How to Pair Beer With Middle Eastern Food
There are parts of the world where beer just belongs on the dinner table.
Imagine one of those places. I'll wait.
It's pretty likely that you just pictured a pub in England serving cask ale with fish and chips. Or a cafe in Belgium where chalices of bubbly beer stand alongside waterzooi or braised duck. Maybe you saw a taqueria, where limes slip into the necks of Negra Modelos to go with tacos al pastor.
Chances are, your vision didn't involve falafel, blistered eggplants, or long skewered kebabs. We just aren't used to serving beer with Middle Eastern food. It's a shame, really—this bright, herbal, and generously spiced cuisine is among the best to be paired with beer.
The good news: even if your local Middle Eastern joint doesn't have a monster draft list, you can put together brilliant beer pairings on your own at BYOB spots or with takeout or home cooking.
Here are some tips to get you well on your way to a wonderfully paired Middle Eastern meal.
The key to successful beer pairing for Middle Eastern cuisine is zeroing in on a set of essential recurring flavors. Generally speaking, we're dealing with powerful food here. The flavors are pungent and heavily spiced, often dressed with dips or sauces that add a layer of creamy richness, acidic brightness, or spicy heat. Cumin, coriander, parsley, garlic, lemon, mint, and other spices with dramatic warming and cooling effects lead to complex and sharp flavor profiles that will make some pairings pop and others fall apart in a seriously ugly way.
Some Middle Eastern dishes would match beautifully with the herbal, spicy, and citrusy aromatics of hoppy beer styles like pale ale and IPA. And some recurring flavors in the cuisine seem built for the peppery spiciness of Belgian dubbels and tripels. Belgian witbiers, with their inclusion of spices like orange peel and coriander, feel destined to shine alongside more delicate, bright Middle Eastern dishes. But each of these beers can run into problems when paired with this super-flavorful cuisine. Let's break it down a bit.
Pairings, Dish by Dish
Mezze, Dips, and Breads
If you're like me, your favorite Middle Eastern dishes fall under the wide umbrella of foods called "mezze." These little plates are tremendously diverse and offer a satisfying array of flavor. It's not a universal rule, but when it comes to mezze, you can expect a plate full of brightness. Lemon, mint, and parsley drive the flavor of common dishes such as tabbouleh, dolmas, and baba ganoush and the acidic presence of yogurt (as in labneh, or Middle Eastern variants of tzatziki) is likely to make itself known on your plate alongside briny, salty pops of olive and haloumi cheese. Rich sausages and dense, nutty hummus can fall under the mezze classification too, but their heft won't offset the overall brightness of your mezze course enough to affect which beer you should serve.
Serve your mezze alongside Belgian witbier or Bavarian hefeweizen. These are fairly low-impact, appropriately bright beers that are driven in flavor by citrusy aromatics and coriander (in witbier) and clove-like (in hefeweizen) spiciness. In each case, these spicy flavors will make a connection with the spice-laden flavor profiles of the mezze platter. The beers' soft sweetness will gently balance acidity and saltiness.
Belgian witbiers to try: St. Bernardus Witbier, Allagash White, Hitachino Nest White Ale.
Bavarian hefeweizens to try: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier, Schneider Weisse Original
Once you've moved past the mezze, your dinner is likely to get a little more intense. Kebabs and other grilled meats will find a regular seat at your Middle Eastern dinner table, and they command a bigger beer. These dishes are often comprised of ground or cubed meats spiced, skewered, and charred.
The fat in these dishes helps them accommodate a stronger, more bitter beer than lighter dishes can, but be careful—if your kebabs are served with hot sauce or harissa, the heat will seem more extreme when you're drinking beers high in alcohol, carbonation, or bitterness.
The blackened char that can develop as these meats sit on the grill offers a connection to the roasty malts used in the production of darker beers. If your dish isn't too spicy, try out a black IPA. These beers have those roasty malt flavors alongside a citrusy or herbal hop character to complement a heavy hand of bright herbs and earthy spices in the dish. A black IPA will work even better if your meats served with a creamy, palate-coating yogurt sauce or tahini, as it is in these killer recipes. That creamy sauce will help keep the bitterness in the beer from overwhelming the dish.
Black IPAs to try: Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Deschutes Hop in the Dark
If you're having trouble getting your paws on a black IPA, many American brown ales offer some of the toasty or roasty malt flavors you'd get out of black IPA with a subtler hop flavor. These will feature malt more prominently, which makes them a better match for spicier kebabs and can offer a bit of nuttiness that will fit in nicely with the complex flavors of your dish.
