No longer relegated to football games and sports bars, beer is in its prime. The drink has been growing in popularity for well over a decade in large part because of the explosion of the craft beer scene. In 2019, small and independent brewer sales increased at a rate of 4% and there was more than a 9% increase in brewery openings from 2018 to 2019. But the craft beer industry is more than just numbers — it’s also become a hub for creativity.
There has been a shift in the craft beer paradigm in which there is now greater complexity and increased variety within each style of the beverage. According to Darnell Paul, market manager for New York City’s Sloop Brewing Co., this trend has made beer even more well suited to food pairings — a subsection of dining that’s historically been dominated by wine lovers.
“Beer has unlimited potential when it comes to flavors,” says Paul. “Remember that beer can be as complex as any wine or as refreshing as any spritzer. Beer is one of the only alcoholic beverages that runs the gambit.”
Wine programs and sommeliers are commonplace at mid-range to upscale restaurants across the country. But over the last few decades, beer has slowly made its way into the conversation. The Cicerone Certification Program, which was founded in 2007, provides the type of credentials for beer professionals that have long been available to wine pros via the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Food and beer pairing is nothing new; because beer can be brewed with a variety of different ingredients, it lends itself well to food pairings. With the use of ingredients as far ranging as nuts, fruit, chocolate and more, beer can complement the flavor profiles of a variety of different meals from a plate of spicy chicken wings to an oozing chocolate lava cake.
If you’re new to food and beer pairings and want to learn more or even put together your own pairing menu, these quick tips will help you get started.
How to pair food and beer
Contrasting flavors means you take a beer that has a commanding flavor profile and pair it with a mild dish, or vice versa. Jennifer Price, creator of the Atlanta Beer Boutique and author of “The Chick’s Guide to Beer” says that contrasting flavors is the easiest way to pair super bitter, tart, dark or otherwise bold beers, like India Pale Ales (IPA) or Imperial Stouts, with food.
“If you’re a beginner and you have an IPA, then you may choose a food that will balance those robust flavors out,” Price says.
On the flip side, if you’re serving food that has a dominant flavor profile, like a plate of hot wings, you might want to pair it with a beer that has cool and clean properties, such as a pilsner.
Another thing Price likes to do when pairing beer with food is to find harmony between the flavors. The easiest way to do that, she says, is to find beers and foods that have similar ingredients. Imperial stouts, for example, often have flavors of bittersweet chocolate, cocoa or coffee that might pair well with chocolate cake or foie gras.
“Beers are becoming like a meal in a can,” Price says. “Brewers are getting more and more creative. They’re creating more depth in their blends and in their recipes and that gives you the opportunity to find foods that may have some of those same elements.”
Match strength for strength
Another way to set up a food and beer pairing is to match strength for strength (one of Price’s go to methods of pairing beer with food). Coupling a bold beer, like a stout, with an equally bold food such as a plate of BBQ ribs is an example of matching strength for strength. In that same vein, you should pair mild beer with mild food, like fish or salad.
“A food that’s more aggressive or in-your-face will normally pair with a beer of the same sort of strength,” she explains.
Beer as a palate cleanser
Another simple way to pair beer with food is to use beer as a palate cleanser for boldly flavored dishes, like Korean fried chicken. According to Price, beers that are lighter in flavor are best used as palate cleansers because the flavors don’t compete with the flavor of the food. Light lagers (like pilsners) and Kolsches work well as palate cleansers because of their mild flavor profiles.
Basic Flavor Profiles of Beer
According to cicerone-certified beer server and creator of the Black Beer Experience, Shani Glapion, the most important things for beginners to keep in mind when pairing beer with food is to understand the profile of the beer.
Each flavor profile is determined by the beer’s blend of carbonation, hops, malt, water, yeast and other ingredients which are all used during the brewing process. One simple way to pair beer with food is to identify the ingredients of your dish and compare them to the main beer flavors listed below.
Crisp and Clean
Crisp beers are light and refreshing with low to medium alcohol by volume (ABV). A classic example of a crisp beer is the Pilsner, a lager that’s light in color and is considered the standard beer across the world. The American Lager is also an example of a crisp and clean beer as it’s highly carbonated and has a low hoppy character. Crisp and clean beers often pair well with spicy foods, salad and seafood.
Hoppy and Bitter
Hops give beer its bitterness, and beers that are heavy on hops, like American pale ales and English-style pale ales are often medium to full bodied, but can vary dramatically when it comes to ABV. These beers find a delicate balance between hop bitterness and malt, which gives beer its color and flavor. Hoppy and bitter beers are typically yellow to brown in color. They pair well with aged or hard cheeses, fried foods like fish and chips and creamy dishes like fettuccine alfredo or a mild curry with yogurt sauce.
Malty and Sweet
Malty and sweet beers are light to full bodied beers with a wide ABV range. They’re often toasty and have notes of caramel, toffee and nuts. The English-style brown ale is an example of a malty and sweet beer and it pairs well with hearty meats, like roasted pork and steak (a classic pairing for malty and sweet beers).
