For a variety of social and historical reasons wine is the king of the food pairing castle. In some rare cases – think Thai takeout and sushi – beer has been allowed in as a sometimes alternate by relatively open-minded pairing guides. As the author of a craft beer cookbook, changing that default setting is one of my primary goals. Those who enjoy drinking well-made beer shouldn’t feel that mealtime means they have to switch to another beverage. Because of its variety and special characteristics – bitterness and carbonation to name two – beer can do many things for food that wine could never manage. Here are five pairings to get you started down the path to expertly pairing beer and food together.
Beer and Sausage
If you’ve made your own sausages you’ll know that most recipes can be summarized as a lot of pork with a handful of salt and a few pinches of really flavorful other ingredients. For the lightly flavored, usually pale, German sausages like bratwurst, coriander and citrus zest are often in the list of ingredients. Naturally, these pair well with Belgian and especially Bavarian wheat beers that echo the same flavours. The alcohol in one and salt in the other act as seasoning for its partner. The beer’s carbonation cleans the extra grease from the palate.
Oysters and Stout
Stout looks black, substantial and has a name that suggests cannons and the men who fired them. With their jagged shells raw oysters have a sort of primordial, of-another-world appearance to them. When you get beyond the first impression both are actually quite subtle – dry stouts are often low in alcohol, get a softer edge from their nitrogen, and contribute a faint malt-driven bitterness to a meal. Depending on variety and origin, oysters have a subtle to moderate brininess that picks out the elements in stout and a clean leanness that could not stand up to sharper, more hop-focused beers.
Spicy Curry and IPA
At least on paper we’d like to pair Indian food with Indian beer. The problem is that all of the Indian beer we have access to in Canada are fizzy, industrial lagers. It’s debatable how much IPAs really have to do with India (as opposed to the trend towards bitter beer at home in England during the early nineteenth century), but they make a great partner for spicy Indian curries.
Hop bitterness cleans the palate and prepares it for the next bite of tandoori chicken or lamb rogan josh. Best of all, the relationship runs both ways: complexly flavored curries have a way of highlighting the usually more sedate malt background flavors in an IPA.
One caution: alcohol can spread and amplify the heat from chillies, so it’s best to pair a lower-alcohol American pale ale or session IPA with the truly eye-watering vindaloos.
Ham and Czech Pilsner
Pilsner gets an unfair reputation for being a mild-mannered beer pushover. This likely comes from it’s unfortunate (and distant) association with the bland international lagers that dominate the market. Traditional Czech and southern German pilsner strikes a remarkable balance between clean, somewhat honey-like malt flavor and a surprising amount of hop bitterness. The deep meaty salinity of high-quality ham is the ideal counterpoint that helps emphasize these two main features. The pairing works even better when the ham comes in sandwich format with a gruyere style cheese and moderately sharp mustard.
Steak and Brown Ale
With this duo we’ll stretch more into the intermediate category. Outside of their home in the north of England, brown ales are generally thought of as straightforward and to the point, if not a bit boring. Equally, the fans of big Californian and Tuscan red wines feel like they have the steak category locked down. I think the combination of brown ale and steak does a good job of challenging both of those preconceived notions. A well-made brown ale has just the right amount of roasted malt flavor to complement the same flavours in the crust of the grilled or pan-seared steak. As well, the salt that is requisite for a well-made steak will help to pick out the varied and interesting flavors in the beer.
For the occasions when you want to double down on the luxury and serve your steak with a compound butter or blue cheese sauce go with an American-style brown ale. The added hops will cut through the richness.
Even without discussing some of beer’s greatest specialties like cheese and chocolate (stay tuned for future episodes, Junior Rangers) I think we’ve made a pretty good case that beer and food belong together. For your own experiments be adventurous, keep track of what you like and work in the suggestions from more advanced resources like the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer and Food Pairing Chart.