Beer is the new wine. Once relegated to cold cans in a cooler at a family barbecue, the resurgence of the craft beer industry in the United States has brought beer to center stage at even the most highbrow event. You have more options than ever for a refreshing drink on a hot summer day, but it is so much more. Beer is taking its rightful place in the food culture revolution, as brewers and consumers alike learn the art and joy of a good food and beer pairing. Turns out, I’m a fan.
photo by jenn kosar
Beer has been around for centuries, and according to Amy Stewart [also known as The Drunken Botanist] and her fellow researchers, it probably hasn’t changed that much over time. A bucket of barley left to soak overnight gets invaded by wild yeast. A strange foamy substance forms, and someone decides it should be tasted. Beer-making techniques, including mechanisms to deal with the likely sediment that formed prior to the arrival of modern filtration systems, are evidenced in cave drawings dating as far back as 3400 BC. Hops arrives in about 800 BC to add that characteristic bitter flavor and act as a preservative. We also now control our yeast, the type of which will drive the ultimate description of the beer (i.e., ale vs. lager). Other grains, like wheat, have now made their way into the beer making process, adding complexity and variety.
Back to the food. In many ways, beer is actually more food-friendly than wine. First, it has far more core ingredients for the brewer to play with and ultimately “pair” with food. Hops give us bitter flavors, yeast provides the creamy, bread-like quality, and barley adds the sweet. The array of add-on options is staggering compared to what is considered appropriate for wine, ranging from nuts and chocolates, fruits and vegetables, to spices galore.
photo by monicore via pixabay
Second is carbonation. Bubbles are like a self-cleaning oven for your mouth, scrubbing it down to help clear the palette for the next bite. As anyone who has ever attempted a full day of wine tasting knows, a palette gets tired. This carbonation also opens up far more options in pairing spicy, rich, or otherwise intense foods, as the beer actually refreshes you and even quenches the thirst the food creates. A similar effect makes champagne the ideal pairing for richer, creamier foods.
This adds up to far greater options for successful pairing across a wider, more global spectrum of food. The “rules” of wine pairing, while helpful and not dissimilar to those for beer, sometimes fall down when confronted with the peanut and coconut flavors of Thai cuisine or the heat of Southeast Asian spice. Desserts across the board are far better served up with a beer than most wines or cocktails, in my view. Some might say beer and cheese are a superior pairing. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m willing to experiment.
photo by pawel kadysz
Food and beer pairing: the basics
Thirsty to get started? Let’s begin with some basic principles of beer and food pairing. They will sound familiar, because they are — many of the same principles of selecting, storing, tasting, and pairing wine apply to beer.
- Beer is best served between 40°F and 50°F. Like wine, if it is too cold it can lose flavor, so let it sit for a few minutes if your fridge is below 40°F.
- Beer and wine both have “body” in varying intensities. “Light” beer, in this case, is not about the calorie count, but rather refers to Lager, Pilsner, or Wheat. “Heavy” refers to Stouts and Porters. Ales, IPAs, and Bocks are often labeled as “medium-bodied”.
photo by jenn kosar
- The type of food best paired with your beer would be described with the same adjectives. Light beers tend to go with lighter foods, as in salads, seafood, and chicken. Once you cross into medium and heavy territory, you are pairing with foods we think of as red wine friendly. Just like wine, there are excellent pairings to be found that break the rules.
- If you’re trying multiple beers with courses, work your way from light to heavy to avoid palate issues.
- Bubbles count varies in beers similar to champagne. Beers with more bubbles cut through fat, grease, and rich foods. That is why Ales, Pilsners and Lagers are the backbone of the infamous beer and pizza pairing.
- You should always drink what tastes good to you. A good food pairing will not compensate for a beer you just do not like. It is your meal, and your drink, so you should enjoy it. This is meant to be fun, right?
Now for some real inspiration. While rules are meant to be broken, there are some foolproof combinations that are perfect to get you started on your pairing journey. Pairing refers to the art of selecting a beverage that complements or contrasts your food. Complementary has similar notes throughout the food and the beverage (i.e., spicy or nutty) that highlight each other; contrast provides balance and ideally mutual enhancement between two flavors (i.e., bitter or acidic to cut through sweet or rich food).
