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What's Up Magazine

Food and Beer

Nov 10, 2010 10:38PM ● By Anonymous

“It is a natural evolution,” says Andrew Myers, sommelier of CityZen, an award-winning restaurant in Washington, D.C. that offers beer and cheese pairings. “We are at least 20 years into the craft beer revolution and people are moving away from cheap, bad, American lagers. It’s no longer considered weird or snobby to drink a high-end beer.”

Myers, who spends much of his day with wine, attended a beer and cheese pairing given by Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster’s Table. “I thought it was incredible,” says Myers. “I came back to try something similar at CityZen.” After an in-house trial-and-error pairing session, there were some favorite results. Myers pairs citrusy Belgian White beers with younger goat cheeses. He likes nutty, salty, and harder cheeses like Cheddar and Gouda with Chambly Noire, a black ale brewed in Quebec. Strong blue cheeses like Stilton served with Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (North Coast Brewing Company) are described by Myers as “the best pairings I’ve ever had.” He suggests lighter beer with lighter cheese and heavier beer with heavier cheese.

Certainly having a beer with food is not new, but Americans seem to be discovering the diversity and nuances of beer styles and are coupling brews with everything from spicy Thai cuisine to a chocolate tart (yes, beer is great with dessert because it cuts the sweetness). The creative art of pairing has been a longtime Belgian tradition. About the size of Maryland, Belgium offers the largest variety of beer styles in the world and has an interest in finding the perfect match between beer and food, a science termed “Cuisine à la Biere.”

But if you are not privy to Belgian culture, how do you happily marry food and beer? “With pairing, there is one golden rule,” says Marc Stroobandt, Master Beer Sommelier and Belgian Beer Ambassador with the F&B Partnership in the United Kingdom. “There is no golden rule, so don’t over complicate it.” To get satisfactory results with pairing, Stroobandt says, “Take time to taste your beer. Beer is not simple—there are more flavor aspects than wine. You must also understand the ingredients in your dish.”

When tasting beer, notice aroma, body, color, foam, and flavor. Does it smell fruity, herbal, or toasty? Does it taste sweet, tart, spicy, or malty? “Don’t be afraid to smell, swirl, sip, and slurp,” says Stroobandt. “It will help you taste flavor patterns. And unlike wine, do not spit your beer when tasting or you will lose flavor.” Most beer contains hops, yeast, water, and grain. Fruits, herbs, spices, and wild yeast can be added. It is the brewer’s variation of these ingredients which create the multitude of styles and that you will want to distinguish.

Some say that ales best complement red meat and that lagers best complement white meat, but if you stick to this rule, you will miss out on many other beer styles. Stroobandt’s pairing suggestions are more expansive, focusing on balance and harmony.

Begin by identifying the dominant characteristic of the food and the beer. You will want to match your beer to the strongest flavors on the plate. This will usually be a sauce or style of preparation. In other words, broiled fish will be less dominant than blackened fish. Consider sweetness, bitterness, spiciness, and richness.

Once the flavors are identified, one can complement or contrast the beer with the food. For instance, with its soft body and citrusy finish, Hoegaarden, a Belgian White, complements light salads and seafood. The citrus notes in the food are echoed in the flavors found in Hoegaarden. For contrast, Stella Artois, a classic Belgian lager with a brewing tradition dating back to 1366, is characterized by mild earthy malt and spicy hops. This makes it a good contrast for a creamy pasta dish such as fettuccini Alfredo or ribs with a sweet-based barbeque sauce.

If it seems to you as though a glass of beer can delight the palate as well as or even better than a glass of wine, you might be right. This subject is popular for debate. In He Said Beer, She Said Wine by Marnie Old and Sam Calagione, the authors (a wine expert and a beer expert) champion their favorite beverage through food pairing. There is no clear winner in the challenge and the choice seems up to the drinker’s preference.

“Beer is fun and easier to approach,” says Marc Stroobandt. “It’s a social drink to share with friends and family. But beer doesn’t take away from the wine experience, it adds to it.” So when you are contemplating the best wine for meals…consider beer. “I can’t live on wine alone,” confesses Myers. “Sometimes I need a good beer.”

More: Pour the perfect pint with the Belgian Beer-Pouring Ritual

Lynn Schwartz is an award-winning writer and restaurateur who teaches fiction at St. John’s College and Life Story writing at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. She is the show manager for The Food & Wine Festival at National Harbor, Washington, D.C.

Read About Beer and Food Pairing:
He Said Beer, She Said Wine
by Marnie Old and Sam Calagione
The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food
By Garrett Oliver