Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series on beer pairings, in which Michael Harlan Turkell, coauthor of The Beer Pantry, will walk us through six different beer flavor profiles and the foods that go best with them.
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A handful of years ago, I was sitting with Adam Dulye, a friend of mine and executive chef of the Brewers Association, at a bar in San Francisco. As we drank a couple pints of Reality Czeck, a pilsner from Moonlight Brewing, we started to get hungry and jokingly mused, "What goes well with this beer?" But what started as an eye roll between friends soon became a series of events, and ultimately The Beer Pantry, a cookbook designed to teach people how best to pair their beer with their food—and vice versa.
On that afternoon in San Francisco, Adam and I sat back and considered what was in our glasses. Pretty soon, we realized that this particular beer would taste great with just about anything. Pale lagers like Moonlight’s harken back to the Pilsner Urquell, which got its start in mid-19th-century Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. The beer’s golden hue broke the mold of the cloudy, dark-colored beers that were popular at that time; with a low enough alcohol content to be drunk all day, it proved to be remarkably versatile with food. That original pilsner set the tone for an entire category of beers that followed—a grouping we call "crisp and clean"—including the one sitting before us on the bar.
The truth is, pairing beer with food is way simpler than pairing wine with food. For the most part, beer is less alcoholic, aside from those beers identified as "dubbel," "tripel," "imperial," and "strong." Neighborhood breweries are making beers more quaffable, releasing them in low-alcohol "session" styles, in the hopes of having people drink more and stay longer, instead of getting tanked on the latest trendy IPA. As their audiences have become more interested, breweries are also beginning to think about the food they serve, and menus are evolving past the pub-grub days of yore.
There are a few very simple yet steadfast rules on how to pair a beer with a food. To make pairings even simpler, Adam and I have broken beer down into six distinct flavor profiles:
- Crisp and clean
- Hoppy and bitter
- Malty and sweet
- Rich and roasty
- Fruity and spicy
- Sour, tart, and funky
Miraculously, each of the 150+ beer styles defined by the Brewers Association will fit into one of these categories. For each grouping, we’ve created a flavor wheel to illustrate the range of foods that complement these beers best, highlighting produce, proteins, herbs, spices, and other ingredients that are either elevated by, or bring out overtones of, the corresponding beer type.
For a number of reasons, crisp and clean beers are an ideal entry point for learning to pair beer with food. I like to think of these beers as the kind you drink while figuring out what you want to drink for the rest of the night. But they aren’t just thirst-quenching; they also keep your palate refreshed. That combination is the hallmark of the style, which includes amber lager, blonde ale, helles, kölsch, maibock, and märzen. The milder flavors of these brews may make them seem quotidian to many beer drinkers, but in fact they’re quite delicate and dry.
While the Germanic iterations of this style tend to be a bit toastier due to a higher ratio of malt to hops—or, in beer terms, lower IBU (International Bitterness Units)—none are overpowering. These balanced beers are scented with so-called "noble" hops, like Saaz (a staple in pilsners), which are used more for their aroma than for their bittering effects. Overall, they’re lightly carbonated and aromatically hopped, but not so bitter or big that you can’t taste the subtleties of what you’re eating.
We like these beers best in conjunction with pure, unadulterated ingredients, but they can handle a little acid and fat, too—they’re able to cut through foods that are fried, somewhat salty, or pungent with raw alliums, like onions or garlic.
Crisp and clean beers also tend to pair well with vibrant, "green"-flavored fruits and vegetables, like apples, cucumbers, fennel, and bright lemons and limes, because they mirror the crispness of the beer. But they’re also great with starches, and particularly potatoes, whether fried into thin salty chips or whipped into a creamy mash—they can cut through the added fat without compromising the starch’s understated integrity. We’ve included white fish among the proteins on this flavor wheel, as its delicate and nuanced flesh needs a beer that's similarly delicate in flavor.
Flavor-boosting ingredients like sesame and coriander, which give dishes freshness and bolster subtlety with added texture and somewhat floral aromas, are fine accompaniments to these beers. Just don’t muddy up the pairing with too many competing flavors. Generally speaking, the complexity of the dish should match the complexity of the beer.
Adam and I favor a pretty wide variety of ingredient combinations in our book—refreshing starters, like marinated-cucumber salad and radishes dipped in hop butter, are followed by dishes featuring fresh corn, eggplant, and zucchini, served with lightly cooked crab, clams, and fattier fish like salmon and halibut. But since we’re facing the end of summer, we decided to share a recipe that celebrates the sweetness and acidity of the season’s last juicy, ripe tomatoes.
The dish resembles a hybrid of pan con tomate and Caprese salad: sourdough toast topped with strained fresh tomatoes, creamy burrata, and pesto. While the basil in Caprese provides an herbal flavor that aligns well with lightly hopped beers, we wanted to add a slightly bitter note to stand in for the astringency missing from the hops, so we balanced out the basil in the pesto with arugula. Burrata, mozzarella’s creamier cousin, offers a richness that’s easily washed from your palate with every sip of beer, while the sourdough bread complements the pils yeast and pale malts.
You may think there's nothing better than the unadulterated flavor of a ripe summer tomato all on its own, and it's hard to argue with that. But just try embellishing it with this recipe, using a few tricks that will play up a pilsner, and you might have to admit that it's even better with a beer.