Matching Beer & Food at the Brewmaster’s Table
First, let’s have a round of applause for the wine guys—we have to admit they’ve done a really great job. The average American is fairly convinced that wine is the best beverage for food and that beer is best suited to washing down hot dogs and potato chips. Of course, the readers of this magazine know better, but how much thought do we give to matching our beer with our food?
The fact is that real beer is a far more versatile beverage than wine, bringing a wider range of flavors and aromas to the table.
Don’t get me wrong—I love wine and I drink it frequently. Wine, however, simply doesn’t go with everything. These days, America’s favorite condiment is salsa and we’re eating much more spicy, interesting food than we did 20 years ago. The craft brewing revolution is part of a larger revolution in our food culture. Traditional beer is now available almost everywhere, and it is the best complement to the new American cuisine.
Pay a little bit of attention to matching up the flavors and aromas of your beer and your food, and you can turn an ordinary dinner into a memorable flavor experience. But how do we figure out what beer will match what dish?
We start with what I call impact, which is the strength of the beer’s impression on your palate. Belgian witbier, which is light and spritzy, would be an example of a “low-impact” beer, while imperial stout, which is roasty and powerful, would be a “high-impact beer.” To have a successful match, you’ll want to match the impact of the beer to the impact of the food. We’re looking to create a dance, not a football tackle.
A big beer will overwhelm delicate fish, while a lighter beer may seem to disappear when you’re enjoying a rack of barbecued ribs. Wheat beer, kölsch or helles may match that delicate fish perfectly, while an American brown ale will stand up to the ribs. Go for light bitterness for more delicate dishes, and save bitter beers for richer dishes—hops slice cleanly through oils and fats, refreshing the palate.
Impact is a fairly simple matter—if you think a beer and a dish are pretty well matched in that department, you’re probably right. Now comes the fun part—finding the flavor hook.
The Flavor Hook
The flavor hook is the part of the beer’s flavor and aroma that matches, harmonizes or accentuates the flavors in your food. When the flavors meet on your tongue, they “recognize” each other and this creates a harmony.
Sometimes, rather than harmony, you’re setting up a pleasant contrast. Beer can have flavors of caramel, coffee, chocolate, bread, bananas, limes, herbs, smoke or raspberries—there’s a lot here to work with.
Let’s take caramel, for example. Caramelized flavors are among our favorites—anything that’s roasted, grilled, sautéed or fried develops some sweetness and flavors of caramel. There’s something almost primal in those flavors—everyone loves the crunchy bits on roasted meats and no one would happily choose a boiled chicken over a roasted one. If you’ve roasted your chicken well, it should have a golden brown skin, and that’s where a lot of the flavor is concentrated.
In this case, caramel is the flavor hook—we want to find a beer with similar caramel flavors. Amber ales, amber lagers, bockbiers, brown ales, and light porters all have caramelized flavors that will match the chicken beautifully.
Did you cover the chicken with herbs before you roasted it? Then you can make the match even more complex by choosing a beer with flavors of caramel and herbs—French bière de garde springs to mind. A beer like Jenlain or La Choulette Ambrée will do very nicely.
By the way, do you know what question is most frequently asked of wine experts? What to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. The answer, of course, is beer—bière de garde, in particular. The beer has enough bitterness to cut through fat, caramel flavors to match the gravy and the skin of the turkey, and herbal flavors to match the stuffing. The turkey, of course, will probably be dry, but don’t blame Mom—it’s not her fault. Just bring the right beer, get your fair share of the stuffing, and everything will be fine.
Of course, we’re not just talking about chicken and turkey. Roast pork, steaks, barbecued ribs, and even grilled vegetables can work well with caramelized beers. If you’re creative, you can come up with some surprisingly good matches.
A few years ago, I hosted a beer dinner for the Association of Westchester Country Club Chefs. It was a fairly intimidating crowd; I’d never tried to impress a whole room of chefs before. One of the dishes was a sautéed diver scallop in brown butter, and the chefs expected that I would match a very light beer with such a delicate dish. The beer I chose, though, was Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, a beer with plenty of caramel flavor on a smooth, silky, slightly sweet palate. Good scallops are somewhat sweet and they develop a dark brown surface when they’re sautéed. The caramel flavors of the beer matched perfectly, and the buttery flavors that Samuel Smith is known for dovetailed smoothly with the brown butter. The chefs were amazed. Several of them said that it was the best food and beverage match they’d ever experienced.
