Beer and Food Pairings: The Ultimate Guide!

Beer and food, it’s been a mainstay for the average American for years. Weekend BBQ and beer, what could be better? What about a hot steaming bowl of Texas Red Chili with an ice-cold Mexican-style Cerveza?

There are many other beer pairings with regional foods in other parts of the country and other parts of the world too. In the UK spicy food like curry is nearly always accompanied by pints of extra cold pale lagers and ales.

In New York, Head Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park even commissioned a series of incredible barrel-aged brews from the local Brooklyn Brewery to complement his tasting menu.

Other pubs/restaurants are copying suit all over the country. The Publican in Chicago pairs Haute-hippie cuisine with rare beer offerings from Belgium, the US, and England.

Pairing beer and food is a hot topic in gastronomic circles these days. Everyone knows a little about food and wine pairings, such as: “red wine goes with red meat” and “white wine goes with fish” but what are the rules for beer?

The Basic Rules of Pairing Food With Beer vs Wine

burger and fries on the plate against the glass of beer
Photo by Edward Franklin on Unsplash

To understand the connection between beer and food pairings you must understand the basic difference between the two major types of beer.

Ales are fermented at warm temperatures and feature fruity aromas and flavors with a rich maltiness.

Lagers on the other hand are fermented at much cooler temperatures and display crisp, clean, and refreshing flavors.

The round rich mouthfeel and fruity flavors and aromas of ales compare well with a full-bodied red wine such as a Cabernet, Merlot, or Côte de Rhone.

The dry finish and light clean character of light lagers equate with the same characteristics of a crisp, dry white wine like a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So, instead of pairing a Chardonnay with seafood, why not select a lightly hopped lager instead?

Or, when ordering a rich hearty steak, why not pair it with a nice amber ale or porter?

Unfortunately with so many different beer styles, it’s not quite as simple as “red for meats and white for chicken or fish” as it is with wine.

The table below looks at 10 of our favorite types of beer and what food goes well with each.

Blonde AleLighter foods such as chicken, salads, salmon, bratwurst, and Monterey Jack Cheese.
British Style BitterA wide variety of foods. Roast chicken, roast pork, fish & chips, and cheeses like a sharp Cheddar.
IPAStrong, spicy foods like curries.
Imperial IPA/Double IPASmoked beef brisket, grilled lamb, roasted pork, Southern chicken-fried steak.
Amber/Red AlesWide range of foods including chicken, seafood, and burgers. Also great with spicy foods.
PorterRoasted or smoked foods such as barbecued sausages, roasted meats, and blackened fish.
Sweet or Oatmeal StoutsBold foods like barbecued beef, Mexican mole, or hearty Szechuan dishes.
Pilsner Style LagersIdeal for light foods like chicken, salads, and salmon. The bitterness of some is suited well for spicy Mexican or Indian foods.
HefeweizenGood with lighter foods such as sushi, salads, and seafood, and classic with Weisswurst.
WitbierGood for lighter seafood dishes and a must with steamed mussels.

The Hop Flavors in Beer and Food Pairing

One fundamental rule when pairing beer and food is that the hops used for bittering beer equate with the acidity in wines.

When a meal calls for a wine with a lot of acidity, such as the spicy flavors of Szechuan dishes, or with salty and fatty foods, substitute lagers or ales with a lot of hop bitterness to cut the spice, salt, or fat in the dish.

Many beers such as Bohemian Pilsners use the spicy hop called Saaz for flavor and bittering. Why not pair the spicy notes from the Saaz hops with the spiciness in most Asian dishes?

When ordering a seafood alfredo, the fat and oils in the cream sauce need a palate cleanser to get rid of the buttery sauce coating the mouth. A nice IPA or hoppy pale ale works perfectly with oily foods. The hoppy beer cuts through the spice and grease and cleanses the palate, enhancing the next bite.

The cool and refreshing flavor of a hoppy beer can also be used to wash down the heat of a Korean fried chicken or similar Asian-inspired dish.

Complementary Flavors of Delicious Beer With Food

fried chicken and beer on the wooden table
Photo by Tim Toomey on Unsplash

When complementing beer with food, look for similar characteristics. Match rich foods with beers that have a heavy and rich flavor, like a stout or a porter. Pair light-tasting salads or fish with light beers or pale ales and wheat beers with desserts.

A dark malty beer like a porter or amber ale enhances the charred caramelization of a nice grilled steak. When complementing a dish, the idea is to enrich the defining characteristics of the food with similar characteristics of the beer.

