Written by RJ Firchau
Thanks to the snobbery of wine “experts”, the mere idea of pairing specific alcoholic drinks with particular foods induces a fair amount of eye-rolling. But unlike wine, the difference in the taste between different beer varieties is not elusive or subtle — and many great chefs have taken this to heart. It’s no longer uncommon to see a tequila pairing menu, an apertif and dessert pairing, or a beer recommendation under every entree. Wine expertise is no longer the was the pinnacle of culinary prowess. Want to prove yourself as a true food savant? Learn to pair the right brew with your grub.
Some of you might think of beer as, simply, your beverage of choice at parties, or the pastime best associated with Sunday night football. Honestly, that seems like a missed opportunity. You already know you love beer, and you definitely enjoy food (who doesn’t?), so coming up with creative pairings seems like a necessary next step to enhance your appreciation for that ice-cold cerveza. Below, we give you an overview of each of the main styles of beer, their flavor profiles, and what they might pair best with, food-wise. However, as a caveat, you should know that there are always exceptions when it comes to pairing food with liquor. With all of the available beer on the market these days, one IPA, for example, is going to be far-off from the next in terms of taste (say, Stone IPA versus a Green Flash Le Freak). In addition to there being a huge selection of offerings in any one category of beer, the taste of beer itself is also subjective, and something that tastes good to you might not work out so well for the next guy. So, take these pairings with a grain of salt (or, a squeeze of lime), and let them guide your beer and food exploration. Cheers, gents.
Such As: American lager, German helles, German pilsner, Czech pilsner
Flavor Profiles: Pale lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeast that is more fragile than the yeast used to make most other beers, and therefore needs to ferment more slowly. This process produces a beer that is normally light in color, bright and light in flavor, and normally light to medium in terms of hops. Lagers are best served cold and should taste dry, flowery, and mildly caramel-y in sweetness.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, spicy food, light seafood, salads, sushi, roast chicken, brie
Why? When pairing with pale lagers, you want to either choose a dish that’s either rich and bold, or nice and light. Bold dishes, like spicy food, American food, or herby chicken, pair nicely with pale lagers because they are crisp and light, allowing for a nice palate-cleansing contrast. The lightness in this beer also pairs well with lighter meals like fish or citrus for a more complementary approach.
Try This: Herb-crusted salmon with lemon
Such As: Amber lager, Oktoberfest, Schwarzbier, Vienna lager
Flavor Profiles: Amber or dark in color with prevalent flavors of rich, smooth sweetness, subtle malt and hops, and a pleasant, slightly sweet aroma. Some variations, like Oktoberfest and Guinness, might even boast toasty notes of coffee, chocolate, or spice.
Pairs Best With: German cuisine, spicy food, red meat, Mexican food, muenster cheese
Why? Dark lagers and German food go hand-in-hand. Further, the complex, rich, slightly spiced quality of a dark lager lends itself nicely to the flavor profiles of spicy food, Mexican cuisine, and hearty red meat dishes.
Try This: Bratwurst and sauerkraut
Such As: Traditional, Doppelbock, Weizenbock, Maibock
Flavor Profiles: Bocks start to enter slightly higher alcohol content. Traditional and Doppelbocks are full-bodied, darker lagers, whereas Weizenbock and Maibock are on the paler side and present notes of fruit, malt, and wheat.
Pairs Best With: German cuisine, red meat, shellfish (Maibock), Camembert cheese
Why? The old saying for wine and food pairings goes, “if it grows together, it goes together.” The same can be said for beer. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of beers in the last few examples have German/European roots, and German food pairs exceptionally well in this arena. German bocks, therefore, pair fantastically with a plate of sausages, spaetzel, or Bavarian pretzels. The rich, dark, malty flavor profile of Bocks also play well with rich meats, like ham, pork, and beef. Finally, for a nice touch of contrast, a light cheese like Camembert is amplified by the dark, malty flavor of a Bock.
Try This: Camembert and crackers
Such As: American brown ale, English brown ale
Flavor Profiles: Unlike lagers, in which the fermented yeast settles at the bottom, the yeast used in ales ferments throughout the liquid and settles at the top. This suggests the yeast’s higher tolerance to alcohol. Most brown ales are relatively dark, smooth beers with a caramel-y color, sweet aroma, and a full-bodied flavor profile.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, heavy meat-based dishes like stew and corned beef, gouda cheese
Why? The dark, full-bodied profile of brown ales needs to be paired with dishes that can stand up to their complexity. Stews and red meat dishes are on the same playing field as brown ales and will enhance each other’s rich flavors nicely.
Try This: Roast pork
Such As: Amber ale, American pale ale, blonde
Flavor Profiles: Pale ales are light and golden in color. They often possess either a notable hoppy or bitter flavor and are usually on the lower end of the alcohol content spectrum.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, English cuisine, and fried foods
Why? American and English beers pair nicely with the foods of their respective motherlands if you will. And, the richness of fried food is nicely offset by the refreshing, slightly bitter quality of a pale ale.
Try This: Burger and fries
India Pale Ales
Such As: American IPA, imperial/double IPA, English IPA
Flavor Profiles: American and Imperial IPAs feature a strong, pronounced hoppy flavor, complemented by herbal or citrusy notes. Bitterness is a key profile for an IPA. However, English IPAs are often milder in bitterness and alcohol content than American IPAs.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, Indian cuisine, gorgonzola cheese, sweet, rich desserts
Why? It is said that IPAs pair well with Indian food because they can stand up to the depth and complexity found in that kind of cuisine. Additionally, and which might come as a surprise to you, IPAs also pair well with rich, sweet desserts like cake or pie. The thick, rich taste of a sweet dessert helps take the edge off of the bitterness of an IPA, leaving you with a well-rounded flavor experience.
