Beer Food Pairings: Bringing Out the Flavors in Your Menu
The right food and beer pairings at your business can be critical to your customers, especially considering the rise of craft beers and cicerones in recent years. Rules for pairing beer with food can be pretty varied since the tastes, aromas, and mouthfeel of a beer can be so different, but at the very least you can make some educated guesses about what a customer would enjoy.
But to get an idea about beer and food pairings, you first have to nail down what kind of beers are available. For our uses, we'll break beers down into two simple categories — lagers and ales. There is also a kind of beer called a lambic, but those are so rare that you and your customers won't encounter them too often.
What's an Ale?
An ale is a beer that is brewed from malted barley by using a warm fermentation process that includes yeast. As it's produced, ale ferments more quickly and produces a sweeter, fruitier taste when compared to lagers. Many ales also include lots of hops, which helps preserve the beer itself while giving it a bitter flavor. Sometimes this bitter flavor just evens out the sweet flavor to make a smooth, tasty brew. For other beers, like India pale ales, the bitter flavors are far heavier than the sweet flavors to produce a heavy, delicious result.
General Rules for Ales
Ales are typically great choices for lighter-bodied foods that won't take up a lot of room in someone's stomach, such as salad or seafood, but it can also work well with heavier red meats or poultry. The goal is to ultimately serve up foods and beers that won't overwhelm one another with either their weight or their flavors so customers can get a unique combination flavor of both. Typically, darker beers (like stouts or porters) will pair well with meats, although particularly strong beers (like barley wines) will most likely overpower the flavors of main entrees, making them a better after-dinner drink for cheeses or desserts.
What's a Lager?
A lager is a beer that is brewed at cooler temperatures than an ale, which results in a slower fermentation process. The result is a beer that has a crisper, cleaner taste and a little extra bite. Lagers also don't use as many hops as ales since they don't need to balance out the sweet and bitter flavors. Today, "lager" tends to mean any beer that has a lighter color and body to it, even though plenty of breweries still produce dark lagers. And even though their fermentation process is similar, they have a different taste, mouthfeel, and weight.
General Rules for Lagers
Lagers can famously pair with just about anything, but they're at their best when they can capitalize on the flavors of certain spices in foods. This makes them great for use with Thai, Cajun, and other spicy genres, but they're also perfect for complementing chocolaty or savory flavors as well. Basically, if there's a spice that you want to bring to the forefront of a meal, suggest pairing it with a lager so that a customer can get the full experience of the dish. Many of the best foods for lagers are some of the heaviest though, including red meat burgers, pork, and other high-fat, high-sodium classics.
Pairing by Color
If you're serving customers who are new to the world of beers, you can instead go off of a beer's color when suggesting a pairing. In general, you can follow these quick and simple rules.
- Spicy food = light beer
- Fish = light beer
- Brown food = brown beer
- Heavy stew = dark beer
- Shellfish = dark beer
While less exact than if you had gone off of a more specific food pairing list, these general rules are excellent ways to initiate newcomers into the wonderful world of beer. And if they like it enough, the chances are good that they'll remember it for the next time.
Pairing by Specifics
For the customers who want to know exactly what to choose for their every meal, it's important to brush up on the nitty-gritty of beer and food pairing. Fortunately, Brewers Association has created a helpful chart that gets about as specific as anyone would need, going through the most common beers in production at the moment and covering the foods, cheeses, and desserts to pair with certain beers, what glass to use when pouring the beer, and even the optimum serving temperature for the beer. With the guide from Brewers Association at your disposal — not to mention your general knowledge of beer already — showing customers their best choices for pairing beer and food has never been faster, easier, or more accurate.