Editor’s Note: Welcome back to our 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. Read our first two posts in the series, on pairing food with crisp and clean beers, such as amber lagers, pilsners, and kölsch, and hoppy and bitter beers, such as IPAs.
As the temperature drops, we tend to gravitate toward fattier, nuttier foods with a hint of sugar. While you can certainly satisfy those cravings with some roasted poultry and root vegetables, beer can be another winning source of sweeter, toastier flavors.
I’m speaking specifically of the category of beers Adam Dulye and I call "malty and sweet" in our book, The Beer Pantry. Though hops get a lot of attention these days, malts are the main event in these brews. Malts refers to the grain bill, or mash ingredients, of a beer, such as barley, wheat, and rye, but much of a beer's maltiness depends on the degree to which those grains have been roasted.
Like many cold-weather foods, malty and sweet beers are united by their reliance on the Maillard reaction, in which sugars and amino acid–rich proteins develop deep, browned flavors when they’re cooked at high temperatures. Though we most often talk about Maillard in connection with searing meat, it plays a substantial role in beer-making, too. As with many foods, the more deeply malts are roasted, the sweeter they get; go too far, though, and they begin to turn bitter and dark. The best malty and sweet beers strike a perfect balance of toasted starch and roasted sugars.
This broad category of beers runs the global gamut, from dark-chocolaty American brown ales to the herbal and fruity, root-beer-meets-Ricola notes of a Belgian-style dubbel. Dark German wheat beers, like smooth, full-bodied dunkels and toffee-like doppelbocks, round out the spectrum, along with beers that have notes similar to those found in wines and spirits. The latter category includes bière de garde ("beer to store," referring to its maturation over time), a style of farmhouse ale from northern France that tastes like an aged, sweeter, less bubbly Champagne, as well as malt- and caramel-heavy Scotch ales with peaty undertones.
Unlike what you'll find in IPAs and other hoppy and bitter beers, hops tend to take a back seat in these brews, acting to balance out the inherent sweetness of the malts. You can recognize malty and sweet beers not only by their nose of caramel and coffee and lack of hoppy aroma, but also from their tint, which ranges from brownish red to blackish brown. But they don't drink nearly as dark as they look, and they tend to be low in alcohol compared with lighter-looking IPAs.
The malt structure and well-balanced sweetness of these beers make them less dessert-oriented than rich and roasty beers, like porters and stouts, and more akin to roasty, toasty, and smoked foods. Adam Dulye and I recommend pairing malty and sweet beers with foods that linger on your palate: roasted, braised, and smoked meats; toasted grains and breads; and earthy vegetables or legumes, like mushrooms, beets, and baked beans.
These beers are best paired with foods that reinforce with their own sweetness or maltiness, rather than provide contrasting flavors. Seared meats and crispy-skinned poultry are ideal, because their dark richness mirrors the concentrated flavors of the beer. We don't often think of meat as having any sweetness, but this is part of why a roasted chicken is much more delicious than a steamed one—and it's why these malt-driven beers are such great partners for it.
They work like a charm with umami, salty flavors as well, tempering them but rounding them out. Many malty and sweet beers also have a bit of inherent grain flavor—earthy, savory base notes that boost the affinity they already have for grains and any vegetable that grows underground. When a little browned butter is added to the equation, the whole pairing is elevated.
This affinity for buttery things extends to nuts and, on the sweet side of a meal, caramelly desserts, too. Malty and sweet beers will often mimic the flavors of roasted nuts, which makes a lot of sense considering they undergo the same processes. These beers are outstanding with rich caramels, or even creamy butterscotch puddings. And, unsurprisingly, this style of beer is a great accompaniment to warming spices, in both savory and sweet applications. Anything with cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger—molasses-sweetened gingerbread cookies come to mind—will accent the natural sweetness of the beer.
The modest tendencies of malty and sweet beers mean they’re often overshadowed by more aggressive styles currently in vogue: extreme sours, potent barrel-aged beers, and high-ABV, hop-driven double IPAs. What gives them staying power—not only on your palate in the short term, but as reliable partners for a range of foods despite their relative lack of trendiness—is the fact that they’re right in the middle: a fulcrum of flavor pairing. When in doubt, a malty and sweet beer is a good place to start.
For a dish that exemplifies how well these beers play with the flavors produced by the Maillard reaction, we developed a super-simple recipe that combines mushrooms—the quintessential ingredient that we tend to describe as "earthy"—with the browned flavors of toasted bread, for a hearty take on Danish smørrebrød. (If you can find it, I recommend seeking out rugbrød, the dense sourdough rye typically used for smørrebrød, which contributes its own umami edge and hint of sweetness.)
Once the mushrooms have been dry-sautéed until their water has completely evaporated, they'll start to brown nicely. We add shallots and thyme, finish off the sauté with a knob of butter and a dash of tart vinegar for balance, and pile the whole delicious mess on toast, resulting in the ideal late-afternoon snack to accompany a beer. Add a fried egg on top and (if you must) subtract the beer, and it becomes a great breakfast, too.