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How to pair beer and food
I was recently asked the question: "What am i looking for when matching beer and food? Do I want a beer with a similar taste or should I be looking for a contrast?"
Good question because beer actually behaves differently in many ways from wine as my son Will and I explained in our book An Appetite for Ale:
"As you’ve probably already discovered beer behaves differently from wine when it comes to food. Most lack acidity and tannin, two qualities that help wine match well. But it has other qualities such as bitterness, sweetness, carbonation, lower levels of alcohol and, most importantly, a range of flavours you simply don’t find in wine (chocolate, smoke and caramel to name just three) that more than compensate.
The most significant of those is bitterness, not likely to bother you if you’re a beer lover but which may bother friends you’re trying to get to share your enthusiasm. So far as food is concerned it’s a double-edged sword. It can be intrusive and jarring, much as an over-exuberant use of oak can be in wine, but also incredibly refreshing especially with foods that are sour, salty, fatty or in other ways palate-coating like chocolate and cheese.
There are two types of bitterness, hop bitterness and roasted malt bitterness. Hop bitterness works fantastically well with spices which is why IPAs are such a great match for spicy food while roasted malt bitterness has a palate-cleansing quality which can help with such disparate foods as roast or barbecued meats, cheese and chocolate. With a rich chocolate dessert for example you don’t want yet more richness in your glass. You want something that is going to be refreshing like a bitter porter or a sour wheat beer.
Complement or contrast?
People often talk about complementing or contrasting flavours with beer but we think that’s an unnecessarily complicated approach. All you need to ask yourself is “What sort of a drink do I want with this dish or this meal?” And that’s a question of balance. If you know the flavours are going to be delicate like a salad or a seafood risotto you want a beer that won’t overwhelm them such as a pilsner or a wheat beer. If the flavours are full as they would be in a steak and ale pie or a beef stew you want a beer of equal weight like a traditional British or a Belgian trappist ale. If the flavours are extreme - very hot, spicy or sweet - you want a beer that offers some respite and refreshment.
A similar common sense approach applies to deciding the order in which you’re going to serve beers. In general it’s better to drink lighter, drier beers before richer, sweeter, more powerful ones just as you serve lighter dishes before more intensely flavoured foods.
Light or dark?
If you’re just getting into beer you may not have fully grasped that beers don’t always taste as they look. A light colour doesn’t necessarily mean a light beer as those of you who have tried strong Belgian golden ales like Duvel will know. Nor does the fact that a beer is dark mean that it’s powerful. (Think of traditional British brown ales like Mann’s or stouts like Mackeson). So let flavour rather than colour be your guide.
Carbonation - or the lack of it
The other factor to take into account when you’re matching beer and food is carbonation. Of course this is more pronounced in some beers like wheat beers or pilsners than in others such as traditional British ales and virtually non-existent in a few like strong barley wines. But, again, if your palate is likely to be under assault from deep-fried, spicy or fatty foods, look to a beer where it’s more pronounced.
Carbonated drinks also support flavours better than still ones. If you drink a peach flavoured dessert wine with a peach-flavoured dessert for example the dessert will strip the peach flavours from the wine. The carbonation of a peach flavoured lambic on the other hand will preserve the fruit flavours of the beer, cleansing the palate between each mouthful and echoing but not overwhelming those of the dessert. It means you can rely on flavour rather than strength or sweetness for the match which again makes for a more refreshing experience.
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