Try This: Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
Such As: American imperial porter, English brown porter, robust porter
Flavor Profiles: Porters are a rich, chocolatey brown in color and malty in sweetness. The alcohol content can vary, but most porters feature a flavor profile along the lines of caramel, coffee, or chocolate.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, English cuisine, heavy dishes (roasts, BBQ, smoked meats, stews, and cream-based meals), chocolate, peanut butter, and fontina cheese.
Why? Porter demands a food pairing that is robust and can stand up it in terms of flavor. Anything less distinctive would simply get washed out and seem unpalatable when paired with a porter.
Try This: BBQ ribs
Such As: American stout, imperial stout, oatmeal stout, milk stout, Irish dry stout
Flavor Profiles: Stouts are very dark in color, and possess a strong malted flavor, sans hops. Some stouts give off a strong taste and smell of chocolate or coffee. Oatmeal stouts and milk stouts are distinctively sweet and smooth, thanks to the use of actual oatmeal and lactose sugar. Finally, Irish stouts are smooth, yet bitter, thanks to the addition of roasted barley.
Pairs Best With: Heavy dishes, oysters, Mexican cuisine, beef, and aged cheeses.
Why? Bold, dark beers require strong, rich food pairings. The fat and flavor in heavy dishes and things like oysters and cheese stand up well to stouts, without overpowering them.
Try This: Beef stew
Such As: Belgian pale ale, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel, Belgian strong dark ale, saison
Flavor Profiles: Belgian style beers are fairly rich and malty. They are on the higher end of the alcohol spectrum and usually offer complex, fruity and earthy flavors. Some Belgian style beers are slightly more hoppy and bitter, like Tripels and Saisons.
Pairs Best With: American cuisine, poultry, pasta dishes, BBQ, pesto, spicy foods, and tangy
Why? Rich, herby dishes paired with a carbonated, slightly bitter Belgian style beer offer a nice palate-cleansing contrast. The high-alcohol content and carbonation of a Belgian style beer tackles rich dishes without overwhelming your taste buds. Belgian style beers also go well with spicy foods, but only if they’re on the lower end of the alcohol spectrum (thing 7% and less).
Try This: Pesto pizza with shrimp
Such As: American pale wheat, witbier, Berliner Weisse, Dunkelweizen, Hefeweizen
Flavor Profiles: Wheat beers are often light in color, with a light, sometimes fruity taste. Some wheat beers, like the Berliner Weisse, are slightly sour, too.
Pairs Best With: German cuisine, Mexican cuisine, seafood, poultry, vinegar, salads, and soft cheeses.
Why? Most wheat beers pair well with salads, poultry, and seafood because they’re light, fruity, and refreshing. German wheat beers have a slight banana/lemon flavor to them and are light yet full-bodied enough to stand up to German and Mexican cuisine quite nicely.
Try This: Salad with vinaigrette
Lambics + Sours
Such As: American sours, Belgian lambics, Flanders red ale, Belgian Gueuze
Flavor Profiles: Sours are made through ‘spontaneous fermentation,’ or rather when beer is exposed to wild bacteria and yeast. Sours, while not easy to make, are amazing canvases for experimenting with flavor and degrees of sourness. They can range from slightly sour to intensely punchy, and will often feature fruity or floral notes. Additionally, sours can range from being mild in alcohol to extremely strong.
Pairs Best With: Fruit, salads, and strong cheeses.
Why? Sours and lambics are best paired with light, fruity dishes, like salads or fruit. Alternatively, for a stark contrast, you could pair a sour with a strong cheese to offset one another.
Try This: Fruit tart
Such As: American barleywine, English barleywine
Flavor Profiles: Barleywines, though definitely not wine, offer a distinctive strength and complexity, both in terms of flavor and sheer alcohol content. Barleywines possess a high level of malt and sweetness, with a strong dose of hops to keep things balanced. American barleywine is on the hoppier side of the spectrum, whereas English barleywine is a bit more mellow. Most barleywines will feature flavor notes like caramel, molasses, and toffee.
Pairs Best With: Rich desserts, Stilton cheese.
Why? The most classic pairing for barleywine is Stilton cheese. The pungent flavor of the cheese stands up well to the alcoholic twinge of barleywine without being overbearing. Sweet, rich desserts also work to take the edge off barleywine, which can sometimes be overwhelming by itself.
Try This: Creme brulee
If this is all a little overwhelming for you, here are some parting rules to help guide your food and beer pairing exploits:
- If it grows together, it goes together (Thinking of sipping on a Weizenbock? Grab a bratwurst. Are you more of an IPA kind of guy? Go for the cheeseburger).
- The higher the alcohol content, the more rich, and less spicy your meal should be. If you were to pair a high alcohol beer with a spicy meal, heat amplifies heat, and your palate wouldn’t be able to catch a break.
- When in doubt, aim to complement. Light beers with light foods, rich beers with rich foods, and so on.
There’s nothing like washing down cold ones amongst good friends on game day. Now, let’s talk finger food. Read next: Easy Appetizers for Your Game Day Party