It may sound like heresy coming from a sommelier but beer is, on the whole, a better partner for food than wine. This bold statement is actually made up of a few components. First of all, beer tends to be a more amenable partner with food. Those of you who have had a glass of Champagne with birthday cake know what I’m talking about.
Also, beer comes in such a broad range of flavors, colors and power that its adaptability can leave wine in the dust. Obviously, wine has a subtle complexity all its own—but when matching beverage with food, it is often more about the obvious aspects than the finer points. I’m talking about body, aromatics and contrast and beer has the ability to offer all of them at a friendly price point.
Body , Weight and Balance
The beverage should have the same weight (or mouth feel) as the food. You can think about this as you would dairy products. If you imagine the mouth feel of nonfat milk, then work your way up to heavy cream, you’ll quickly get the idea. Applied to beer and food, a light fish dish with lemon juice and olive oil should be served with a delicate beer, like a German wheat beer (Weissbier). As soon as you fry that fish in batter, or put it in a cream sauce, the body is much fuller, and now a richer Pale Ale or Belgian Tripel will have the weight to match the it. As a tip, lower alcohol beers tend to be lighter-bodied, while higher-alcohol versions, like the Tripel, will have more body.
While acidity is usually not noticeable in beer. Bitterness is, though. While bitterness is an acquired taste for humans, it is present in many foods, and counteracts richness. If you like espresso and broccoli rabe, you like bitterness. But if you dump steamed milk into that espresso, or pour olive oil on that rabe, you are using this principle by counteracting bitterness with fat.
Bitterness in beer comes mostly from hops, a kind of flower that is used to add aromatics, bitterness and natural preservatives to beer. A ‘hoppy’ beer tends to be bitter and have a floral aroma. The bitterness will balance the richness of the food, and refresh your palate. In beer and food pairing, start thinking beige with beige and brown with brown. Since the process of browning meat is essentially the same as that in the roasting of malted barley, similar flavors will be present in a well-seared burger and amber or brown beers. Lighter meats prepared will marry well with the paler beers like Pilsner and blonde ales.
Ain’t That Sweet?
A basic principal in pairing is that the beverage needs to be at least as sweet as the food. There is sweetness in a lot of ‘savory’ foods and anything browned. Ethnic cuisines are hugely popular in the United States now. A good number of American favorites are (let’s face it, wine guys) terrible with wine. Thai, Indian, Mexican and Tex-Mex and Barbecue dishes are based on flavors that do not come from traditional wine regions. Intuitively, you realize already that there is a beer to go with each of those cuisines, and almost all of the dishes within. With the current popularity of Craft Beer in America, maybe it’s time to enjoy a beer with your dinner tonight.