When I was in high school, my American history teacher told me that the way to get girls is to learn what wines go with what foods. Kind of a weird thing to tell a student in retrospect, but at any rate, I never really did figure out the intricate art of wine and food pairing. So I had to find other ways to impress girls, like by trimming my sideburns, getting good grades, and tracking down Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and authentic English Stilton in Japan. Hey, what can I say? Being irresistibly sexy is in my blood – after all, my mother’s maiden name is Casanova! (Great – now you all know the answer to the security question for my online bank account.)
I digress. The fact is that wine is daunting to me, not to mention expensive, so I focused my geekery on something more accessible: beer. The diversity of flavors in beer far outreaches that of wine, which facilitates pairing to a certain extent, but that diversity can also lead to complexities that interact with food in unexpected ways. While beer makes it easy to find pretty good matches for food, finding a really transcendent match, a perfect harmony that alchemizes into that wonderful “third flavor,” is mostly a matter of trial and error. Plus, what you may expect to be an excellent pairing may turn out badly when weird, hidden background flavors, often from yeast and hops, come to the fore and clash with food.
But you can better your chances for finding a perfect match by choosing a beer in the right style, and there are certain styles that simply seem to work better with food than others. These are typically straightforward, balanced beers with medium carbonation and alcohol, a sturdy malt base and enough complexity to play with the nuances of good food. In other words, they stand up to food without overpowering it.
Saisons were originally brewed as refreshing beers for farmhands in Belgium, fermented and casked in autumn or winter and then stored for almost a year to be quaffed at the end of the summer harvest. They were meant to be simple thirst-slakers, but their unusual, sometimes wild yeasts and abundance of aromatic hops (which were used as a preservative) makes them exceptionally complex, while also very light on the palate. Once considered an endangered style, craft brewers in Belgium and the United States have revived the style, delighting in its versatility. Saisons are typically dry yet quite fruity, tangy from the use of wheat, and often lively with citric and grassy hops, but not overly bitter. Rustic yeast strains used in saisons engender a wide range of flavors, often lending a musty or earthy character. In general, saisons have a flavor profile that can be compared to white wine or champange, and they work similarly when it comes to food, but the complexities provided by saison yeast makes them surprisingly versatile. They are excellent with chicken, fish and shellfish (including some sushi), pasta dishes and anything tomato-based, all manner of vegetables, Thai curries, washed-rind and goat cheeses, and sandwiches. Modern Japanese food, a jumble of fresh vegetables, seafood, and fatty meat, is also perfect for saison.
Commercial examples: Saison Dupont, Fantôme Saison, Ommegang Hennepin, North Coast La Merle.
Flanders Red Ale
If saisons can be thought of as beer’s answer to white wines, then the distinctive red ales of Flanders are (in some ways) its answer to red wine. Flanders red ales use a unique type of red malt that gives them their striking color, ranging from bold rouge to deep, shadowy maroon. But what’s even more interesting about Flanders reds is that they are fermented with exotic microorganisms in tandem with typical brewer’s yeast. This is usually something in the Lactobacillus genus of bacteria – the fermenting agent in most yogurts, cheeses, and pickles – or the even odder Brettanomyces, a yeast infamous for causing wine spoilage. The result is a refreshingly sour beer, which is made even sourer by an oak aging process that dries up residual sugars. Flanders reds are also devastatingly complex, with buoyant flavors of cranberries, stone fruit, and grapes balanced out by earthy, hefty notes of tobacco, port, and tannic oak. They link up with tomatoes beautifully, making them great with Italian fare, and their sweet-and-sour funk also strikes a chord with sharp blue cheeses as well as goat cheese. They’re also perfect for shellfish, lending a juicy zip to enhance lobster, crab, and shrimp. Flanders reds are also remarkably tasty with dark meat and game, providing a tangy counterpoint to the richness of duck, pork, lamb, venison, and even foie gras. Particularly fruity Flanders reds will also work with dessert – they’re really good with chocolate ice cream.
Commercial examples: Rodenbach Grand Cru, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Monk’s Café Flemish Red, New Belgium La Folie.
