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.