Beer is for dining, finally. Wine has long hogged the dining table, consigning beer to the realm of hot dogs and ballparks. And I suppose if we are being honest, much of the yellow fizzy stuff deserved to be there.
Things have changed. The craft beer revolution has brought a bounty of complex, delicious products to the table, perfect with a nice, crisp, white tablecloth. Since this is all a bit new, and there are not a ton of tried and true recipes, pairings and approaches. This means there’s plenty of room to have fun and move the art forward.
A beer dinner can be anything from a romantic dinner for two to an intimate soirée for 1800 of your closest friends, as was the case with the recent World Beer Cup Awards Banquet, which I put together with chef Sean Paxton at a hotel in Chicago. But no matter what size the event is, the fundamentals are the same.
All great meals are built on high-quality ingredients, perfectly prepared. Beyond that, it’s helpful to consider your goals. Do you just want a nice meal—tasty food with some delicious beers? Nothing wrong with that. Is there a theme: summer, local, brewery, cuisine, beer style, decadent, down-home, picnic, porcine or artsy? Any particular beers or standout ingredients you want to showcase? How about an educational component? Having an idea really helps with all the decisions that need to be made.
There are lots of possibilities for themed events. As part of the Chicago Beer Society, I’ve helped put on events marrying Indian food with India pale ales, a German weissbier-weisswurst brunch, Belgian beer dinners, several beer and cheese events and an annual beer and barbecue competition. It’s endless.
In a dinner, flavors should progress from less to more intense, building to a crescendo with the main dish, but also changing character from one dish and beer to the next, to provide a break or a palate cleanser along the way.
Beer fans really like their food, so don’t skimp on portions. A full dinner will normally be four to six courses. You may have a highly structured format, with specific beers for each course, but it’s also fun to be a little looser, like an array of small, tapas-style plates and beers that work in various ways, letting people experiment with different combinations.
Beers are normally served in two-to-four-ounce servings, but a full glass of a thirst-quenching beer as people arrive is a good starter. It’s nice to serve every beer in its own special glass, but this is impractical in most situations, so I usually set two wine glasses at each place. This allows the second beer to be poured before the first is gone, and people can leapfrog their way through dinner this way. A pitcher of water and a dump bucket are essential. Typically, there is one beer per course, but you can serve two with the main course, and perhaps an additional beer as an after-dessert. Be aware of people’s total intake. Ten, three-ounce servings is about the max, and less if there are strong beers on the menu.
Working With Beer and Food
In Brazil, they think of beer and food as: harmonizada, or “harmonizing.” It’s a lot more elegant term than “pairing,” as it implies what’s at the core of a good match— beer and food that make each other taste better. There are various theories of how beer and food work together, but it all boils down to three things. First, beer and food should match one another in terms of intensity so one doesn’t overwhelm the other. Second, you are always looking for connecting points, usually aromas in the beer and food that are similar to one another. Beer vocabulary is mostly food terms: bread, caramel, toast, roast, herbal, spicy, citrus and fruit, so there’s plenty to choose from. Third, manage the contrasting elements, mostly tongue tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, fat and umami (protein), and mouthfeel such as carbonation and chili heat. These tastes either cancel or magnify each other, so they are important for balance. There is no particular order to these three principles, and pairings needn’t be either contrasting or complementary. Often they are both.
Once you have a concept and you know how many people will be attending, you can start planning the beer and food. Perhaps there are dishes that resonate with your big idea, and you also may have a beer or two you’d like to showcase. Start wherever you can, and fill in the holes until you have a full menu. A few thoughts on a salad course might be instructive. Usually, this course is automatically assigned a pilsner or hefeweizen, but it’s not that simple. Salads can be quite mild and suited to simple beers or full of bitter, sweet, fat and umami (from tomatoes or cheese) components, any of which can deal with an assertively bitter beer. Plenty of salads can easily handle an IPA or hoppy red rye ale. You are also looking for connecting points: herbal notes, fruitiness, toastiness (think croutons or toasted nuts). Customize your salad to feature aromas that will be found in the beer.
And so it goes through the meal. Get the contrasts working, then fine-tune the food and beer to play up the harmonious elements. Advance trials are essential for a large or important dinner, as sometimes the specifics make a big difference. IPAs, for example, come in a range of weights, malt character, sweetness and bitterness. In some situations—like with a hamburger—almost anything will serve. But with blue cheese, saltier cheeses require a drier IPA. The Dogfish Head 90 Minute that was divine with Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue is a train wreck with the saltier Rogue Crater Lake.
Cooking with beer or beer ingredients like malt and hops adds another layer of flavor, interest and connection to the beers served. Beer can be used in marinades, sauces, batters, dressings and more. In our World Beer Cup dinner, Sean Paxton made jam and jelly from beer, infused honey with hops, flavored boiled eggs with hops for the salad, added biscuit malt to the bread and the soup, braised the pork belly in beer, and used malt extract and beer in the bread pudding. Be aware of beer’s bitterness when cooking. Generally, lightly hopped beers work best, and never reduce beer, even a malty one such as a doppelbock, as it will be bitter when concentrated. Should bitterness be a problem, acidity, salt and sweetness can all be used to tame the bite.
Artisan cheese can be an effortless and truly fine course, or you can build a whole event around it. For a dinner course, try to pick three or four cheeses that have a similar intensity level and put a couple of beers with them and let people decide what they like best. There is a lot of variation in what is available in each area, but wherever there is good cheese the people behind the counter are usually knowledgeable beer enthusiasts who can be relied on for solid recommendations. Portion size should be between half an ounce to two ounces per cheese depending whether you are tasting or eating.
Desserts are astonishingly good with beer, but it takes a pretty intense beer to stand up to the taste assault that rich, sweet desserts provide. From caramel to nutty, chocolate to vanilla to fruity, the flavors in dessert are plentiful in big, strong beers. Lighter, fruity desserts like strudel or fruit tarts often do well with Belgian tripel. Super-rich, sweet desserts like Cheesecake or carrot cake can often stand up shockingly well to a super-hoppy double IPA, as the hops and sugar sort of annihilate one another on the tongue. Sweet can sometimes cancel sweet, and so a classic combo like Scotch ale and sticky toffee pudding can be a real delight.
Chocolate demands especially big flavors, and you can step the beer up in intensity as the chocolate level increases. Chocolate chip cookies go great with a beer like Anchor Porter; brownies suit Rogue Shakespeare Stout. Flourless chocolate cake or truffles demand an imperial such as North Coast Old Rasputin.
Bourbon-barrel aged stouts and barley wines can go with the most intense desserts as their vanilla overtones fit right in. Of course, they are intense enough to be dessert on their own, served in a small snifter or port glass, and that sure makes the kitchen cleanup easy.
There’s really nothing better than sitting down with friends and marveling about the wonderful way beer and food transform each other into something sublime. Such venues always bring about great conversations, about gastronomy, politics, art and the one topic that always seems to be on everybody’s mind: what’s the plan for the next beer dinner?
Randy Mosher has been writing about beer and brewing since 1989, and is the author of three beer and brewing books: The Brewers Companion (1991), Radical Brewing (2004), and Tasting Beer (2009), which covers the sensory and stylistic aspects of beer. He is a member of the faculty of the Seibel Institute, America's oldest brewing school. He has written for nearly all the beer-related magazines, and speaks to beer enthusiast and brewing audiences around the world. Mosher is also a graphic designer specializing in the branding and packaging business for American and international craft breweries, which gives him a unique insider's view of the industry.