What makes a good beer and food pairing?
For me, it starts with the abiding thought (THE abiding thought when it comes to beer) that beer is fun and should be enjoyed. As long as you are drinking beer, there are no “bad” pairings. There are pairings that are less successful than others, but if the beer is good, everything will be OK.
Another thing that makes for a great beer and food pairing is the people with whom you are eating and drinking. Again, the overriding beer thought must be that beer is to be enjoyed with people you like and care about around you. That makes every pairing worthwhile.
Enough with the philosophical aspects of beer and food pairings, let’s get to what makes a particular beer work with a particular food? Why does beer work so well with food?
First, beer is a cooked product. From the malting to the boil, beer is affected by heat the same way the meal you are preparing is (unless of course, you are eating a salad). Many of the ways you describe food are also how you describe the ingredients of beer.
Also, the natural carbonation of beer helps clean the palate between sips and between bites helping make each bite a separate experience.
So, how do I use all that philosophy and technical/physical aspects of beer to make a beer and food pairing? First, I try to match intensity. I don’t want either the food or the beer to overwhelm the other.
If I’m doing a beer tasting I try to pick foods that either merely clean the palate or allow the beer to shine through with no interference. In a beer and food pairing, you are going for the opposite. I want both parts of the pairing to highlight and complement each other and help each other bring out their best parts.
Once I’ve decided on the intensity, if I start with the food, I then think about the characteristics of the food and what beer characteristics would highlight the food best or vice versa. Is the food savory/sweet? Does it have an herbal/vegetal taste? Is it spicy? Is it creamy? I consider all that as I decide what beer I pick. Not only am I looking to resonate the food and beer, I’m also looking to contrast the food and beer.
Mouthfeel is my favorite way to get a contrast. If I have a food that is creamy I usually like to hit it with a beer with good carbonation and crispness. Think Belgian Tripel. Another place I like to find contrast is spiciness with creaminess. One of my favorites is to drink a stout or porter with spicy food like Mexican or Thai.
The one place I always have trouble with is pairing beer with sweet foods. This is another place where dark beers come in handy. You can either go with matching sweet with sweet or what I prefer is to match dry with sweet. A good Irish stout comes in handy.
For the initial beer and food pairing that spawned this post, I paired the Twin Leaf Rosemary IPA with a meal, my girlfriend made. The meal consisted of tofu seared in a Marsala rub, sautéed mushrooms, and roasted Brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar. If you can’t tell, I’m a vegetarian.
What I liked about this pairing is how the rosemary married with the hops in the IPA in a great way. Sometimes, rosemary can be very overpowering, but in this case, just the right amount was used allowing the rosemary and hops to play well together and complement one another. The other thing I like with this dish was how the rosemary harmonized with the spices in the rub and with the sautéed mushrooms. Then the hoppiness and crispness of the beer cut through the creaminess of the tofu and balanced out the sweetness of the balsamic vinegar.
This the kind of everyday beer and food pairing that makes life more fun. Not every beer and food pairing should be an attempt at a 7-course meal where you are trying to recreate a Henry VIII feast. It should be good food, good beer, and good company all harmonizing together to let you have a good time.