Just like beer, food is complex, so when pairing you can choose to focus on any one or more of the elements of the dish. Pair your beer with the flavor of the protein, the sauce, or even the characteristics imparted by the cooking technique, such as “grilled” or “smoked”. The suggestions below highlight various takes on these strategies, with pairings for every course from appetizers to after-dinner beers.
photo by dagny walter via pixabay
Beer and food pairings: appetizers
- Pairing beer with a Cheese Plate. Ahh, the controversial beer and cheese pairing. There are some real winners, and some land mines. Steve Jones from Portland’s Cheese Bar will tell you that hops and cheese just aren’t friendly, and sheep’s milk cheese just doesn’t seem to like beer. I love a rich, toasty Bock with cheddar cheese. Strong cheese will require the muscle of a dark, hoppy beer like Barley Wine, but watch out — the ABV (alcohol by volume) is through the roof. If you’re really ready to explore beer and cheese pairings, check out this handy guide from the Brewer’s Association.
photo by jenn kosar
- Pairing salad with beer. I love a Cream Ale for its smoothness, balanced sweet and bitter notes, and high malt content. Salads or other appetizers that similarly introduce a blend of sweet and savory like this Beet, Goat Cheese and Walnut Tart from Alexandra’s Kitchen are the perfect complementary pairing. Don’t be afraid to be literal in your pairing, as in the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale Peach with the late summer Burrata Caprese from Dinner: Changing the Game.
- Pairing beer with battered or fried foods. This can be complicated or fun depending on your outlook. Remember, you can focus your pairing on various elements of the dish. If you’re looking to balance the fatty fried element, choose a hoppy, bitter beer like a Double or Imperial IPA. Or focus on the flavors of the underlying protein or sauce. For example, the Ginger Peanut Shrimp at Tapastre in Somerville, New Jersey was nicely complemented by the familiar flavor profile in Schlafly Coconut Cream Ale.
photo by jenn kosar
Food and beer pairings: soups and stews
- Pairing chili and beer. Complex and varied in its own right, the best pairing will change depending on the style of chili. Texas-style, meat-forward chili does well with an American Stout. The more stew-like, chile, pork, and vegetable-based southwestern chili is complemented by a Brown Ale, with nutty qualities to tone down heat and sweetness to highlight the pork. For spicier versions, try a Milk Stout to cool the palette.
- Beer pairing for beef stew. Rich and flavorful Belgian Ales (Dubbels, Trippels and Quads) are meant for warm and comforting meat stews. Dark, bitter stouts will offer a more contrasting flavor profile that is equally delicious. And of course, the classic Guinness and beef stew, like this one from Host the Toast with the beer flavor right in the pot.
photo by ponce photography
- Pairing beer with curry. The sweet, citrusy notes and bitter hops of an IPA will contrast the spices and rich, layered flavors perfectly. This lamb Thai curry made with Deschutes IPA pulls it all together beautifully.
Beer and food pairings: Entrees
- The right beer for your fish dish. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna meet their match with a Pilsner, with a refreshing, light body to cut through the oiler texture. Try a Blonde Ale for a more complementary approach. For sushi and lighter fish dishes, try a Wheat Beer. This complementary pairing also works for simpler chicken dishes, like a nice Sunday roast or this lemon chicken.
- The classic beer and shellfish pairing. There are a few not to be missed, like Guinness and oysters or Witbier and mussels. Shellfish is naturally enhanced with fruity, spicier beers that bring out the sweet salinity. Try a Saison or Hefeweizen with these tasting notes.
- Pairing chicken and beer. Nothing goes better with barbecue than beer, and an amber ale is the perfect complement. The less pronounced hops and smooth caramel will enhance the barbecue flavor, or try some contrast with a slab of bacon. In the winter, I also like a Belgian Ale, especially if I’m not driving. For those craving true comfort, head to Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery in Berkeley Heights, NJ for chicken and waffles in maple sausage gravy and the Nefarious Belgian Strong Ale.
