One of the more common things I get asked about is beer and food pairings. While it's true that not every food goes with every beer, it isn't as though you're presented with a secret clipboard upon completion of the Cicerone exam that details the perfect beer for every food. Individual tastes matter even more in pairing food and beer than they do in simply selecting beers you like - and there, people already act as though you've insulted their mother if you tell them that a certain beer is flawed or isn't generally very good. Can you imagine trying to convince someone that their favorite beer doesn't pair well with bacon?
In short, I'm afraid that if you ask me about food-beer pairings, there's going to be a lot of me shrugging and telling you to "figure it out for yourself." I mean, I'll answer the question, too, but it's going to come with a massive caveat of "this is why I think this is good, but you're going to need to try it first."
What I AM more than willing to do, though, is share a methodology for doing it, and (see the picture above) a vehicle for testing out your pairings.
Test Driving Your Pairing
You don't go into battle with an untested rifle - the great military historian and scholar Michael Douglas taught us ALL that lesson in "The Ghost and the Darkness." The lesson applies here, too. Before you go planning a beer dinner or pairing event, take the time to work out some good combinations: rules of thumb for flavors and approaches that help you scale up your preferences.
For this, we have an outstanding tool: the seasoned snack.
Chips are my favorite. They come in every kind of flavor, seasoning, and configuration these days. And I was offered a perfect opportunity to highlight their utility as a pairing tool when I was very kindly shipped a box with four bags of kettle chips from Neal Brothers (my blog yields effectively no revenue, but it yields free chips - that's a massive win, in my book).
The staggering advantage that a lot of people overlook here is that all you're doing in pairing is pairing flavors - not dishes or meals or entire beers. Flavors. So why not use something small, with frank and obvious flavors, to test drive your pairing?
Thinking About Pairing
You can write entire books about food pairings (and many have), but as a starting point, you're doing one of two things: amplifying or complementing.
- Amplifying is effectively just mimicking the flavors of one thing in the other - so, drinking a Belgian Dubbel with a baked spiced honey ham, since both have burnt sugar and clove flavors.
- Complementing is using offset flavors to yield contrasting (or even synergistic) results when two individual flavors come together - like drinking a NE IPA with a fennel salad, since citrus and anise are a classic complementary flavor pairing.
The other element isn't direction, but magnitude of the flavors: loud or soft?
- Loud are assertive, obvious flavors - like bitterness in a DIPA or fresh-ground pepper on a steak.
- Soft are secondary or tertiary flavors - like tartness in a Kolsch or piquant flavors in Gouda cheese.
Make some decisions - then try them out on things that exhibit those flavors! Once you have a basic pairing toolkit and some experience, the whole thing gets a lot easier, and as your experience builds so will your confidence and accuracy.
Putting this into a practical context, let's think about our four bags of Neal Brothers chips. They're all kettle chips, so they'll have a baseline level of fat and starch content. After that, things get weird (in a good way):
Pink Himalayan Sea Salt: The touch of salt pairs very well with a grainy-sweet and slightly-fruity Kolsch, and the subtle flavors of each aren't overwhelmed.
Spicy Srirachup: These were a big hit at an Oktoberfest party I brought them to - the rich, bready, caramel notes from the beer contrasted very well with the bright and spicy Sriracha notes.
Maple Bacon: The maple was surprisingly sweet here, and ended up being a great pairing with an English Bitter. The flinty, bitter beer and the sweet maple made for a great complementary pairing, and the bacon was a good fit for the earthier notes in the beer. A great autumn pairing!
Montreal Steak Spice: Surprisingly intense, these took a strong beer to balance them out: luckily, I had one on hand. Pair them with a Baltic Porter and you'll find the chocolate and pepper balancing each other quite well, with the warm alcohols being offset by the touch of citrus and salt. It was practically a meal.
The best part is that trying out pairing like this is fast and easy. No need to pre-make the meal. Just give yourself some good, basic flavor reference points.
Keep it simple.