Here's how to make your beer match your meal.
With Philly’s ever-growing reputation as one of the most serious beer cities in America, all the standout beer programs around town and bores at parties able to go on ad infinitum about malt and hops the way bores at slightly more affluent parties can go on ad infinitum about oak and tannins, a question nags: If we’re acknowledging that beer, like wine, has nuance and varied character, then what are the rules for pairing it with food?
Ask anyone but the most devoted suds-head and you’ll likely be met with little more than a blank stare: It’s beer, dude—drink it with whatever you want.
Laissez-faire beer drinkers certainly have a point—if the beer is well-crafted and the food prepared honestly, then the pairing will work far more often than it doesn’t. Still, some combinations are better than others, and for specific, learnable reasons.
In this regard, beer-and-food matching is little different than it is with wine, except that it’s a bit easier, and it doesn’t suffer (yet) from the same level of snobbery.
“Beer, over the last five to eight years, especially in our market, has gained real credibility as a true art form,” says Adam Ritter, owner of Kraftwork and Sidecar Bar & Grille. Thanks to the American appreciation of craft beers, a ton of different flavors that lend themselves to pairing with food have become widely available recently, he says.
The first thing you’ll want to consider is whether you want the beer or the food to dictate the pairing. At Kraftwork, for example, there are enough varied, sometimes unfamiliar beers that you might even want to consider what you’ll be drinking first, and let that guide what you’ll be eating. At restaurants that put less active effort into their beer selections, or have only just begun to, it may be better to settle on a series of dishes first.
Whichever side you decide to prioritize, there are a handful of tricks you can employ to hedge your bets when it comes to pairing beer and food, and it may surprise some to learn that they’re not all that different from the rules that sommeliers use when working with wine.
First, consider the relative weight of the beer and the food. A successful pairing must have balance: If one component overwhelms the other, the match will fall apart. To that end, try to avoid big discrepancies in weight. A powerful Belgian ale isn’t likely to be the best choice with a spring-mix salad, for example, because the taste of the delicate greens will be lost in the shadow of the beer’s richness. Contrast can work brilliantly, of course, but both the beer and the food must have room to shine.
Also consider flavor and aroma profile. With such a vast range of beers being poured and pulled around town, from earthy-sour lambics to crisp pilsners to malty Belgian ales, the pairing possibilities are limited only by what you’re willing to try. “When considering beers to pair with food, use your senses,” notes Andy Farrell, bar manager at City Tap House. “Think about the structure and the composition of the food you’re going to eat ... pick beers that are going to bring that acid to dishes, or bring that malty backbone to dishes.”
Ultimately, that laissez-faire beer drinker has a good point. A successful marriage of beer and food is often just as much about alchemy and the magic of the unexpected as it is about a thought-out plan of attack. Beer, unlike most wine, has the advantage of bubbles, an immeasurable aid in avoiding the truly crash-and-burn matches you can sometimes get with wine (think red wine and sushi). So while there are parameters, guidelines and strategies, it’s hard to go too wrong. But with a little thought, a beer choice can make a meal go so very right.
Guinness with oysters.
Tröegs DreamWeaver Wheat Beer with pad thai.
Victory HopDevil with a hamburger.
North Coast Brewing Co.'s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout with a chocolate tarte.
St. Bernardus Tripel with blue cheese.
For all its foodie cred, Kraftwork succeeds most completely, and with the greatest sense of exuberance, when the food is at its simplest.