- Pairing meat and beer. For smoky, roasted meats I love the contrasting sweet notes of a Porter or Stout. Look for those with combinations of chocolate and vanilla, sweet coffee and dark roast, or light toffee and black molasses, complementing the similar umami combinations found in roasted meats. For higher fat cuts or those with a little spice, like sausage, pair with an IPA. The higher alcohol content and fruity bitterness will contrast the flavor and clear the palette. And don’t forget the classic pairing of a good burger and a Pale Ale.
photo by HoaLuu via pixabay
- Pairing beer with pastas and pizzas. Lager is the quintessential beer, and it goes with pretty much anything thanks to its carbonation and refreshing flavors. It pairs well with garlic, suiting many classic italian pasta dishes and yes, pizza. For creamy, cheesy pasta, look for one described as “slightly spicy”, “floral”, or “semisweet” to achieve a more complementary approach.
- Pairing vegetarian dishes with beer. Try this gorgeous Autumn Harvest Salad with Pomegranates and Farro with a Pale Ale. Its medium body and citrusy, hoppy flavors will keep the finish dry and refreshing. One of my favorite pairings of all time is Trap Rock’s Ricotta Gnudi with roasted butternut squash in a brown butter, parmesan and sage sauce with their vanilla- and maple syrup-flavored Envious Stout. At home, try Half-Baked Harvest’s Butternut Squash Ravioli with a sweet Stout of your own.
Food and beer pairings: Dessert
- Beer and ice cream pairings. If there was ever a match made in heaven, it is an ice cream sundae with high-quality hot fudge and a toasty, chocolatey Stout laced with coffee notes. Another delicious pairing is the Four Hands Brewing Company Chocolate Milk Stout with these delicious and keto-friendly peanut butter bars from the inspirational blog Twosleevers.
- Chocolate and beer pairings. A hearty beer will stand up to these desserts, and Porters are often laced with nuts, coffee, toffee, and caramel, offering a perfect complement to the usual enhancements in a chocolate based dessert. I love Smuttynose Robust Porter with these Nutella-Fudge Brownies from Tiny Kitchen Capers.
- Pairing beer with fruit desserts. Stick with lighter beers in the wheat family, like Hefeweizen, Witbier or Wheat Beers. I find any attempts to contrast with richer beers generally fail, with the occasional exception of creamy lemon dishes and Blonde or Cream Ale pairings.
Beer and food pairing: where to go in northern New Jersey
Ready to get out there and taste? Here are my favorite spots in northern New Jersey to explore craft brews from near and far. The menus are beer-friendly, and everyone is as excited about the pairing options as we are, so go ahead and find out their favorite!
Hops Craft Bar ⋅ Morristown
More bar than restaurant, but these guys are passionate about craft beer. Rotating taps and lots of special events to try out their latest finds. You can check out their website for upcoming events.
Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery ⋅ Berkeley Heights
The Hills Tavern ⋅ Millburn
A new entrant to the scene, The Hills Tavern is emerging as a favorite neighborhood spot. While not exclusively focused on beer, they aim to keep the taps fresh and seasonal with popular favorites. They plan to add beer tasting flights soon. Check out my full review or visit their website.
The Stirling Hotel ⋅ Stirling
A slightly smaller selection of beers relative to others on this list, but more eclectic. They routinely feature local brewers with special events. The Stirling Hotel is worth the trip for their weekend beer garden. On a warm late summer evening, you may never want to leave. Check out their website for upcoming events and beer garden schedule.
Tapastre ⋅ Somerville
Perfect for building your beer tasting and pairing skills, Tapastre has options for beer flights and helpful tasting notes to guide your selection. While not strictly Spanish food as the name implies, they still focus on small plates to be enjoyed family-style, so go ahead and flex your pairing muscles with multiple dishes. Visit their website for more information.
Paragon Tap & Table ⋅ Clark
A proper gastropub with an equal focus on food and beer. Twenty rotating craft beers on tap, with an additional strong selection of can and bottle options. Beer, wine, and spirits tasting events are frequent here as is live music in the lively bar. Of the beer focused restaurants in the area, this has my vote for the most family-friendly. Check out their website for upcoming events, including special chef’s tasting opportunities.
Thirsty yet? I know I am! What’s your favorite beer and food combination? Any great tips for building the perfect food and beer pairing? Drop us a comment and share the love of beer.
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