Time to Get Crafty
How to perfectly pair craft beer with comfort food
Food and wine have naturally been paired together for centuries. It's usually a match made in heaven, taking certain flavors of the food and complementing them with various aspects of wine. But why stop at wine when you have more liquid options at your disposal, like beer?
"Beer is such a varied item and people aren't necessarily following the rules," said Julian Kurland, beer director at the Cannibal in New York and L.A. "We're taking things and making them our own. Wines go with certain types of food, but you can play around with beer."
While there may be many more varietals of wine than beer (we're talking thousands vs. dozens), the styles of beer you can brew are actually growing. That's due, much in part, to brewers taking traditional styles of beer like IPA, porter and American red ale, and brewing them with ingredients like chocolate, spices, botanicals and seasonal produce. While the base idea for the beer style remains the same, it's the addition of these robust ingredients that adds more depth and character to the beer, making way for more interesting pairings with a wide variety of food.
This lends so many new opportunities for you to step up your beer program to then match them with the comfort food you're serving. Breweries around the country like Chicago's Moody Tongue Brewing Co., St. Louis' 4 Hands Brewing Co., and Boulder, Colo.'s Avery Brewing take food pairing into consideration when concocting their beers, which incorporate flavorful ingredients during brewing. But you don't even have to get that specific as you can pair a variety of comfort food with something as simple as pale ale, pilsner — even a memory.
"Comfort food [has] a sense of nostalgia," said Patrick Gould, a certified cicerone (a.k.a. beer sommelier) and district manager with Windy City Distributing in Chicago. "It reminds you of your mom's mac and cheese or your dad's burgers. You try to match the nostalgia with the flavor in beers. Like a classic bangers and mash, you can match that rustic English style with a craft ESB or lager."
But you also don't have to do such a literal matchup. You can dig in to the dish more, find the ingredients and pull out those flavors, even the fat content, and get crafty. "The big thing to think about when pairing beer and food [in general] is whether you want to compare or contrast the flavors," Kurland said. "Comfort food is straightforward so you want something to complement it and have similar styles and flavors. When you look at these pairings, you want to highlight flavors that play well with the beer you're drinking."
A great way to introduce different beer pairings to your food is through beer dinners. For example, you could team up with one specific brewery and showcase their beers or have your bar manager or beverage director work with the dinner's menu and pair up a beer from a different brewery for each course. This also gives you an opportunity to introduce diners to new beer styles.
"A pairing is a great opportunity to show a guest the strength of a particular style they may have thought they did not care for," said Dave Delaplaine, beer manager at Roofers Union in Washington, D.C. "For example, maybe you are pairing something spicy and a pilsner or kölsch is a perfect option even though the guest normally likes a darker or heartier beer."
During winter, you'll want to start moving away from lighter offerings like wheat beer and layer in heavier beers with higher alcohol content like porters, brown ales, Belgian dubbels and stouts. These can stand up to the heartiness of your dishes and also help warm up your diners. Here, we asked some experts around the country to pair various comfort foods with craft beers and explain why.
- Pair with: American pale ale or IPA
- Why: "Typically you want to match spicy with hoppy to accentuate the spicy character in the food. The beers feature aromatic and bold American hop varietals." – Patrick Gould, Windy City Distributing
- Pair with: American brown ale
- Why: "This beer has big notes of chocolate and coffee, and has a larger backbone to stand up to the meatiness and fatty profile of the short rib." – Kevin Lemp, owner, 4 Hands Brewing Company
Mac and Cheese
- Pair with: Brown ale or IPA
- Why: "You could do a brown ale to complement the nuttiness of cheddar, but IPA will cut through the fat [of the cheese]. You get a lot of cream from the noodles and cheese and the IPA will wipe your tongue for the next bite." Julian Kurland, The Cannibal
- Pair with: Sour red
- Why: "Tart and bright, this may be the difference between seconds and thirds. You can even skip the ketchup; a sour red will give you all the balance you need." – Dave Delaplaine, Roofers Union
Burger and Fries
- Pair with: IPA or hop-forward American pilsner
- Why: "This is a distinctly American dish and the quality of meat should shine. You don't need a beer to hit you over the head." – Patrick Gould
Shrimp and Grits with Biscuits and Gravy
- Pair with: Saison
- Why: "A little dry with some lemon and funk that works well with the shellfish. It brings out the salinity in shrimp, but also cuts through the pepper and dryness of gravy. The yeast lends itself well to biscuits." – Julian Kurland
Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes
- Pair with: IPA
- Why: "If there's a spice on the chicken, a hoppy beer pairs nicely with the spice to intensify the dryness and bitterness of the hops." – Kevin Lemp
- Pair with: Gueuze (a blended sour)
- Why: "By blending younger and older lambics, the gueuze takes on a ton of complexity while retaining a high acidity. A rich dish like spaghetti Bolognese begs for this touch. It has enough body to hold up to, but not overwhelm and a sour bite to cut through the rich fatty oils found in any good Bolognese." – Dave Delaplaine
Chicken Pot Pie
- Pair with: a hoppy IPA
- Why: "All rich gravy swimming in there — crust, butter, cream and rich chicken and veggies. I want something to cut through that like a West Coast IPA with citrus notes that play well with butter and cream." – Julian Kurland