From Citrus to Chocolate
At the same dinner, I made use of another flavor hook—citrus. Citrus flavors can come from hops, especially the limey, grapefruity Cascade hop, or from actual fruit. In this case, I was matching sea bass in a Mandarin orange sauce. The chef had infused the sauce with tiny slivers of orange peel. The match was obvious—Belgian wheat beer, which is usually flavored with sweet spices and Curaçao orange peel. It was a really spectacular combination.
Most American pale ales have some citrus character from hops, and that can be used to match Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, which are often flavored with lime. On top of that, the bright aromatics of Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops bear a striking resemblance to the aroma of cilantro, one of my favorite herbs. A few sprigs of cilantro in your fish tacos or pad Thai will really sing with the hops in American pale ales. Those hop flavors also work wonders with chilies, ginger and cumin.
Roasted malts provide another great flavor hook for a wide variety of dishes, from a charbroiled steak to chocolate mud cake. Any dish that has flavors of char, coffee or chocolate is a good candidate to match brown ales, porter and stouts. Grilled ribs, burger and steaks are obvious matches, but the hook is so powerful that these beers can even match roasted peppers. Cajun-style blackened chicken or pork will work very nicely with these beers, too. Another terrific match is Mexican mole sauce, the type made from chilies, nuts and chocolate. The chocolate flavors in a good porter will link up perfectly with the chocolate flavors in the sauce, creating a match that wine could only dream of.
Matching desserts is one of the greatest talents of big stouts and porters. Wine experts will often recommend port to accompany chocolate desserts, but it’s usually a very poor match. Strong stouts, especially imperial stouts, can provide perfect matches to chocolate desserts. Classic dry Irish stouts such as Guinness won’t work here because they don’t have the needed intensity; instead, go for something bigger. The beer need not be sweet—in fact, the match is often better when the beer provides a brief respite from the sweetness of the dessert.
The chocolate and coffee flavors in strong stouts can match chocolate flavors wonderfully, but they also provide a pleasant contrasting flavor to work with other desserts. For example, imperial stouts are excellent with vanilla ice cream, fruit tarts, cheesecake, panna cotta, and even pecan pie. These beers work just like strong coffee on the palate.
Oddly, fruit beers are not the best choice for fruit-based desserts. The flavors of the beer and the dessert seem to compete and finally cancel each other out. Using the contrasting flavor of stout is the best way to go with fruit desserts.
The Versatile Wheat
For sheer versatility, wheat beers are hard to beat. Whenever I host a beer dinner, it’s always hard to decide which course should be paired with the wheat beer. Sometimes it would be perfect for all the dishes, especially in summer. Wheat beers pair light hop bitterness with brisk carbonation, light acidity and bright fruit flavors for a combination that can match a wide variety of dishes.
If wheat beer isn’t quite the breakfast of champions, it’s certainly the champion of brunch. A glass of weissbier provides the perfect match for eggs Benedict, using its high carbonation to burst through hollandaise sauce and then providing a slightly sweet contrast to the saltiness of the Canadian bacon.
Belgian witbier will do just as well at the brunch table. The sunny orange flavors are perfect with egg dishes—much better than a mimosa. If your brunch is more ascetic, these beers can even use their own acidity and fruit flavors to match a bowl of fruit with yogurt. Unfiltered wheat beers are chock full of vitamins, too. How’s that for a healthy brunch?
Wheat beers are also great for salads, where their low bitterness and light fruit allow them to work wonders with delicate greens. Wheat beers are friendly to acidity, so vinaigrette dressings won’t clash with them.
For similar reasons, they are also a great accompaniment to fish and shellfish. Crab, oysters, shrimp, crawfish and lobster are all fine partners for wheat beer. With fish preparations, choose Belgian witbier for the most delicate and citric preparations—steamed turbot, for example. When the preparation is earthier—say, monkfish with pancetta and mushrooms—then go for the earthy, slightly smoky flavor of Bavarian weissbier.
