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Good Beer and Good Food: The Pairing Project

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You might have probably noticed more and more beer and food pairing events lately. Brewpubs, good beer bars and charities are hosting dinners and events that highlight the relationship between beer and food. Just ten years ago beer and a meal typically meant pizza, hot wings or barbeque. Today it can mean a four course menu with specific beers chosen for each by a professional chef.

Beer is just the right drink for food. The heart of beer is barley and yeast. This gives it much in common with many of the foods that appear on our dinner plate. Beer is just as comfortable a companion to a corned beef sandwich as it is the finest cut of sirloin.

As easy as it is to serve a beer with almost any dish, a well paired meal of beer and food can elevate a simple tasty meal to an exquisite sensory experience. The flavors and dimensions that can be drawn out of beer and food by the other never ceases to amaze me. It is great fun to build my own paired meals but its even more of a joy to try those designed by others. The sometimes startling and delightful results are a constant source of fascination.

Building your own paired dinner is really quite easy if you remember the three Cs – cleanse, compliment and contrast.

Compliment

Choosing a beer that compliments a dish is one of the easiest ways to score a successful pairing. The first thing to consider is matching ingredients. Are you serving chocolate? Try a chocolate stout. A dessert with fruit goes great with a fruited wheat beer like Pyramids Apricot Wheat or any of the many berry beers that show up during the summer season. This works especially well if you are cooking a meal with beer. If you prepare a rich, flavorful pot of Guinness stew and neglect to serve it with Guinness Stout you should be slapped.

Another approach to choosing beers that compliment a dish is to look for like flavors. Are you grilling ribs or smoking meat with a spicy dry rub? A dark porter from Rogue or Left Hand with its notes of roasted barley and spicy hops would make a perfect combination. A light, sweet summer salad goes very nicely with a sweet Shiner Bock.

Contrast

This is my favorite way to pair with beer. Predictably it works in the opposite way from compliment. Seek out contrasting flavors in the beer and the dish. Serve a bitter beer with a sweet dish or a sweet beer with a savory dish. A simple example is when I eat out at a Mexican restaurant where I can expect savory and spicy Tex-Mex foods like salsa, fajitas and refried beans I like to order a Dos Equis Amber, an especially sweet lager.

The secret to a successful pairing by contrast is balance. The flavor profile of the beer should not overwhelm that of the dish nor vice-versa. For example, sushi which brings both sweet and savory to the table contrasts very nicely spicy and bitter notes in a hoppy Pilsner or pale ale. But a big IPA, which can be four or five times hoppier, overwhelms the flavors of the fish.

I enjoy the contrasted pairing because it can bring out flavors in both the dish and the beer that, independently, are almost hidden. Unexpected flavors can bubble to the surface and provide a tasting experience you cannot find anywhere else.

Cleanse

Besides the simplicity of its ingredients, beer’s ability to cleanse the palate is one of the secrets to its success as a compliment to any meal. Beer’s natural effervescence as well as the typical snap of hops at the end of a drink of lager makes it a great compliment for meaty or fatty dishes. It wipes the inside of the mouth clean and prepares it for the next bite.

When thinking about pairing with beer this aspect of pairing works well with foods that are full of oil and fats like pizza and meats as well as spicy foods like Mexican, Indian or Thai. It is no accident that so many restaurants that serve food like this almost always have a few different brands of pale lager available.

Beyond bubbly lagers, sour beers from Belgian are excellent palate cleansers. The tangy, lemony flavors of styles like lambic from Lindemans, Flemish reds and browns, and even some of the big flavored Abbey-style ales from Chimay are great with all kinds of dishes. Their bracing flavors are enough to restart the most fatigued palate.

Don’t Stress It

But you know what? Beer and a pizza are still good together. Always have been; always will be. That is the beauty of beer. While it can exhibit a stunning array of delicately balanced flavors and aromas it will never loose its democratic appeal. Beer is the drink of the people.

As easy as it is to serve a beer with almost any dish, a well paired meal of beer and food can elevate a simple tasty meal to an exquisite sensory experience. The flavors and dimensions that can be drawn out of beer and food by the other never ceases to amaze me. It is great fun to build my own paired meals but its even more of a joy to try those designed by others. The sometimes startling and delightful results are a constant source of fascination.

You can build your own paired meals. Even if you do not choose the greatest combination, hey, you still got to eat a good meal with some good beer and that cannot be bad! So, do not sweat. Cook a meal; open a bottle of good beer and see what happens.
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