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?
Real beer is a far more versatile beverage than wine, bringing a wider range of flavors an aromas to the table.
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.