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Savoring the Principles of Craft Beer and Food Pairings

05/10/2013 03:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013
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It's not uncommon to walk into a fine dining establishment and see a wine list as thick as the dictionary, along with suggested food pairings. But it's important to point out that wine isn't the only beverage advancing the food arts world. As demand for craft brewed beer from small and independent brewers continues to grow, so does the desire from beer lovers to have great pairing options and a varied array of selections at these kinds of establishments.

Craft beer and food work just as well, if not better, than food and wine. Crazy? Think again. Because of beer's broad range of flavors, elements, sensations and intensities, it provides both complementary and contrasting interactions that mesh with nearly any kind of food, whereas wine mostly contrasts against food when paired.

But before putting craft beer and food together, it's helpful to keep these basic pairing practices in mind.

  1. Match intensities. As esteemed brewer and author Randy Mosher teaches: "It is simply common sense that delicate dishes work best with delicate beers. It is equally true that strongly flavored foods demand assertive beers. With beer, flavor intensity involves a variety of qualities such as alcoholic strength, malt character, hop bitterness, sweetness, richness and roastiness."
  2. Don't just pair to the protein. That's where wine got in trouble! I like to say pair to the protein, preparation, and ingredients, and take into account what interactions will occur.
  3. Interactions. The interactions between beer and food characteristics are important.
    • Sweet: Since like often calms like, pairing sweet with sweet makes magic happen. Try pairing a sweet Belgian quadruple (often over 10 percent ABV), a seductive, malty Scotch Ale, a roasty Imperial Stout or a burly and bittersweet Barlewyine with a dense, sweet dessert. You'll see how the sweetness of the beer calms the sweetness of the dessert and vice versa. This helps marry the two -- so pairing sweet and sweet is a good thing! Step aside, wine. Chocolate-based sweets, crème brûlée, cakes and cookies have met their match.

    • Salt: Saltiness in food counters (contrasts) acidic flavors in beer. Sour and wild ales become less acidic with salty foods. All beer has some acidity, but some are more sour-centric than others. Higher acidity beer styles include many Wits and Saisons, Berliner Weiss, Gueze, Flanders red & browns, some Old Ales, Fruit Beers, many "wild" or funkified beers plus lots of Barrel Aged Beer. The counter of food's salt to beer's acid then allows other flavors to be noticed.
    • Acidity: Acidity also exists to a certain extent in all food dishes, especially tomato dishes and many salad dressings. When you match acidic food with acidic beer, overall acidity is muted. This is desirable and helps enhance the enjoyment of both the dish and the beer. You may see a pattern here... like calms like! Also, acidic beverages do counter fat, and that helps the palate sense more of the flavors in rich, oily or dense food.
    • Bitter: Craft beer styles are often known for having lots of hop bitterness. Bitterness not only counters the sweetnees of malt and the sweetness of food, but the bitterness of hops also stands up to food's fatty richness. So look out, my lovely, rich and creamy fettuccini. I've got a bitter forward IPA (India Pale Ale) with your name on it. Throw in some parsley, rosemary or other herbs and you get flavor harmonies (complements) in your fettuccini that bridge over to the many herbal notes of different hops.
    • Spice, Herbs and Heat: There are fundamental differences between spices (from roots, flowers, seed, bark, etc.), herbs (from plant leaves) and heat (those additions to food that make your eyes water and your nose run -- think capsaicin from chili peppers and wasabi horseradish). Alcohol is a solvent and thus intensifies heat because it penetrates your tongue and lips, which opens up your taste buds even more. The higher the ABV, the more you'll notice this effect, so be careful when pairing hot food with higher alcohol beverages as the pairing leaves you more vulnerable to intense heat. By the way,the majority of the 142 beer styles that we at the Brewers Association document are about five percent ABV on average. Most wines are 12 percent ABV. That's why many wines pair poorly with today's heat-forward foods. Restrained heat and alcohol are nice and create a warming sensation in the mouth, but too much is like throwing oil on fire, so be careful. Also I have a fun rhyme for you... sweet calms heat. So sweeter craft brewed beers actually calm spicey hot dishes. Another bonus when using craft beer in pairing.

Over at CraftBeer.com we provide a handy chart for putting these practices to work -- from finding the right style of beer for a given food, to serving temperatures and glassware recommendations.

Also, I would be remiss not to mention some of the top places to see -- or should I say taste -- pairings at their finest. In addition to any of the 1,100 local brewpub locations across the U.S. The Monk's Kettle in San Francisco, Publican in Chicago, Public House in Las Vegas and The Kitchen in Boulder and Denver are but a few restaurants on the rapidly expanding list of locations executing world class beer and food pairings.

And once a year, the Brewers Association puts on the benchmark craft beer and food pairing event in the U.S. Now in its sixth year, SAVORSM: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience offers attendees the chance to see how the diverse and versatile styles of craft brewed beer, from 76 small and independent craft brewers, harmonize with food. Breweries contribute to the pairing process along the way, starting at the very beginning by providing flavor profiles of the craft beers they wish to pour. Working together with Adam Dulye, chef/owner of the aforementioned The Monk's Kettle and The Abbot's Cellar in San Francisco, they create pairings that delight the senses by accounting for the characteristics of both the beer and food. SAVOR comes to New York City this summer on June 14 and 15, and in 2014 it returns to Washington, D.C., where it's been held every year since 2008.

And with that my foodie friends, three cheers to craft beer for helping beer finally reclaim its place at the dinner table. Pair on.

Julia Herz is publisher of CraftBeer.com, a Certified Cicerone®, BJCP beer judge, and craft beer program director for the Brewers Association.