How to: Pair Beer and Food
Despite the common assumption that it’s only meant to accompany burgers or wings, beer in its various varieties can be matched to food just as wine can—and often with much better results.
As with wine, food can also improve the drinkability of certain beers. Many brews that are over the edge when consumed alone—too sweet, too light, or too bitter—scale back brilliantly with the right dishes.
The simplest way is to match the characteristics, such as strong food flavours with rich beers, but you needn’t stay strictly with that. Opposites attract too so don’t be afraid to experiment—open several different bottles for your guests to try.
Beer shines here: wine can’t compete with fiery foods. The extra hops in India Pale Ale were originally added to preserve the beer on its long trek from Britain to India; the style suits curry and vindaloo, taming the heat and cutting the fat. Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale tones down the hops for a smoother brew that also goes well with chili-laced Mexican or Thai dishes. And, yes, hot wings.
Wine may be the automatic choice, but old cheddar, soft blues like gorgonzola, and smoked cheeses call for the more assertive flavour of beer. Match the characteristics of each: tangy wheat beers for sharp goat cheese, nutty amber ales for equally nutty Swiss, and creamy porters for the toffee flavour of aged gouda. For an all-around brew, we like Duvel, a brilliantly balanced, strong Belgian bottle-conditioned ale that pours with a frothy head.
Darker brews marry well with red meats, especially if you’re cooking with liquid: use beer instead of water or broth, and then serve the same brew alongside. If meat is commonly served with fruit, such as pork or venison, try a fruit beer with it. Grilled meats develop a caramelized crust that complements slightly sweet brown ales, such as Newcastle Brown.
Oysters traditionally match with champagne, but slurping them with stout highlights the bivalves’ brininess and tames the brew’s bitterness. A bit thin on its own, Marston’s Oyster Stout plumps up to a lusty mouth-feel alongside them. (True oyster stouts actually use the critters in the brewing process, but Marston’s is that in name only, with no seafood inside.)
Rich dishes, such as crème brûlée or those made with dark chocolate, need equally lush brews to stand up to them. Barley wines are heavy, complex, high-alcohol ales that can be stored in your cellar and aged like wine; buy a few bottles of Toronto’s Mill Street Barley Wine, both for drinking now and putting away. Should your guests not want dessert, strong ales served by themselves are an interesting change from a glass of port. JM