Pairing Pints: Matching Your Ales with Your Edibles

By Matthew Bossons, September 7, 2015

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Beer has finally found its seat at the big kids’ table. After decades of association with college parties, tailgating and your father’s belly, the amber nectar has charged ahead in revolutionary fashion.

If you’re not familiar with craft beer (well, for starters, you’ve been living under a rock), commence the learning process by forgetting everything you already know about the boozy elixir. Forget the Tiger, the Heineken and for God’s sake forget the Tsingtao.

Craft beer is an art form. It’s made in small batches using local knowledge and comes in an endless array of tastes, colors and consistencies. In simple terms, craft beer is diverse – large-batch corporate beer is not.

“The macro-produced lager types of beer, the Harbin, Tsingtao, Budweiser, Miller, these are all very interchangeable. They’re thirst quenching, easy to drink, cheap and you can have a lot of it,” says Jonathan Crowder, director of sales South China for Duvel Moortgat China. “But these beers are just something to swill, you don’t buy them because you want flavor.”

With the advent of a new brewing culture has come the desire to experiment and blend beer with pleasures other than football and sex. Boasting more depth than ever, ales and lagers are moving into the culinary world – a place traditionally reserved for wine.

Wine has amazing diversity; it’s difficult to dispute this fact. But whereas vino is made from grapes, you can add a limitless array of ‘extras’ to the essential ingredients when brewing suds. “You can put anything into beer and it’s still beer,” says Crowder.

All beer is made from malted barley, hops, water and yeast, but even with that combination you can get astonishing variety.

Food and beer pairings are quickly becoming all the rage.

One major determinant of flavor is how the barley is dealt with during the malting process, which involves germinating the barley by soaking the grains in water, before drying them in warm air. Once the barley is sprouted, malt is produced.

Controlling how much the malt is roasted will create a wide range of beer tastes and colors. If you roast the malt lightly, you have a product that is optimal for creating golden-colored lagers, while if the roast is black – where the malt resembles coffee beans – a darker, heavier beer is born.

“The roasting of malts is a caramelization process, and that is what makes beer and food work together so well, because so much food is caramelized or roasted,” says Crowder. “So when you are eating a steak, you can have a dark brown ale that has the same caramelized identity as the steak you are eating. That affinity is one of the things that makes beer pairings so delicious.”

"When pairing a beer with a meal, you have to ask yourself, how bitter is the beer and how malty is it? These are the two most important pairing aspects."

Aside from the fundamental ingredients, orange peel, chocolate, coffee, berries, wheat, oats and fresh cherries – among countless others – can all be added to change the profile of any given beer.

Despite the importance of flavors and acidity, which are influenced by the fruits and grains we’ve already mentioned, Crowder maintains that the key elements that determine how well a beer pairs with different foods are its malt and hops levels.

“When pairing a beer with a meal, you have to ask yourself, how bitter is the beer and how malty is it?” he notes. “These are the two most important pairing aspects.”

The reason hops are so important, according to the Brewers Association, is that their bitterness cuts through the fat in food, reducing the thick, heavy sensation in your mouth. This allows one to better taste the constituents in a dish and appreciate the real essence of both the food and beer.

Malt is an essential taste ingredient for a number of reasons. First, malt can contribute to an eclectic range of flavors, from caramel, chocolate and Graham cracker to roasted, toasted and toffee sensations. This enormous spectrum allows for harmonization with a diverse number of dishes and cooking styles, according to Crowder. Malt also has the ability to reduce the heat associated with spicy foods.

This all may seem like a lot to digest, so to help you plan your first, or next, beer and food pairing, we have rounded up a list of selections worth trying. For each beer on our list, we have included a suggested meat or seafood accompaniment, as well as a complementary cheese and dessert.

Food pairing guide:

Amber Ale
Meat/Fish: This beer has a wide array of pairing options, matching chicken, seafood, burgers and spicy dishes with unparalleled ease. As such, amber ales (or red ales) are an ideal barbecue drink, suited to just about anything you toss on the grill.
Cheese: Lightly tangy assortments such as Port Salut.
Dessert: Poached pears in dulce de leche, banana pound cake or pecan lace cookies.

Imperial Stout
Meat/Fish: Typically boasting a 7 or 8 percent alcohol content, stouts can pack a punch that often overpowers most eats. That being said, this variety can work well with foie gras or smoked goose.
Cheese: Well-aged options best contend with stout’s distinct flavor. Consider a doughty Gouda, Parmesan or cheddar.
Dessert: It only makes sense that a dark beer calls for a dark chocolate treat. Glug your after-dinner stout with dark chocolate truffles.

Indian Pale Ale (IPA)
Meat/Fish: Do you enjoy bold, spicy curries? What about strong, sweet desserts? If you answered yes to these questions, then a frothy IPA is the gal for you. Enjoy this delicious beverage the next time you dig into a pad Thai or a bowl of chicken tikka masala.
Cheese: IPAs work well with the blue variety. Suggested selections include the milder Italian Gorgonzola or Cambozola.
Dessert: Super-sweet caramel cheesecake or creme brulee.

Pale Ale
Meat/Fish: While a diverse array of food pairing options exist for this beer, it is particularly excellent with meat pie, meatballs or a thick, greasy burger.
Cheese: English-style choices like cheddar and Derby.
Dessert: Undoubtedly a maple bread pudding.

Meat/Fish: Lighter foods fit best with this summer favorite, so consider enjoying it with a salad, some seafood or your next sushi dinner.
Cheese: Goat’s cheese or herbal cheese spread on a crisp cracker.
Dessert: Strawberry shortcake or key lime pie.

Meat/Fish: Because porters are made from brown malts, which have undergone a caramelization process as they are roasted, they work well with smoky or roasted fare. Ideally, you want to pair a porter with something like blackened fish, roasted or barbecued meat, or sausages.
Cheese: Tilsit or Gruyere.
Dessert: The dessert pairing for this beer is as delicious as it is classic: chocolate peanut butter cookies.

Meat/Fish: Much like hefeweizens, wits go best with sprightlier seafood dishes, thanks to their acidic and citrusy notes. Sear some scallops or poach a fish for optimum satisfaction.
Cheese: Mascarpone or herbal cheese spreads such as Boursin.
Dessert: For a ‘witty’ dessert coupling, try banana orange crepes or panna cotta with lemon.

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