Be careful not to overpower your food though with a too-heavy beer. Many of the medium and dark beers will have a rich and powerful malty flavor that can often overpower the taste of certain foods.

You wouldn’t want to serve a salmon with a pint of Guinness for example as the strong flavor of the stout would completely dominate the delicate flavors of the fish. By comparison, oysters have a strong briny flavor which can easily stand up to the richer texture of a stout and the notes of chocolate.

Another popular pairing is the chocolate and nutty flavors and aromas in a stout with just about any rich chocolate dessert. Learn more about beer and chocolate here.

Another method of pairing beer and food is to contrast the flavors of one with the other. You may have heard about pairing stout and oysters, but what about pairing a lighter beer with spicy Mexican dishes like enchiladas?

The beer loses itself in the combination, but provides a refreshing and moderating effect on the palate.

Cooking With Beer

I love to cook, maybe that’s one reason I love to homebrew so much. As a frequent visitor to Texas, you know I love beer and BBQ. But, being the experimenter that I am, I like to incorporate my homebrew and other great commercial beers into my everyday cooking. Sometimes it works and my wife loves it too, and sometimes it doesn’t and only I love it.

Beer can substitute for just about any liquid in food and it will infuse your culinary creations with flavors you’ve never imagined! Unless you travel to countries like Germany, which have always had a tradition of cooking with beer.

While the French make a classic Coq au Vin (Chicken in wine) or Boeuf Bourginion (beef in red wine casserole), the beer lovers in England make concoctions such as beef & ale stew or beef and ale pie. Darker beers can add that extra warmth and body to any casserole on a cold winter’s night. There’s also that old classic of beer-battered fish & chips we have the Brits to thank for.

There’s even the old tradition of a carpetbagger steak which uses a steak stuffed with oysters in a stout sauce.

Sour beers can often be used to make a sweet and sour sauce for grilled meats like pork chops, while more bitter beers counteract the sweetness of meats like lamb.

Dark lagers make excellent marinades for smoked and BBQ meats.

If you’ve only enjoyed a light beer with your meal, you are in for a treat. There are myriad combinations of beers that match well with some of your favorite foods.

Pairing Beer and Food Belgian Style

When pairing food and beer, why not think as the Belgians do? They are not afraid of experimenting when brewing or cooking with beer.

If you are new to the idea of pairing food and beer and have always drank wine instead, here’s an idea. Try a bold beer like a Flemish Red Ale such as Duchesse du Bourgogne with your next Rib Eye. It’s a sweet, fruity ale with a nice sour finish and is a great introduction to pairing food and beer.

A traditional Flemish dish that uses a Kriek-style beer is a Preskop of rabbit and prunes. While a bold beer like a Vedett IPA has been known to be used in a Belgian version of a Thai green curry.

Beer and Dessert – The Sweeter Flavors

As we have already seen, some of the darker beers are the perfect complement to sweet desserts.

The chocolate notes of a stout can work perfectly with a sweet chocolate dessert., while the wheat flavor of some wheat beers will work well with baked goods like brioche or a cinnamon tart.

Beer doesn’t always need to mix with savory foods but can also go well with refreshing fruity or sweet dishes. Many a good chocolate cake or brownie recipe will often use a dark beer or stout in the batter.

Even a fresh fruit salad with exotic fruits will benefit from the hoppy aroma and taste of an IPA. The bitterness helps to counterbalance the sweetness of the fruit.

Beer and Food – A Pairing Made in Heaven

Although wine has traditionally been seen as the accompaniment to a fine meal, the craft beer revolution has meant more and more people are now pairing beers with their foods.

Restaurants that traditionally offered wine and food tasting menus are now offering similar beer pairings.

Beer is certainly more food-friendly than wine with more room for a variety of flavors. After all, most winemakers only have one key ingredient to play with – grapes.

Beer in comparison uses malts like barley which add sweetness, hops for that bitterness and palate-cleansing quality, yeast which adds a bread quality, and other added bonus flavors of spices, nuts, chocolate, and fruit and vegetables. Beer could almost be a meal in itself!

Next time you are hosting a dinner party, why not offer your guests a selection of beers to try with each course? Pairing food and beer is all about trial and error.

Hopefully, I have given you a few hints in this article, but try looking at the menu next time you are in your favorite gastro pub and think what type of beer would go well with each food. You may be surprised at some of the combinations!

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