For centuries, beer and food have been enjoyed together as part of the good life. The grain based nature of beer makes it a food in itself, and the huge range of flavors, aromas and textures makes it a perfect match for nearly any kind of food, from a handmade sausage to the most luxurious gourmet dish. Choosing beers and foods that enhance one another means paying attention to the gustatory qualities of both.
(American Craft Beer and Food: Perfect Companions; Brewers Association Press)
When pairing beer with food there are a few rules of thumb to help guide you. As you read these remember that most of our beer and food offer many flavor components, some pronounced and some subtle. Many interesting combinations come not just from pairing the strongest flavor/aroma components but in the symbiosis created by nuance. Don’t forget the sides or sauces that come with your food.
The first is to match a strongly flavored dish with an equally strong beer, and a delicate dish with a lighter, more delicate beer. This will help both to shine, instead of one being overwhelmed by the other. In most cases balance of flavor will be your friend.
Another element to help guide you is to match complimentary flavors. With beer and food sharing so many flavors it is easy to find a match. From honey in both beer and food, to fruity esters in a beer matched with a fruity dish, to roasted malt with roasted meat, there is sure to be a pairing for everyone.
On the other end of the spectrum are contrasting flavors. Sweet with sour/bitter is the classic example, regardless of which one comes from the food and which comes from the beer. But don’t forget salty with sweet (floral, fruity) or acidity, sweet with astringency (dark roasted malts, for example)… the list goes on.
Mouthfeel can also be a big part of this, including the ability of carbonation and alcohol to cut through fats such as in cheese. Or the way hop bitterness emphasizes heat in a spicy dish.
Remember, these are all guidelines. There is only one true rule, true of all food and beer, alone or paired together: Find what you like, not what someone tells you that you should like. And once you find it, enjoy it while continuing your search for the next great experience.