How to Pair IPAs and Other Hoppy, Bitter Beers With Food

Think IPAs, pale ales, and other hop-heavy beers are too bitter to pair well with food? Think again.

A deep fried breaded pork cutlet on a plate with slaw, with a pint of beer and more pork in the background.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

This article was originally published as part of a series on beer pairings, in which Michael Harlan Turkell, coauthor of The Beer Pantry, walked us through six different beer flavor profiles and the foods that go best with them. Read our first post in the series, on crisp and clean beers, for guidance on pairing food with amber lagers, pilsners, kölsch, and more.

Over the past decade or two, IPAs have become among the most popular craft beer styles in the US, representing 25% of all craft beer sales. Marked by a generous addition of hops, which balance out the malty base, IPAs pair well with a wide array of spices and flavors, making them a great way to expand your palate for both beer and food simultaneously.

IPAs Aren’t the Only Hoppy and Bitter Beers

IPAs aren’t the only beers that belong in the hoppy and bitter category, which includes amber ales, barley wines, ESBs (Extra Special Bitters), and pale ales. But these styles all began with British colonizers in the 1700s, who fortified their beer with hops and higher alcohol content to make it more shelf-stable for the long journey to India, giving birth to the first of the so-called India pale ales, or IPAs.

The large quantities of hops that you’ll find in IPAs make them undeniably bitter, with some rating over 100 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which is beyond what humans can perceive. But not all beers in this category are so crazily hopped as IPAs. For example, ESBs, despite their full name, are actually much less bitter than, say, pale ales. In barley wine—which is in fact a beer, and a strong one at that, with typically twice the alcohol of an average brew—the bitterness of hops, though noticeable, is tempered by the high ABV. Amber ales (which are simply pale ales with a more caramelly flavor profile, and not to be confused with American amber lagers) tend to be lower on the bitterness scale because they're well balanced with malts.

Among IPAs, too, there’s plenty of variation: Trendy, juicy New England IPAs, characterized by prominent aromas of stone fruit, citrus, and melon, are hop-forward but not all that bitter. Milkshake IPAs have light and bright hops, low bitterness, and a creamy mouthfeel due to the addition of lactose (milk sugars) for a more full-bodied beer. It’s worth remembering that hops are also seasonal—with any beer, the level of bitterness, as well as its overall flavor profile, will be affected by not only the variety of hops used but the unique qualities of each season’s hop harvest.

The common thread among this wide range of hoppy and bitter beers is their ability to cleanse the palate. They wash away whatever was there before, eliminating lingering flavors and resetting your taste buds for the next bite.

pouring an IPA beer into a glass

IPAs saw a resurgence in the US in the 1970s, after a period of lapsed popularity following Prohibition. That’s around the same time that California cuisine got its start, and when terms like “farm-to-table” and “fusion cooking” were introduced to our collective vocabulary. Bitter lettuces started replacing iceberg on salad plates in home kitchens, and more assertive flavors, like cumin and chili peppers, found their way onto our dining tables. Strong cheeses, like Gruyère and blues, began showing up among what had been a fairly bland selection of processed orange cheese available in the States. And, indeed, IPAs and other beers in the hoppy and bitter category are well suited to complement these bolder flavors and richer tastes.

Bitterness Counterbalances Spicy Food

The bitterness of hops is excellent at counterbalancing spices and spicy food. Hoppy and bitter beers are also great when paired with mouth-coating fats: They’re made to cut through cream sauces, cheese, fried foods, and bacon, preparing you to enjoy another bite of your BLT or wings. And they help tone down sugars in earthier ingredients, like sweet potatoes and carrots, while still highlighting their most intrinsic qualities—in essence, making a carrot taste more like a carrot.

A graphic of a colored wheel showing the food categories that pair best with hoppy and bitter beers

Overall, hoppy and bitter beers can take some competition on the palate; rather than fighting strong opposing flavors, they amplify the subtleties of both the food and the beer. That’s why they work so well with French fries dipped in aioli, allowing you to taste equally the humble potato and the garlicky mayonnaise.

How to Pair Similar Flavors

When pairing food with a really hoppy beer, one strategy is to learn more about the flavors of the hops and introduce similar flavors into your food. A beer heavy on Cascade hops will be citrusy, while Centennial, Chinook, and Amarillo hops tend more toward pineapple (though not tropical, like Nelson Sauvin). Simcoe hops taste unmistakably of pine sap, making them a natural companion for root vegetables, fattier game meats, and other foods that bring fall to mind. Of course, many brews incorporate multiple varieties of hops, producing more idiosyncratic flavor profiles.

In hopes of identifying the ideal dish to pair with a hoppy and bitter beer, I called my Beer Pantry coauthor, Adam Dulye. To highlight this beer category, our book includes recipes ranging from a green salad with goat cheese croquettes to a braised pork shoulder in adobo and even a classic carrot cake with a creamy frosting. What single cookable recipe could adequately represent all of the flavors that hoppy and bitter beers play well with?

Breaded pork cutlet with slaw overhead view

For inspiration, we decided to look to Viennese schnitzel—a lean piece of meat, typically veal, that’s pounded until tender and thin, then breaded and fried. But we swapped out the veal for pork, both because it’s more accessible and because it allows you to choose from a range of quality and cuts. Instead of marinated cucumber salad on the side, Adam devised a spicy take on mayo-free coleslaw.

The resulting meal incorporates many of the most prominent tastes and textures that go well with these beers: fried, spicy, and creamy. The flavors are big, to match the boldness of the beers, and every mouthful hits all the right notes—the perfect ratio of breading to tender meat in the schnitzel, and just enough heat in the coleslaw to cut through its creaminess. Each sip of beer will ready you for the next wallop of a bite.

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October 2018