As long as the dish isn’t searingly hot, wheat beers are terrific with all sorts of spicy dishes, from Cajun to Thai. At Brooklyn Brewery, we make a Bavarian-style weissbier called Brooklyner Weisse that is very popular at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, where it matches everything from delicate fresh spring rolls to pungent basil chicken. The smoky background notes link up nicely with the burnt flavors developed by the high heat of the wok.
Speaking of smoke, don’t forget about beers made from smoked malts, whether they be German rauchbiers or American originals like smoked porters. Even if you don’t particularly like these beers by themselves, I urge you to give them a spin with food.
When I was doing research (read “eating and drinking”) for my book, I pulled out a bottle of Schlenkerla Rauchbier at a traditional Mexican restaurant. My dining partner, an editor at Gourmet magazine, begged off at first, saying he didn’t like smoked beers. As soon as he tasted it with the food, his tune changed completely. “Wow, this is amazing with the mushrooms in this quesadilla—and the smoked flavor perfectly matches the beans! It goes with everything!” he said. It certainly did—it was incredible. I’d brought about thirty styles of beer with me to dinner and rauchbier was the big star. It adds delicious smoky flavors to meat dishes that have none and complements the smoky flavors contributed by smoked chilies and meats.
Cheese with Wine?
Even though wine and cheese are often thought to be natural partners, the interesting fact is that wine experts don’t agree. Most of them say that wine and cheese matching is difficult at best, especially if the wine is red. Cheese is mouth-coating and blunts the flavor of wine.
Beer has no such problems. Carbonation allows the coatings to melt in the mouth, and unlike wine, beer can offer harmonies with cheese flavors as well as contrasts. Sometimes, the flavor hooks here are readily apparent. Well-aged Goudas taste strongly of caramel, and beers with strong caramel or malt flavors will match pleasantly. Aged Gruyere is profoundly nutty, playing easily into the nutty flavors of a doppelbock or a soft British brown ale. Aged cheddars are sharp and fruity; so are India pale ales, and the flavors dovetail perfectly on the palate. Fresh goat cheeses are wonderful with wheat beers because both the beer and the cheese show plenty of acidity and fruit. For a great contrast, you can serve goat cheeses with Belgian fruited lambics—it’s a delicious combination.
I recently co-hosted a tasting called “The Cheese Wars” at a prestigious cooking school in New York. The theme was simple—wine vs. beer with the world’s great cheeses. My opponent was the sommelier of Gramercy Tavern, one of the finest restaurants in the city. I’ll admit that he was a wine genius and a worthy adversary, but his wines were unable to best my beers. When the smelly French Livarot was served, he countered with a fine, complex, off-dry white, but I had Three Monts bière de garde, which had its own funky, musty aromatics to match those of the cheese.
Later, I delivered the coupe de grace when the Stilton was served. My opponent deployed a delicious dessert wine, but I served J. W. Lees Harvest Ale 1988, a magnificent, well-aged barley wine from Manchester, England. The sweet, luscious, complex beer wrapped around the funky, buttery cheese and the two dissolved into a perfect union. The wine, good as it was, was vanquished.
Comedian Steve Martin once said that writing about comedy is like dancing about architecture. Similarly, some beer and food pairings are too sublime to be explained. The deep bready flavor of doppelbock melting into the wondrous porky flavor of roast suckling pig is something too subtle to categorize. Or the spicy, pruny flavors of a Belgian dubbel swooning as it caresses braised fresh bacon.
How to explain what happens when a smoky American porter meets the gaminess of venison, or the magnificent combination of Liefman’s Kriek with roast duck?
I could try to tease it out for you, but there’s no need. I can point you in the right direction, but you will, I’m afraid, just have to do your own research.
These days, there’s no excuse for dull meals. The availability of fine beer almost everywhere means that you can enjoy affordable culinary luxury every day for the rest of your life, often for less than the price of a cup of Starbucks. And if that isn’t living large, I don’t know what is.
Garrett Oliver is the award-winning brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and the author of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, published in May 2003 by HarperCollins.