Lagers and Porters and Ales, Oh My! – Pairing Beer with Food

Yes, I realize this is a wine blog, but from time I’ll be writing about other beverages as it is a good sommelier’s job to be familiar with all drinks and how they interact with food.  Recently, I’ve been doing some experimenting with beer and food pairings, so I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you.  There are many beers to chose from so hopefully this will be of some help.

You’ve got your non-wine-drinking friends coming over for dinner so you decide to go to the local LCBO to pick up a beer to go with that special recipe you’re going to whip together.  You walk up to the beer section and…Oh My!  It seems like there are hundreds to choose from.  You start reading labels- pilsner, nut brown ale, best bitter, wheat beer, stout, porter – the words go blurry.  You take a step back, your head starts to spin, your pulse races, you start to sweat….

Okay, maybe it isn’t that bad, but trying to choose from the myriad of beers available on the market can be as daunting as choosing a wine from the forty page wine list at a snooty restaurant.  It can be very intimidating to say the least.

Beer, like wine, can be a harmonious marriage with food.  Sure, we always associate beer with pizza and wings, but few people realize that beer can also be paired with more luxurious gourmet dishes.  It is possible to successfully pair a beer with each course of that fancy dinner party you’ve been planning.  I’m sure your guests, even the wine lovers, will be astounded by your creativity.  Bt, before you take on this exciting challenge, you’ll need to know a little about beer and what to consider when creating the perfect match.

Beer is essentially made with four basic ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water.  Sounds simple, right?  Wrong.  The brewmaster must decide on the types of barley, yeast, and hops that all impart different aromas and flavours to the beer.  The choice of malt is also a critical decision.  Malt is barley seeds that have germinated and then been roasted in a kiln.  This process softens the starch in the seed and produces an enzyme that will convert the starch to sugar.  (Yeast then metabolizes the sugar, converting it to alcohol.)  It is the colour of the malt that gives the beer its colour and also contributes to its flavour.  There are a range of malts from light malts to very dark malts.  The lighter malts contribute bready and honey flavours while the darker malts give nutty, toasty, even caramel flavours.  Think of how different roasts of coffee beans make different styles of coffee.

All beers are either lagers or ales.  It’s the type of yeast used during the fermenting process that determines if the beer will be a lager or an ale.  Ales use top-fermenting yeasts that require warmer temperatures and lagers use bottom-fermenting that prefer cooler temperatures.  The warmer fermenting temperatures of ales produce rounder, fruitier flavours, while the cooler fermenting temperatures of lagers create a crisper, cleaner taste.  Think of full-bodied, fruit-driven wines that come from such warm climates as California and Australia compared to the crisper, minerally wines that hail from the cool climate regions of Ontario and Germany.

Then there are the hops.  Hops are like the spice of the recipe.  Many believe that hops are a type of grain.  It is actually a flower.  This amazing flower has many beneficial attributes.  Not only does it act as a preservative for the beer, but it also imparts a range of flavours and aromas from floral to fruity to grassy to woodsy to earthy.  It is the hops that contribute to the bitterness of a beer.  Bitterness in a beer is essential as it balances the sweetness of the malt.  Without hops, beer would taste very sweet and almost cloying.

Within the two categories of ales and lagers are a number of different styles of beer.  Brown ales, India pale ales, cream ales, best bitters, wheat beers, porters, and stouts are all ales.   Pilsners, dunkels, and exports are all lagers.   The recipes used in the brewing process are what create the different styles of beer.

When pairing beer to food, take into account the dominant flavour characteristics of the beer, complementing and contrasting them to the flavours and attributes of the food.  Is the beer hoppy, floral, fruity, or smoky?  Does it have aromas and flavours of caramel and chocolate?  It is dry or does it have a little sweetness to it?  How was the food prepared?  What herbs and spices were used?  Is the food sweet, acidic, or savoury?  Generally speaking, choose a lager for dishes that you would normally pair a white wine with and choose an ale when you would normally pick a red wine.  The crisp, clean flavours of a lager complement lighter seafood and poultry dishes.  The rounder, more robust ales are a good match with heartier dishes.  But, don’t be fooled into thinking that all lagers are light and mild and all ales are stronger and more powerful.  There are some lighter ales that go beautifully with seafood, and there are some robust lagers that have what it takes to cut through some of the heaviness of a meat-based sauce.

Think of the hoppiness of the beer as equal to the acidity in a wine.  Dishes that require a wine with crisp acidity would pair well with a hoppy beer.  The more acidic you would want the wine, the hoppier the beer should be.  Hoppiness in a beer can also be likened to tannins in a red wine.  Just as tannins can cut through protein and fat, a well-hopped beer can easily slice through a medium-rare steak, refreshing your palate and leave you wanting more.

Beer can be a superb partner to dessert.  Some would argue that it is an even better match than sweet wines.  I tend to agree with them.  It is true that it is very difficult to find a wine that will be a harmonious match to a chocolate dessert.  There are many beers however, typically the dark-coloured ones, that share similar flavours with chocolate, making them the perfect pairing.  Unlike wine, it is not necessary for the beer to be as sweet as the dessert.  Beer has bitterness which allows it to cut through sugar in a way similar to that of a sip of dark-roasted coffee.

Yes, there are hundreds of beers to choose from but that means there is the  perfect beer out there to match each dish on the menu.  The most important thing to remember when creating food and beer pairings is to experiment and don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous.  Who knows what unusual combinations will turn out to be a hit at your table?  Look at the classic pairing of stout with raw oysters.  Who would have thought of that one?  You may have a few misses when starting out, but who cares?  It’s all in delicious, good fun!

Leave me a comment and let me know if you have had any incredible beer and food epiphanies.

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