Dark and Roasty
Dark and roasty beers are often black or deep brown in color and have a wide ABV range. These smooth beers are typically medium-light to full bodied and use roasted malts that add notes of chocolate and cocoa. An example of a dark and roasty beer is an English-style brown porter, which pairs well with grilled meats and gruyere cheese.
Fruity and Spicy
As implied by the name, fruity and spicy beers are just that: fruity and spicy. They’re low in bitterness with a wide ABV range. They pair well with shellfish, like clams, scallops and lobster and vary in color from golden to dark brown. Examples of fruity and spicy beers include saisons and hefeweizens.
Tart and Funky
Tart and funky brews aren’t as cut and dry as other flavor profile categories. They have a wide ABV range and can be light to medium-full bodied. As far as flavor goes, tart and funky brews can be acidic, sour, winey, fruity ... you name it. Tart and funky beers, like an American Brett, pair well with earthy cheeses, grilled or roasted game and fruit filled pastries.
Beer Styles and Recipes for Pairing
If you haven’t noticed by now, beer is complex. The drink’s varying styles and intricate blend of ingredients makes it great for pairing with food.
Glapion explains that “Because craft beer has so many different profiles, the pairing is endless and you can mix and match different things.”
If you’re a beginner it can be confusing to remember which beers go with which foods.
Infinite pairing possibilities are great and exciting but it might be easier to keep a few classic pairings in mind if you’re just getting started. We’ve broken things down into a few popular beer styles and some of their go-to food pairings.
Pale lagers, like the American Lager, are light and refreshing. The highly carbonated and crisp beverage pairs well with spicy foods like Buffalo hot wings and noodle-based dishes like Vietnamese pho. According to Price, light lagers also go well with bitter foods like asparagus because they take away some of its astringency — try it with this prosciutto wrapped asparagus.
Toasted and caramel flavors are prominent in dark lagers because of the roasted malts. These beers should be paired with grilled meats and vegetables as they complement the roasty nature of grilled foods. When serving a dark lager, like an American Amber Lager or Vienna-Style Lager, try this harissa grilled chicken recipe or this recipe for easy grilled zucchini.
Brown ales typically have roasted malt and chocolate-like characteristics with low bitterness. The beer’s flavor profile makes it versatile for food pairings, but typically brown ales go with roast pork, smoked sausage and game birds. Try this duck leg ragu with an American Brown Ale, the fat will neutralize any of the beer’s bitterness and complement its roastiness.
India Pale Ales
India Pale Ales (the highest selling craft beer style across the United States) are a good way to enhance the flavor of your food. Because IPAs are so robust, Price likes to pair them with dishes that will balance the beer out, such as a mild curry dish. But there is a lot of variety within this one style. The American IPA is known for its citrus-like and piney hop flavor and pairs well with a spicy tuna sushi roll. Then there’s the New England IPA, which is juicy and tropical and pairs with dishes like Hawaiian pork tenderloin because the flavor from the pork matches the intensity of the beer.
Pilsners are a type of lager that are hoppy with bread-like malt flavor. Perhaps the most popular pilsner is the German-Style pilsner. The light and balanced lager pairs effortlessly with lighter food, like chicken, salads, and shellfish. Try pairing it with air fryer garlic shrimp or this cobb salad recipe.
Wild and Sour Beers
Wild and sour beers get their acidity because they’re brewed with “wild” microorganisms to give the brew complexity. One example of this style is the American Sour, which gets its acidity from lactic acid and can range in color and bitterness. You can pair it with a variety of foods, including strongly flavored cheeses and creamy desserts with fruit, like this classic peach cobbler. Another example is the Belgian-Style Flanders, which is known for its lactic sourness. This beer is typically copper to very dark in color and pairs well with dishes like beef carbonnade and pumpkin pie.
Because wheat beers are brewed mostly with wheat they tend to have a creamy and almost tangy flavor that’s not comparable to other beers. There’s a lot of variety within this style because of the different types of yeast that are added. One example is the American Wheat Beer, a light brew that pairs well with a range of food.
Similar to the American Wheat is the German-Style Hefeweizen; it’s one of the most popular beers around and uses a specific type of yeast that gives it a fruity flavor. Then you have the Belgian-Style Witbier. Witbiers are distinct because they’re spiced with coriander and orange peel but are still in the wheat beer family. Generally speaking wheat beers pair well with lighter dishes; try serving them with Caesar salad or this fresh cod recipe that’s served with salsa verde.
Porters are dark in color and have flavors of chocolate, coffee, caramel and nuts. The beer’s rich flavor is best paired with roasted or smoked foods like barbecue, sausages and blackened fish but they also pair well with desserts, like these peanut butter cookies. If you’re serving a Baltic Style Porter (a smooth and boozy beer with malt aromas of licorice and chocolate) try it with this prime rib recipe.
Stouts are very dark beers that often have stronger roasted flavors than porters. Because of their rich, chocolate notes they’re a great beer to pair with dessert. If you’re serving an Imperial Stout, try pairing it with these chocolate truffles. If you’re serving an Oatmeal Stout, which has coffee-like aromas, pair it with these chocolate-espresso pizzelles.
These pairings are great for beginners but if you still feel completely lost, go back to basics with this helpful explainer that answers some common beer questions.