Food Fight—Beer and Wine Square Off Across the Table
This feature couldn’t have been written 25 years ago. The idea that beer should be taken seriously as a partner for fine food—that beer might be wine’s peer when we search for a compatible beverage for the table—would have provoked dismissive chuckles from wine aficionados, and it wouldn’t have occurred to beer people at all.
Perception was reality. Wine went with fine cuisine—usually French. Beer went with hot dogs. End of story.
We’re still fighting those images: Beer is down-to-earth, the accessible drink of the common man. Wine is perceived as elite, a social yardstick for measuring success. Think Homer Simpson versus Frazier Crane.
But the facts are these: wine in the United States is extending itself into more casual settings, similar to the place it holds in European wine cultures. And beer, thanks to the craft beer movement and the greater availability of fine traditional imported brands, is reaching up—in culinary terms, flavor diversity and presentation.
What happens when these two venerable beverages meet today in the same venues, across the same table? Well, there’s some honest competition, and a little friction that wasn’t there before. And, hopefully, a recognition that the two beverages have more in common than either beer drinkers or wine lovers have cared to admit.
When it comes to choosing the right beverage for a fine meal, the choices are much wider than they were 25 years ago, and they include both beer and wine options. Both beverages have their passionate advocates—as you’ll read here—but there is also an expanding middle ground. Increasingly, restaurants that take their food and wine seriously can—should—be expected to take their beer offerings seriously, too, and that means richer selections and choices for you.
Welcome to the (cordial) beer-wine spat. People who are knowledgeable about both beverages are now arguing about flavor, complexity and complementarity. If you learn from them, you have the chance to make selections that will take your next fine meal to special heights.
Pairing Beer and Wine with Food
Everything we put in our mouths, food or drink, changes our perception of the next mouthful. Tastes and smells, textures and temperatures: are all relative in the fickle realm of sensory perception. Some flavor interactions follow broad patterns we understand instinctively, like the pleasant point and counterpoint of peanut butter and jelly. Others can be instantly off-putting, like the startling clash of toothpaste and orange juice.
Whether we examine concrete characteristics, like sensations of sweetness, acidity, bitterness or body; or look to more subjective aspects, like aromatics or individual preferences, one thing is certain: first impressions of a beverage tasted alone don’t entirely predict how it will behave with food.
The art of food pairing has been more widely explored among wine aficionados than by beer experts. Only recently have beer drinkers taken pairing to a higher level. But similar principles guide selections for both groups.
*Identify the strongest element
Sommeliers and beer experts alike take matching cues from the strongest flavor on the plate, not always the central protein. It is important to know whether fish or poultry or red meat is being served, of course. But, how that main ingredient is prepared is often more relevant when choosing a beverage. While delicate Champagne might suit poached salmon, grilled salmon may call for a deeper Pinot Noir.
Another shared priority is to choose beverages whose overall flavor intensity is in keeping with that of the food. By sticking to subtle styles with understated dishes and saving bolder styles for more highly seasoned recipes, we avoid combinations where the power of one flavor detracts from another. Where a brisk Kölsch flatters simple roasted chicken, it gets lost in a standoff with Jamaican jerk chicken. A potent porter would have better odds.
*Similar sensations blunt each other
The way our senses operate in processing taste experience is universal as well. It is surprising but true that two sources of similar sensation seem weaker together, not stronger. Our senses overload easily, so sweet wines seem less sweet with desserts than alone, while smoked beers taste less smoky with barbeque.
*Study your chemistry
Basic rules of food chemistry apply equally too. Salt neutralizes our perception of acidity, a fact so obvious in pairing foods with Flemish sours beers or French Sancerres. And high alcohol amplifies the burn of spicy heat, like pouring gas on a campfire, regardless of whether the full-bodied source is an Imperial IPA or an Italian Amarone. It’s just physiology: it’s how the world of sensation works.
But, when we get beyond the big picture, down to the nitty-gritty specifics, beer and wine pairing principles diverge. Concerns that loom large in wine pairing are of little consequence for beer pairing. If wine is the classic food partner, as the wine snobs claim, why is pairing so complicated? Why are there so many ‘don’ts’ in the wine pairing handbook? If beer is really superior for pairing, as beer geeks insist, why do people usually choose wine when they dine out? To sort this out, let’s take a look at pairing from both sides of the beverage divide.
Sam Says “Beer is Better”
As with cuisine, complexity and evocative flavors are what entice us towards our beverage of choice. Beer is bound to be more complex than wine by virtue of its genetic make-up alone. Wine kind of hops around awkwardly on one foot—the grape. At the very least, beer struts gracefully by on the two solid flavoring legs of hops and barley. When you add the nuances of myriad yeast strains and the potential for additional ingredients like spices, herbs and fruits, there is no question as to which beverage is capable of greater complexity.
Wine has enjoyed an important place at the dinner table for many centuries. Almost any gourmand understands that different wines pair well with different foods. In fact, many wines only taste their best when they are accompanied by food.
Beer has had a tougher row to hoe in garnering respect from foodies with regards to its place at meal time. Beer has always been more approachable than wine and was often looked upon as the commoner’s drink in consideration of its relative affordability and ubiquity: there are more people drinking beer in this country than there are drinking wine. It’s only in the last few decades that beer has gained the respect of those looking to pair their meals with a very special drink.