English Pale Ale
The key feature of English pale ales that make them so nice with food is their delicately bitter, herbal hops. Except in the case of very strong cheeses and very spicy or sweet food, an abundance of hops in beer makes food pairing difficult. Their sharp, lingering bitterness interferes with all but the boldest of dishes, which is great in some situations – IPAs are great with barbecue and all manner of Indian, Szechuan, and Cajun cuisine – but in general, lots of hops do not make for a versatile beer. To better your chances of finding a good pairing, reach for English pale ales, which deliver the lovely, leafy aroma and flavor of British noble hops, with only enough residual bitterness to balance out the delicious caramel, toffee, roasted nut, and fresh bread flavors of the malts. Typically, English ale yeast also adds subtle fruity and earthy notes to the mix, providing complexity that more often than not enhances food. If you can, drink your English beer from a cask; the live yeast, mild carbonation, and warmer serving temperature draw out sweetness and hidden flavors. Naturally, the caramelized malts and herbal top notes of English pale ales are great with hearty British standards like shepherd’s pie, steak and ale pie, sausage and mash, haggis, full English breakfast, Sunday roast, fish and chips, and ploughman’s lunch – they’re beautiful with British hard cheeses as well as many blues. They’re great with vegetables, especially if you roast them, and they love garlic and onions – try them with pasta and pizza and milder Chinese and Indian food.
Commercial examples: Fuller’s London Pride, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale, Harviestoun Haggis Hunter.
Belgian Strong Dark Ale/Dubbel/Quadrupel
These three styles are grouped together because of their similar flavor profiles; they vary mainly in terms of the amount of dark malts used, and the extent to which those malts are fermented into alcohol. Belgian strong dark ales are very similar to dubbels; they contain about the same amount of alcohol, but Belgian strong dark ales tend towards somewhat darker flavors like prunes, molasses, raisins, and chocolate, while dubbels are somewhat lighter, with more dark bread, toffee, and caramel sweetness. Quadrupels, as the name suggests, are denser and stronger than dubbels, and their flavors are often quite fruity and spicy, often with a noticeable alcoholic warmth. In a sense, both dubbels and quadrupels are a type of Belgian strong dark ale, and at any rate, all three styles work in similar ways with food. They’re all highly malty, fruity, and boozy, and in many cases hop bitterness is low; they derive balance more from airy carbonation, high attenuation, sharp alcohol, and sometimes, herbs and spices. Many beers in these styles also have a very strong yeast profile that contributes mild to strong tartness along with spicy and earthy flavors. These are big beers that work well with big food: roast pork with prunes, Peking duck with plum sauce, well-marbled steak, cheeseburgers, lamb, stinky washed-rind and blue-veined cheeses, and any slow-cooked beef (short ribs, oxtail, brisket, etc.) all love a Belgian strong dark ale, as do hearty soups and stews, especially chili and cassoulet. Spicy food is well-suited to the sweet and strong yet dry character of these beers, especially dark, meaty dishes like lamb curries and mole. Sweet, rich quadrupels can even make for excellent dessert beers; many have a cocoa character and port-like fruitiness that matches cheesecakes, cream pies, tiramisu, and anything chocolate.
Commercial examples: Trappistes Rochefort 8, Chimay Blue, St. Bernardus 12, Gulden Draak.
American and English Brown Ales
In many ways, brown ales are similar to Belgian strong dark ales. They have analogous flavors of caramel, toffee, and brown sugar, but they are lighter, in color, alcohol, and sweetness, and in the case of American brown ales, they are significantly hoppier. Brown ales have a beautifully nutty, toasty malt profile that may taste of almonds, peanuts, cracked wheat, honey or maple syrup at the lighter end of the spectrum, and cocoa, coffee beans, toffee, toast, raisins, and buckwheat at the darker end. Brown ales are definitely malt-forward brews, but they are also balanced; in English examples, balance is usually acheived by keeping the final gravity low and attenuation high, while American brewers often offset the sweetness by adding a touch more hops. Brown ales may seem simple, but often they are deceptively complex, and their mellow-yet-robust malts make them a very good choice with food. Their nuttiness matches well with all manner of nutty food, including squash, potatoes, parsnips, and alpine cheeses like Comte and Gruyere, as well as the buttery Dutch cheeses like Gouda and Edam, especially if they’ve been aged. The dark fruit notes and zesty hops of certain browns will also be right at home with stronger cheeses like Stilton and Camembert. You may also be surprised to find that brown ales are excellent with Thai food; think of peanuts as a topping to many Thai dishes. The dry yet fully caramelized character of brown ales is also excellent with grilled meat like barbecue and burgers, and sweeter examples will even be good with dessert, especially if it contains chocolate, nuts, or caramel.
Commercial examples: Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Tyranena Rocky’s Revenge, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog.
Special thanks to fellow Beer Advocates for their input on this post and to Garrett Oliver for his indispensible beer pairing handbook, The Brewmaster’s Table.