Stouts and porters have a reputation as the desserts of the beer world, and they do indeed happen to pair wonderfully with dessert—most boast notes of chocolate and coffee that make them a natural match for devil’s food cake or a silky chocolate pot de crème. Hell, some are even named after oatmeal cookies, milkshakes, or chocolate, further driving the whole idea home.
But you can sip these dark brews—a style Adam Dulye and I have dubbed "rich and roasty" in our book, The Beer Pantry—with more than just your last course. Much as chocolate’s dark bitterness or vanilla’s aromatic woody character are often prized in savory preparations, these beers can be enjoyed with a wide variety of appetizers and entrées.
Rich and roasty beers get their dark hue and complex flavor from malts that have been deeply roasted. That prolonged roasting period produces caramelized sugars that are only partially fermentable, meaning they can’t all be converted into alcohol by yeast. In addition to lending notes of dried fruit to these beers, residual caramelized sugars contribute to their overall heaviness and viscosity.
Add to that a lower level of carbonation—a stylistic choice brewers make to help these beers linger on the palate, allowing drinkers to discern more of their complex flavor profile—and you have a family of beverages with a creamy density that spreads notes of mocha, smoke, and bitterness across your palate.
The resulting brews range from sweeter, coffee-like imperial stouts to robust porters; full-bodied English brown ales to creamy and decadent milk stouts; brighter Irish dry stouts to bittersweet schwarzbier. Despite their dark color, most of the beers in this category have a surprising frothy lightness and a relatively low alcohol by volume (ABV) that challenge their reputation as meals unto themselves.
Across the board, these beers pair well with dishes that can match their rich texture while standing up to their bold flavor. Salty foods like bar nuts and French fries are some of my go-to accompaniments, particularly with more acid-forward brews, like Irish dry stouts (roasted peanuts and Guinness are a match made in heaven). Meanwhile, creamier, more decadent beers like milk stouts, which get their name from milk sugars added into the brew, can highlight both the saltiness and sweetness in simple seafood dishes, like raw oysters and fried calamari.
If you’re looking for something to accompany your next perfectly seared, medium-rare burger, go for an English brown ale with a slice of aged alpine cheese slapped on the patty. It’s a perfect marriage of fatty, salty, and sweet. Meanwhile, schwarzbier, which literally means "black beer" in German, is one of the darkest and most opaque brews in this category, but it actually exhibits minimal hints of coffee and chocolate. It pairs particularly well with barbecued foods, complementing the char and smoke without overwhelming it.
To demonstrate just how well rich and roasty beers pair with savory dishes, Dulye and I looked to lamb. Here, we’ve created brown butter—enriched lamb meatballs that get a nice crust from a stint in the oven. They’re served over a fire-roasted eggplant baba ganoush, which is scented with a hint of vanilla and emulsified with almond butter in place of tahini. The result is a striking balance of salty and fatty, smoky and nutty, meaty and sweet: more than rich enough to stand up to a pint of jet-black porter in any pub.