Here’s the thing about dessert. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather end a meal with small selection of truly excellent cheese. If I have to have something sweet though I’d rather it was with beer than wine. Pairing with dessert is a role beer enjoys as long as you give a bit of thought to the proper casting.
As usual, it’s important to match intensities between food and drink. The last thing you want is a big bruiser of a beer to blow a delicate, subtly-flavoured dessert out of the water. Equally, a lightly flavoured beer won’t stand up to a rich, intense chocolate cake.
Roll Out the High-Alcohol Beers
Alcohol is the easiest intensity variable to deal with, so we’ll handle it first. If you’re drinking beer with dessert I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s not your first glass. Presumably, for earlier courses you have followed the rule of starting with low ABV and increasing with each round. Dessert is the time to roll out the big guns. Anything with “Imperial” or “double” in the name as well as stronger Abbey ales, barley wines, and old ales might be good candidates to go with dessert. In Tasting Beer, Randy Mosher puts 6% ABV as the floor to start at when choosing a dessert beer.
Things get slightly more complicated when we start to think about the sweet-with-bitter relationship. The proverbial experts are divided. On one hand, some beer authors including Garrett Oliver in Brewmaster’s Table and Mirella Amato in Beerology lean toward the rule that a beer should always be as sweet, if not sweeter, then the desert it is paired with. Conversely, Randy Mosher (again in Tasting Beer) gives us license to serve really bitter beers with some of the sweetest dessert options.
I’m also split. Carrot cake with American-style IPA almost always falls flat to me. It’s supposed to be one of those perfect sweet-bitter balances, but never seems to work just right. On the other hand, I really dig the idea of an ice cream based on hoppy beer and included a recipe for one in my cookbook that strikes a balance between the IBUs and sweet, toffee-like pralines. Bottom line, test the match out to see if you like it.
Fruit for Dessert
Dessert presents a (somewhat) rare opportunity to put the labels at the sweeter end of the fruit beer scale to good use. Aim for flavours that will contrast rather than compete – think raspberry flavoured beer with a cherry tart or a cherry beer with strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Stronger Belgian ales, triples in particular, with their abundant yeast-driven flavour will pair nicely with these fruit desserts. A simple combination of in-season berries, lightly sweetened meringues, and a glass of a stronger Abbey offering is one of the pinnacles for beer and dessert.
Carrot cake, check. Ice cream, check. Fruit-based tarts, check. Obviously, we haven’t dealt with one of the biggest slices of the dessert pie (or cake). Chocolate, the king of dessert. There are natural flavor affinities here – if you’ve read more than a couple tasting notes for stout, you’ve seen the word used to describe beer – but there are enough potential pitfalls, as well as diverse opportunities for excellent pairings that we’re going to have to leave beer and chocolate to its own post.
Hopefully this guide has familiarized you with some of the basic ideas for dessert and beer pairings. It does take a bit of care, but there are many excellent opportunities and guests will surely be impressed by the idea of ending a meal with a glass of beer.