Sunday 24 July 2011

The Six Types of Beer and Food Pairing

There are traditionally two thoughts when it comes to matching food and drink: you either go with something which compares or contrasts. I think there are four further categories: there’s a geographical pairing, the ‘calm down’ pairing, there’s the pairing which creates something more than the sum of its parts and there’s the ‘whatever’ match.

A Compare pairing would be something like chocolate and imperial stout, carbonnade and dubbel, roast beef and bitter; matches where the beer has flavours which marry nicely to the food.

A Contrast pairing would see foie gras and lambic, fish and chips and pale ale, cheeseburgers and IPA, where the use of hops, carbonation or sourness is there to slice through the richness and fattiness of the food or the full flavours.

Geographical matches pair up food and drink from the same locations, whether it’s a taste of holidays or the bringing together of two things which are linked by place: gyros and Mythos, Estrella and paella, jumbalaya and Budweiser. They are often the simplest of matches and there’s also some crossover into other categories with this: US IPA and a cheeseburger, for example. There’s a psychological link to some of these, too; the pairing works because we think they belong together or we’ve long been told that they belong together: pizza and Peroni, hot dogs and Bud, oysters and Guinness.

The ‘calm down’ pairing is one which aims to round out flavours rather than boost them. It’s a hot curry with a cold lager or wheat beer. It’s about not overloading the tastebuds with things to worry about. Hops punch chilli heat in the face so a spicy curry and a hoppy beer is just too much. It’s big flavoured dishes with simpler beers because some matches need calming down and balancing out. Sometimes part of the dish can act as the calm down factor, such as coleslaw with jerk chicken, in which case a stronger flavoured beer, like a fruity-floral IPA, can work well.

The opposite of this is the hardest pairing to get right and it’s the sort of match that makes you wonder why any other beers even bother. It’s cherry beer and chocolate brownies, rauchbier and sausage, barley wine and blue cheese. These pairings each make something new, something bigger and better than the composite parts and set the match off in an exciting new direction with an explosion of flavour. It’s also often more unusual or esoteric matches, or bigger and bolder flavours, which create these pairings. And they are the sort that you remember for longer and return to. It’s not appropriate for every match because sometimes you just need to compare or contrast pairing, but sometimes, when you want something special, this is the way to go.

The final pairing is the ‘whatever’ match. It’s about not caring and just taking a beer and drinking it while eating and it working because you want it to. Not everyone cares for planning out pairings and as long as they like the match then that’s good enough.

Six types of beer and food pairing. Are there any other types I've missed?


  1. This is a really useful overview of beer and food pairing, especially for people who are struggling to move beyond the intuitive beer and burger-type matches. Think you've covered everything I can think of.

    I really struggle to pair lambics with food. I just can't seem to make it work. Guess I'll have to break out the foie gras...

    I seem to remember seeing a beer and food flavour wheel somewhere – or did I just dream that?

  2. Nice roundup, Mark. I don't think much about it, to be honest - my background is actualy food rather than beer - but trying to learn some of the 'science' behind food and beer matching is something I'm going to spend some time on on 2012.

  3. Oh, and Chris - there's a whole world of variety and flavour in Burgers!

  4. Leigh, I didn't mean to undermine either beer or burger, as I'm a fan of both separately and in combination, I was merely suggesting that some people find it difficult to pair beer and food outside the context of standard pub grub.

    I recently overheard a gentleman in a village pub commenting loudly that he couldn't 'be doing with all that burger nonsense' while he was digging into a Sunday roast. I almost spat out my don't like bread and meat?

  5. Nice write up...I'm all about the Whatever pairings.

  6. I tend to follow the compare pairing but after all, food pairing is a subjective matter.
    For example, not having heard or read it, I have discovered that bitter pilsener beers (like Jever) go well with bitter green vegetables like rocket. How does this sound to you?

  7. The one type of pairing missed is one I have to do all too often - pairing the food you want to order with the only beer they have. Around here, it could be called the "everything with Pride" pairing.

  8. Nice post, Mark. You make some interesting points, and others which I have a bit of an issue with. So let's take the latter first, shall we?

    Geographical pairings? Really? These are pairings of necessity and, in most cases -- including two of the three you mention -- involve countries in which the brewing traditions did not develop alongside the culinary traditions. Estrella and paella may be fine and dandy if you really need a beer, but a seafood paella is apt to be much more enjoyable with one of those rustic, almost funky white wines the Rioja region does so well, or even a chilled sherry, while a sausage-driven paella with a crianza will be a delight. For beer, I'd lean on something Belgian abbey-ish, like one of the golden Trappists for the seafood or an Orval for the sausage.

    The "greater than the sum of its parts" pairing is, I think, what every food and beverage pairing should aspire to, regardless of how it gets there. That's what I'm constantly striving to achieve when I invent such partnerships, at least.

    The "calm down" pairing is the one I like, even though some will use it as an excuse to partner dull beers with aggressive food. (See also "geographic pairing.") So long as it is remembered that you can calm with flavour rather than insipidness, I support this concept fully.

    A "whatever" pairing? Of course, we all do that from time to time, perhaps quite often -- sometimes there's just something you want to drink, regardless of what you're eating -- but don't call it a pairing. It's eating and drinking, period.

  9. That is well stated and very easy to process. I will definitely keep this post in mind when trying to explain about pairing.

  10. Chris - Lambic is a tough one because it's an assertive flavour but it can be fantastic with pate, cheeses; rich foods like that. I prefer it at the beginning of a meal because, like wine, it's get that hunger-inducing acidity to it.

    Stephen - I think Orval is the perfect beer for paella. I wrote a blog about that pairing a couple of years ago, in fact. A wine might be the better option, or a beer from Belgium, but I think there's a natural affinity with beers from specific places. My examples are too simple, which is probably part of the issue. This pairing is more in line with a terroir-style look at things which are uniquely regional. I also like to pair local with local because palates of beer and food flavour just seem to have a geographical affinity.

    I wrote these to try and see what others thought; to see if I'd missed some or added some which aren't necessarily accurate, so thanks for your comments :)

  11. Might sound a bit dramatic to call this thought provoking, but it's got me thinking and it's a new way of looking at something.

    I get the geo thing - it's a thing of convenience, or mentality, but it's tangible.

    I don't get whatever - this isn't pairing, it's just sustenance! And if a whatever moment leads to a surprise pairing, then great!

    Calm down I think can be overlooked - I've always thought IPAs can be too much for a curry, if it's solace your tongue needs than use mil - a milk stout or creamy porter perhaps?!

  12. There are lots more pairings to be had in this game:

    The "courtesy pairing", when a host offers you food and beer that you'd rather not combine but you think it impolite to decline.

    The "lag" pairing, when your first food course is replaced by your second but you're still nursing the overfilled glass of saison you started with. In this circumstance you're not just pairing the beer with a different food, you are pairing pairings themselves! Next level shit brah.

    The "pun" pairing, I once paired a porter with a porterhouse steak because it seemed ridiculous not to at least try it.

    The "pear" pairing, when you pair any style of beer with a pear (see previous).

    The "au" pairing, when you consume the beer of your choice whilst staring intently at a domestic assistant recruited from a foreign country.

    The "final meal" pairing, when, while on death row, your requested pairing of choice is selectively interpreted by prison caterers under duress of economic, philanthropic and regulatory limitations and you end up with hop-tea and a microwave kebab.

    I already look like a jerk so I'll stop now.

  13. LOL, they made me laugh, Dan!

  14. Well on Dan's note, I guess there's also the Desert Island pairing too I guess!