Beer is made with four ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. Despite this humble foundation, however, there’s a wide variety of color, flavor, and aroma to be found on the shelves.
At the most basic level, there are two types of beer: ales and lagers. Ales are typically a bit heartier, while lagers are usually lighter in both color and body and are crisper, cleaner beers. Most mass-produced beers that you see in stores and on TV are lagers (Pilsners, to be precise).
When pairing beers with food, try to choose a beer that either complements or offsets the food’s flavors. Serve small glasses of beer per plate to avoid overstuffing your diners.
If you’re cooking meat on a grill, a stout (a dark, slightly smoky ale) will bring out the charred flavor. If the meat is already pretty flavorful (or, say, coated in cheese), a crisp lager will provide a refreshing counterpoint. And if it’s a greasy burger you’re after, go for a wheat beer; it will also pair nicely with French fries.
When cooking with hot chili pepper or fiery curry, a German bock or dunkelweiss (dark wheat) will provide some slight bready sweetness to help soothe your burning palate. Likewise, a “hoppy” India Pale Ale (IPA) will impart the bitterness you need to slake your thirst and bring out your food’s flavor, not just its heat.
Veggie lovers should steer toward Pilsner, Kolsch, and Dortmunder styles, which are mostly crisp and clean with grassy or peppery hop flavors, complementing vegetarian dishes without washing out subtler flavors.
Above all, take these guidelines as suggestions. After all, there is no right or wrong way to pair beer with food. The next time you’re looking to serve beer with your meal, ask the food co-op staff about the local microbrewed beers they carry (if your food co-op carries alcohol), and sample a few to discover what you like most. Remember that food and beer are meant to be convivial and are best when shared with others—so have fun!
This blog was written by Charles Davidson, a contributor to NCG’s “Welcome to the Table”