American brown ales to try: Big Sky Moose Drool, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog
Braised Meats and Stews
Middle Eastern braised meat dishes and stews will offer even more richness, which helps them go well with more aggressive beers, but we still need to be wary of alcohol, bitterness, and carbonation as they'll intensify spiciness. These dishes also offer a whole new set of flavors: there's still a heavy presence of cumin, coriander, and other warm spices, but slightly sweet cooked tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are often included as well, and these demand a different beer.
Let's talk hypotheticals here: for a braised lamb shank with cumin, coriander, mint, and allspice, I'd bust out a Belgian dubbel or doppelbock. These beers have enough potency to make their presence known alongside a dense, meaty dish and flavor profiles that will fit in nicely. The dubbel's rich fruity interplay of malt and caramelized sugar tastes great with red meat, and the beer has a peppery, clove-like yeastiness that will complement the similarly warm spices in the dish. The doppelbock forgoes yeast flavor, shoving its own caramelly, dark fruit-like maltiness into the spotlight. I'm hypothetically drooling over here.
Dubbels to try: Westmalle Dubbel, Chimay Première (Red)
Doppelbocks to try: Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, Ayinger Celebrator
If you're serving a meaty stew that features tomato, eggplant, and spices, try it with an ESB, an English pale ale with a bready, caramelized maltiness to match the sweetness of cooked vegetables, and an earthy hop presence that fits right in with spiced veggies.
ESBs to try: Fuller's ESB, Alesmith Anvil ESB
Some of the best Middle Eastern food is all about the veggies, like this Turkish stuffed eggplant, or a falafel wrap piled high with fresh lettuce, tomato, and bright sauces or pickled vegetables. It's hard to generalize; there's a big range in the type of flavor profiles you can expect in the world of Middle Eastern veggies, but let's use those as a jumping off point.
Richer baked or roasted dishes like that stuffed eggplant work beautifully with amber or brown beers that will mimic the caramelization and browning the food picks up in the oven. Amber bières de garde aren't terribly common, but they'll be perfect for a dish like this. Their unusual nutty, herbal, and spiced flavor establishes a refreshing complement to the profile of the dish, and they have all the carbonation and alcohol needed to stand up to food fattened up by olive oil and yogurt.
Amber bières de garde to try: Brasserie St. Sylvestre Gavroche, Brasserie Saint Germain Page 24 Réserve Hildegarde Ambrée
Brighter veggie dishes like falafel sandwiches will likely work better with paler beers that won't dampen liveliness with heavy caramelized flavors. Czech pilsner has a soft maltiness that helps integrate acidity from pickled veggies and yogurt-based sauces and an earthy, spicy hop flavor that is tough to beat with the array of earthy and herbal flavors imparted by the range of veggies present in your pita. Hoppier beers play up that interaction even further. American pale ale is a great fit for falafel—citrusy and floral hop character is the focus of this beer style, and those flavors boost the complexity of the herbs, tangy pickles, and crisp veggies that fill the sandwich. Tahini- and yogurt-based sauces take the edge off the beer's bitterness, which allows the pairing to work even in the presence of a little chili sauce.
Czech pilsners to try: Pilsner Urquell
American pale ales to try: Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale
If you had to pick one...
If you were to pick up every beer I've mentioned so far, you might room in your fridge for about a dolma and a half's worth of leftovers. Middle Eastern food is a pretty broad group of eats, and accordingly, I've recommended a wide range of beers—Czech, German, English, Belgian and American styles are all represented. This is great for your adventurous taste buds—there's a whole lot of flavor interaction to be had here. But—real talk—you probably aren't going to grab a separate beer for every dish in your Middle Eastern spread. If you're looking for just one beer that's going to taste good with everything on your plate, grab yourself one of those ESBs I mentioned above.
These are beers with a lightly caramelized malt flavor that will help tie in roasted and fried flavors in the cuisine, and an earthy, woodsy, and lemony hop profile that fits right in with the complex spices used all over Middle Eastern food. Try to get your hands the ones I listed over yonder: Fuller's ESB and Alesmith Anvil ESB.
If you aren't into English-style beers, or if you just prefer paler beers in general, go with saison. This versatile Belgian beer style is known for its lively interplay of earthy, peppery, and bright flavors from yeast and hops—perfect for this cuisine full of pungent herbs and heavy spices. It's delicate enough to avoid trampling lighter dishes too much, and highly carbonated enough to cut through richness in heavier dishes. Saison Dupont is the classic, but check out Brooklyn's Sorachi Ace and Boulevard's Tank 7 for tasty modern takes on the style.