color. These types of beers are typically infused with nitrogen, rather than CO2, and the nitrogen produces smaller bubbles, which is what gives these beers their signature silky smooth texture. The nitrogen also gives the beer a thick and foamy head.
English Brown Porter
Taste: Porters originated in London, and they were originally dark and strong, making them popular with working-class communities. Today, porters are milder and come in a variety of styles and flavors, but they kept their signature dark color, toasty aroma and roasted flavor. Porters are made with roasted brown malts that offer the beer strong notes of chocolate, caramel and coffee. Though porters and stouts are thick and silky, porters have a crisper finish than stouts.
Pairings: Porters have a rich, deep flavor, so it is best to pair them with foods with similar taste and texture. For example, lobster and crab legs are buttery and rich, and they make an excellent pairing with porters. Additionally, dishes like Mexican mole and barbecue have a good depth of flavor and dark, sweet undertones highlighting the coffee and chocolate notes in porters. If you want to add a unique pairing to your menu, try serving porters alongside game meats like venison, pheasant and rabbit.
Irish Dry Stout
Taste: Stouts are best known for their black color and dark, roasted flavor like porters. Despite their appearance, stouts are not necessarily high in alcohol content, bitterness or flavor, and there are many mild, well-rounded types of stout. This style of beer is usually characterized by strong hints of chocolate and coffee as well as a silky, smooth consistency.
Pairings: Because stouts have a chocolatey flavor and relatively low-alcohol content, they are the perfect pairing for various desserts. Dark chocolate truffles or chocolate mousse, for example, bring out the sweet flavors in the beer. Additionally, the bitter flavors in the dark chocolate complement the slightly bitter flavor of the roasted hops in stouts.
Like porters, stouts also go well with rich and heavily spiced foods like mole, lobster and barbecue. If you want to make a food and beer pairing by contrast, match your stout with any type of shellfish. The briny and slightly sweet flavor of shellfish goes well with the dark, roasted flavor of the beer.
Adding food and beer pairings to your menu can help enhance the flavor of your dishes—and bring in more profits. To make the best beer pairings possible, it is important to understand which flavors work well together. Once you understand the flavor profiles in beer, you can make delicious and interesting pairings that accentuates the flavors of your food and beer.