At this time of the year we enjoy some of the most anticipated and memorable meals on the calendars as we celebrate Holidays with family and friends. The idea of pairing beer with food is an attempt to enhance the experience by creating a combination or match that is better than either thing by itself. The subject of beer and food pairings is a big subject – too big to capture in this short space. There are excellent books like The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver and much in terms of online resources on this subject. There are few basics to understand to help begin an appreciation of this topic.
The first concept is Maillard (My-yard) reaction. This comes from a French chemist Camille Maillard who stumbled upon the concept about 1910 while trying to replicate biological protein synthesis. It basically is a way of unifying the complex science of the browning of foods as they cook. This can be through roasting, baking, grilling and so on. These same processes occur in beer as malt is kilned and boiled. This leads to the flavors and colors of beer from pale (cracker) to dark roasted or burnt flavors.
The second concept is an understanding of aromatics and taste. Aroma and smell have much to do with our perceptions of taste. We tend to be put off by things that smell bitter or spoiled. We are hard wired this way through evolution to warn us that somethings might make us sick or be poisonous. Humans taste sweet, salty, bitter, acid and umami. Other animals have more sophisticated senses of smell but humans are quite developed at taste. What we smell and taste blend together as we experience food and drink.
The third concept is richness and texture. Foods and beers have a texture and richness value called mouthfeel. Think of two soups a light vegetable broth and a creamy mushroom soup. They are separated by thickness and richness of the taste. Beer helps compliment these rich flavors by providing aromatics, carbonation and alcohol in varying levels. Beer styles are straight forward and easy to read when compared with wine.
With these basic concepts in mind let’s turn to a simple guide for pairing beer with food. Remember A-B-C. Align intensity is the A part of this and the most important. A light shrimp salad will be overwhelmed by that big brown ale but the same brown ale will work nicely with a smoky sauced barbecue rib. B stands for bridge flavors. You can do this through complimenting or contrasting. Sweet/bitter/sour is a contrast. Picking up the bitter hops in an IPA and putting with spiced Mexican or Thai food is a compliment and both are successful. The C is cutting texture in foods. For a simple Roast Beef, low carbonation like a traditional English Ale works well. For a rich dish like deviled eggs a high carbonation Belgian Ale cuts through.
When describing beers it’s typical to name the brewer, brand, color, bitterness (IBUs), and alcohol by volume. It’s often helpful to make suggested pairings for people based on the available beers for purchase. There are many guides and information for specific brands available to suggest food items with which to pair a beer or what kind of food would taste great with that brand or style. When compared to wine, the rich pallet of flavors available in beers and ales will work with any type of food. Some very popular cuisines like Mexican can be very tricky to place with wine. Beer excels even in places where wine is forced. So learning about beer and food pairings isn’t terribly difficult. Your customers, friends and family will probably appreciate the help and a good pairing brings extra joy to any meal.