Choosing a wine to go with your dinner is like walking through a minefield, once you factor in all of wine’s problem foods: from asparagus and chocolate, that leave wine tasting thin and sour; to curries and spicy wings, that leave it seeming flat and flabby. Not so for beer. With a broader spectrum of tastes and aromas, beer can provide both contrasting and complementary styles to pair with any dish.
And, on average, beer has half the alcohol of wine, so you can enjoy more of it along with your meal.
The most sweeping generalization you can make with regards to pairing beer with food is that ales are more like red wines—lush, robust and complex; while lagers are more like white wines—crisp, mellow and refined. But there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Some lagers will pair well with dishes a wine-lover would reflexively pair with red Bordeaux. Lighter ales occasionally work in food-pairing instances that might traditionally be considered Chardonnay territory. The joy of it is that, with beer, it’s hard to go too far wrong.
I think beer is the ultimate adult beverage, especially with food. If you are reading this magazine, I bet you do too. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I gravitate toward a Oregon Pinot Noir if a restaurant’s beer list offers nothing more than seven variations of light lager—at least that way, I figure I’m helping the economy of a hop-growing region!
Admittedly, the wine world is interesting, and, no, we don’t have to agree on which beverage is the raison d’être of food-pairing. Every person’s palate is different. But no one can deny that there are more diverse, high-quality under-$10 per six-pack beer options than there are under $10 per-bottle wine choices!
Marnie Says “Wine is Finer”
The argument that multiple ingredients prove beer can be more complex than wine is fundamentally flawed. We don’t need to “season” wine with other foods, because ripe fruit is as good as it gets. Adding ingredients to improve wine flavor would be as pointless as trying to embellish a sunset. I’ll grant that beer belongs in the same family as wine, but years as a sommelier have shown me that wine is a better choice for dining.
Fresh grapes are the secret to wine’s edge over beer for pairing purposes. Wine’s fierce acidity comes from the natural tang of fruit. Acidity is wine’s defining trait, its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. It is the primary source of wine’s bracing refreshment and remarkable food-friendly qualities. Wine’s “sourness” is also the characteristic most responsible for its poor performance on first impressions and the culprit in most problem pairings.
Understanding how the senses respond to two opposing taste sensations, saltiness and sourness, helps demystify wine’s prowess with food. Each sensation is perceived differently by the tastebuds, but “salt” and “sour” messages share a sensory pathway on the way to the brain. Tasted back to back, each temporarily short-circuits our ability to perceive the other.
Salt is in everything we eat, both naturally and as seasoning. Salt makes everything around it taste better, almost electric. But in large doses, it can leave an unpleasant twang. Wine, on the other hand, is high in acid, salt’s natural antidote. Alone, food-oriented wines like Chianti or Chablis can seem unpleasantly sour. Paired with food, they seem less harsh, while the food will seem more vivid. Together, wine and food each taste better than they do alone—wine is mellowed, food flavors pop.
This advantage more than makes up for wine’s pairing problems. Foods that make wine seem more sour are the biggest offenders, especially sugary sauces and bitter greens. Spicy heat can also complicate pairing, but more due to wine’s alcoholic strength. These downsides are the price wine pays for greatness—no risk, no reward. It’s true that beer is good with virtually everything, generating fewer clashes. But, wine pairings can soar to transcendent heights beer can’t match, well worth learning how to avoid a few challenges.
There is no shame in this for beer. It is hardly a surprise that wine is such a remarkable food partner: it has been refined for centuries to fit this specific role. With its snappy acidity, wine is a graceful complement to a wide variety of foods, like “sauce on the side.”
Beer, on the other hand, has historically been engineered to be a staple, sometimes even served in place of food. As Sam likes to say, beer is liquid bread. Or, as I like to say, a liquid brick in the belly. Yes, beer has less alcohol than wine. But, the suggestion that being able to drink more with a meal is a pairing asset misses the point entirely. In fact, one of wine’s primary pairing advantages is that it isn’t as filling as beer.
Wine is stronger than beer, highly acidic and very intensely flavored. We take small sips of wine that refresh the palate and pique the appetite. Wine builds anticipation for the next bite. Bulky, bubbly beer is overly substantial, pushing us to our limits too soon. Beer is fine for everyday eating. But, when it comes to dining, to cuisine of a higher order, wine is the best choice. Wine behaves as a considerate partner should at the table. It heightens the pleasure we take in both food and drink and allows us to prolong the gastronomic experience.
While wine has traditionally been perceived as the drink off the upper-crust and beer the drink of the masses, there has been a true shift in both camps in the last decade. Beer and wine are more similar than different and—perhaps more importantly—so are their respective supporters who are united by a love of flavor, rather than obedience to type. When it comes to pairing well-made beverages with great food, we’ve reached the bottle-tipping-point. Any food lover can now go to a quality retail store and find affordable, diverse beer and wine choices to pair with any meal. We’ve hopefully shared enough guidelines to give enthusiasts the confidence to trust their palates, go out there and make exciting choices for themselves.
Sam Calagione is the founder and owner of Dogfish Head, one of America’s fastest-growing breweries. Marnie Old is an award-winning sommelier and the director of Wine Studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. They are co-authors of the book on food pairing called He Said Beer, She Said Wine from DK Publishing, due out in April, 2008.