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Pairing Beer with Food

by Sara Doersam

One of the most delightful aspects of beer in all its complex glory is pairing it with food. Beer boldly gallops in where wine breaks its gait, pairing well with spicy dishes and salads, for example.

When deciding what style of beer to pair with which foods, beware of sweeping rules. While wine experts have established strict pairing rules, beer aficionados have stopped short of setting hard and fast rules. Every palate is different, so let your palate be your guide.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines to help you get started. "Cut, complement, and contrast" are the 'three Cs' of any food and beverage pairing," writes Lucy Saunders in Cooking with Beer.

Cut

The malty sweet flavors of a German Marzen cut through the spiciness of Mexican foods refreshing the palate as it washes down. Similarly, the acidity of a highly hopped Pilsner or American pale ale cleans away the fatty film between bites of rich foods like fish and chips or cheese. To quell the burning sensation of spicy hot foods like Southwestern dishes with chili peppers, a malty beer with high alcohol content like a rich German dopplebock is best suited for the job. The component of a hot pepper that is responsible for the 3-alarm fire in your mouth is soluble in alcohol but not in water, says to Rob Driver, author of Cooking & Entertaining with Beer. Thus, the alcohol will rinse the fiery heat from your tongue more quickly than water or other beverages while the maltiness cools and refreshes. On the other hand, a high alcohol beer with a hoppy astringency like an India pale ale can be too powerful with hot, spicy foods seemingly intensifying the heat instead of cooling the palate. Nevertheless, Stephen Beaumont, author of A Taste for Beer, says he likes hot and spicy so well that he intentionally pairs "Chernobyl nachos" with well hopped ales.
Complement Perhaps my husband's and my favorite dinner, given a choice, is an evening spent noshing at a sushi bar -- particularly when we can wash down our sweet tuna morsels with a Japanese beer brewed with the full-flavored wort (sweet malty beer before fermentation) from the first lautering (the rinsing of malt to render wort). The mildly sweet maltiness of Kirin Ichiban lager superbly complements the light sweetness of sushi.

Another shining example of food and beer complementing one another is the pairing of a green salad with a coriander-spiced Belgian white ale, an unfiltered Bavarian hefe-weizen or a American wheat beer. The delicate character of wheat beers doesn't overpower the subtle flavors in a salad but instead enhances them.

Frequently, stouts are described as coffeeish, chocolaty or raisiny. What better beer than a stout to pair with a chocolate dessert such as a torte or pastry?

Most people prefer a sweet English-style stout like an oatmeal stout, imperial stout or milk stout served with their chocolate delights, but I like a dry Irish-style stout to cut through the rich sweetness. Sweet porters also pair well with desserts.

Contrast

When it comes to pairing contrasting foods and beers, it is a little trickier to find palate pleasing combinations. The classic contrasting example of pairing a dry Irish-style stout with fresh raw oysters or cooked mild seafood may not be for everyone. If you can stomach raw oysters, give it a go. Indeed, it has become such a popular combination, that one style of stout is brewed with oysters in it -- not surprisingly it's dubbed oyster stout.

What seems like an obvious but great suggestion I recently came upon is to pair international beer styles with foods from the same region or country. In most cases, it's no coincidence that the foods and beers of a given region pair well.

For example, a light perfumy lager like the Thai-brewed Singha is a perfect fit with pungent Thai food. Or as I mentioned above, a Japanese specialty like sushi sumptuously paired with a Japanese-brewed lager.

Red meats like beef and lamb are what assertive, fruity ales do best. England boasts its classic ales as well as beef dishes such as prime rib and beef Wellington. Indeed, at a beer dinner I organized in Florida a few years ago the chef served a barleywine marinated buffalo steak paired with barleywine. It was a fabulous match that I would have never predicted.

Still another guideline I've encountered, and perhaps the most common is to pair like with like: mild beers with mild foods, robust beers with robust dishes. Assertive Scottish and Belgian ales stand up well next to wild game. Fish and chicken match up with conservatively hopped pilsners and brown ales. Consider a smoked beer with sharp cheese.

When designing your gastronomic pairings keep in mind the nature of the occasion. You'll want to select a beer or a style best suited to the occasion. An elegant corked bottle of a Belgian framboise shared over Valentines dinner would surly endear your Valentine to you more than a six pack of pilsner.

Conversely, that six pack of pilsner would be a welcome sight at a picnic on a hot summer's day, while a magnum bottle of Anchor Brewing Company's spiced Christmas ale would hold its place on the holiday table.

Here is a sampling of beer and food pairings I've enjoyed from beer dinners I've attended:

Appetizer
Assortment of imported and domestic cheeses served with assorted fruits and crackers served with a smoked beer.

Soup
Gruyere and gueuze fondue soup topped with mini toasted sourdough bread points served with an India pale ale.

Salad
Grilled teriyaki marinated chicken on a bed of mixed greens with cellophane noodles, sesame and poppy seeds, topped with a sesame-soy vinaigrette served with a brown ale.

Intermezzo
Sorbet of barley malt, Ceylon tea and amber ale.

Entree
Malaysian lamb curry over steamed rice with mango chutney, pineapple and banana served with a honey ale.

Dessert
Pistachio and raspberry napoleon prepared with raspberry lager served with a Belgian framboise lambic.



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