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The Art of Pairing: Beer & Food Matches To Try This Spring

Beer VS. Wine?

I get it, the idea of food and beverage pairing can be daunting. With so many cuisines, spices, cooking shows, and doughnut shops at arms reach in this day and age the idea of trying to find the “perfect pairing” to go with your meal can be scary. Luckily you’ve got your old pal, beer! 

At the end of the day, beer is a forgiving pairing partner and with the incredible array of textures, flavours, and styles available today, you’re practically guaranteed to find a perfect match for any type of food!

What makes beer pairing so versatile? Let’s look at the elements of beer, part by part.

Malt: Malt in beer can span a wide range of aromas and flavours. Through various types of malt, you can get light, bready flavours of fresh dough, water crackers, wheaty spice, and freshly baked bread. More developed malts offer notes of honey, lightly toasted bread, nuttiness, and some light, caramelized sugars. Deeper still, you’re getting into brown bread, molasses, chocolate, and coffee. And, that’s just a taste of the flavours you can get from malt. 

Hops: If malt is the bass, hops are the treble. Hops can provide an array of bright aromas and flavours. Continental European hops have notes of cracked pepper, flowers, herbal tones, and spices. English hops are super floral, woodsy, musky, and earthy. American hop varieties have loads of pine resin, citrus juice, orange zest, and a certain “dank” quality. New Zealand/Australian hops are relatively new to the scene, but contribute extreme notes of tropical fruit – think mango, pineapple, white grape, and lemon/lime! 

Yeast and Mouthfeel: Next, the flavours produced by yeasts fill in all the gaps, sometimes fruity from esters or spicy from phenols. These all play a part in contributing to the overall impression of a beer when you smell it and that also carry over to the palate.

That’s where mouthfeel comes into play.  Mouthfeel is the last stop on our journey to understanding the different flavour components in beer that will ultimately help you in matching the flavours in foods. Firstly, there is carbonation. It can be low and mellow like a British Cask Ale, with just a little prickle, or it can be effervescent and lively like a German Wheat beer or a Belgian Saison. Alcohol can either increase sensations of spice or add richness to the texture.

Lastly, bitterness really helps cut the fattiness of foods like burgers and fried pub fare. 

A Couple Guidelines

Now that you’ve got your flavours and textures down, here are a few “rules” to help you when you’re standing in front of the beer shelf, wondering to have with your food. 

1) Match. Say you’ve got a heavy dish- you can decide to either complement or contrast the flavours in that dish. A complementary pairing, means pairing a rich, heavy beer to further add to the intensity of the meal. Alternatively, a contrasting pairing would see you opting for a refreshing, probably high carbonation, style to wipe the richness away from your palate and re-setting it for the next bite.

2) Balance. Try to match the intensity of the food and the beer the best you can. For example: you probably don’t want a rich Imperial Stout with delicate sushi, unless you don’t want to taste the sushi at all. On the flip side, if you’re eating a very rich beef stew, having a light and crisp lager would clean off your palate but you’re certainly not tasting much of the beer itself. 

3) Alcohol. Lastly, try to remember that while hoppy beers do indeed pair greatly with spicy foods like curry or Thai dishes, alcohol can often play up the intensity of spice. So, I find that something like a dry-hopped session IPA would be the better pairing over something like a stronger IPA or DIPA.   

Let’s Eat!

So how does this all come together? Here a few common pairings and some of the possibilities!

Let’s take a summertime burger grill out. You’ve got a lot of salty, fatty, crunchy, meaty, and maillard (think golden-brown taste of french fries or seared meat) flavours going on here. So, the complimentary pairing would look to build on those caramelized, meaty flavours – I’d go with something like Propeller’s English-style ESB that has those caramelized, toasty flavours and just enough carbonation to keep everything in check. Or, to contrast, I would go for a classic Belgian Saison like Dupont, with lightly caramelized malt flavours like honey and toasted bread, but more importantly – firm bitterness and very high carbonation to completely wipe away all of the heaviness and fat from the burger. 

Next up, a lovely fresh summer salad with a snappy vinaigrette. A classic pairing would be a crisp, fresh Pilsner like Weissenhoe – the body is light enough so it won’t overpower the leafy greens and the noble hops give a peppery, floral spice. Or be more adventurous and grab a zingy fruited or dry-hopped sour beer like Big Spruce Silver Tart, or Tata’s Jitney –  the light body won’t overpower and the zippy lactic acidity will pickup on the vinaigrette and enhance the vibrancy. Bonus points if the fruit in the beer matches a fruited salad dressing!

Finally, let’s think about pizza. To me, pizza and wine seems so uptight. So, why not try out a fresh, clean pale ale like our favourite from Great Lakes. With a nice light body and just a subtle hint of citrus hops, this style will clean off your palate and keep you refreshed even if you’re on your 5th slice of pizza. Alternatively, go with something more complex like a Belgian-style Witbier (like our new one from Indie Alehouse in Toronto) for super zippy carbonation plus a hint of orange peel and coriander that will pickup on some of the more interesting notes that can be found on a wood-fired pizza. 

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