Classic Beer and Food Pairings: Do They Really Work?

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There was a time in my life when beer was just a drink, and food was, well, food. I liked them both, independently and together, next to each other at the dinner table.

But the idea of beer pairing—consciously matching a beer with a specific dish in an attempt to light the fuse for a flavor explosion beyond the firepower of each individual component—always seemed unnecessary and kind of obnoxious.

Then there I was, reading through Garrett Oliver's epic ode to beer pairing, The Brewmaster's Table. I salivated my way through a wall of text about why barleywine and Stilton cheese should never be consumed without the other at its side, and I knew I had to give this pairing thing a shot. I tracked down some of each.

At the time, I had no idea that I was about to taste a combination that's famous amongst beer pairing aficionados. The barleywine / Stilton combo is one of a handful of "classic" pairings that beer lovers and professionals consider part of the canon: Each is propped up, aggressively recommended, and frequently served. They're drilled into the heads of hard-studying folks looking to develop their understanding of beer's role at the dinner table as they prepare for the Cicerone exams or restaurant service.

But are these pairings really as great as we've been taught to believe? Do they really work every time? Can these oft-repeated pairings keep up with the pace of beer's evolution? I decided to test six of beer's most famous pairings to find out.

Barleywine and Stilton

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Why it's considered a classic:

As you page through Garrett Oliver's book, it becomes crystal clear that this guy is really passionate about beer pairing. Every paragraph has its own hyper-enthusiastic recommendation for your next meal, and that excitement rubs off on the reader. But what nudged me into "okay I gotta try this" territory was this sentence: "When great Stilton meets a well-aged British barley wine, we reach the pinnacle of flavor combinations." The freakin' pinnacle of all flavor combinations. That kind of statement is tough to ignore.

Oliver's not the only one pushing this pairing. In Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer, there's this: "It's almost impossible to screw up a combination of a barleywine or Imperial stout with a huge, well-aged cheese such as a Stilton." And others follow in these two industry giants' footsteps: work your way through a group of books or articles that touch on the topic of beer and food pairing, and you'll run into this suggestion over and over again.

The idea is this: Stilton is a bold cheese, rich and sweet with milk fat and heavy on the salt. It's complex and sharp, so the concept is that it needs a bold beer to stand up to it. Beer doesn't get much bolder than barleywine: it's malty and concentrated, with alcohol levels veering well up to (and beyond) 9% ABV. Well-aged British examples, like Oliver recommends, tend to exhibit flavors akin to caramelized sugar, molasses, leather, cocoa, soy sauce, and dark fruits, while American examples, as suggested by Mosher, have many of those flavors alongside an aggressive hoppiness, which can taste extremely bitter, citrusy, and resinous.

Does it really work?

It's true, American and British barleywines alike have the heft to hold their own against Stilton's might. But matching intensity alone does not guarantee a good pairing. In the name of journalism, freedom, and Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, I trudged my way through the tasting necessary to determine what, if anything, made this a match worthy of its "classic" designation.

Upon first crumbly Stilton bite, I was hit with a forceful punch of salt and blue mold tang, propped up on foundation of fatty sweetness. I chased that bite with an English barleywine, J.W. Lees' Harvest Ale, and the next bite with one made more or less in the English tradition, North Coast's Old Stock Ale. Each met the cheese's intensity head-on with a wall of malty richness that tempered sharp tanginess, confronted and was intensified by saltiness, and was drawn out by the cheese's milkfat. As the confrontation raged on, flavors in each component of the pairing, like intense nuttiness in the cheese or lush dried fruit aromatics in the beer, come into focus in a striking, satisfying manner.

As I worked my way through a chunk of Stilton, I found that American barleywines, like Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot, Uinta's Anniversary Barleywine, and Anchor's Old Foghorn, worked almost as well, albeit in a slightly different manner. Hop bitterness has a big impact on this pairing. You've still got all that malty density working its magic with salt and fat, but the cheese's moldy sharpness is perked back up by the beers' underlying bitter streak. Instead of offering a decadent point/counterpoint relationship, American barleywines up the ante considerably by shifting the focus toward bitter and sharp.

At the end of my—ahem—studies, I've concluded that British barleywines offer the superior pairing. The combination is the kind of delicious over-indulgence that makes you get up early for an extra-long run the next morning. But the barleywine and Stilton combo can still go wrong, and when it does, it is often because of excessive intensity brought on by hop bitterness. Stick to the less hoppy British barleywines and you'll be fine. Just make sure you know where your running shoes are.

What else to try:

Intense, malt-focused beers are the way to go with Stilton. If you're having trouble getting your hands on a proper British barleywine, grab a doppelbock, Baltic porter, or something similar. With a big bite of this complex cheese, Paulaner's Salvator tasted more boldly fruity than I've ever tasted it. A two-year-old bottle Hair of the Dog's Adam was an even better match, emphasizing a previously sneaky nuttiness in the cheese and bringing forward a honeyed element in the beer. There's plenty of room for experimentation here.

Märzen and Bratwurst

Vicky Wasik

Why it's considered a classic:

There's a saying in wine pairing that "if it grows together, it goes together." It's a concept built around the idea that a region's food and beverages are a natural match, for reasons cultural, agricultural, mystical, or a bit of each. It's a little tough to apply the agricultural reasoning of this rule to beer, but the combination of Märzen (or Oktoberfest beer—the style names are essentially interchangeable) and bratwurst certainly touches on its spirit. When you think "German culture," it's just so darn easy to picture jovial folks in a beer hall putting down liters of lager alongside plates heaped with sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard.

Does it really work?

Aside from the kitschy imagery, there's a lot to be appreciated in this pairing. On the plate, there's a seared sausage, its tight browned casing slicked with rendered fat. Aside that, a small mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a swipe of spicy-sweet mustard. In the glass: an amber beer packed with malty flavors akin to toasted bread and caramelized sugars. A soft earthy bite from European hops rounds out the finish.

They are beautiful things on their own, but my tasting confirms that Märzen and bratwurst are better together. The beer's maltiness allows it to hold its own against the rich sausage, while also helping to unite the dish's contrasting mustard and sauerkraut acidity. That snappy browned crust on the sausage's casing effortlessly finds similarity in flavor with the beer's caramelly maltiness. There's a deep and simple but easy-to-love connection in these foods.

Beer pairings most frequently go wrong when you're dealing with beers with high alcohol or bitterness—Märzen has neither. Grabbing one of these beers from any skilled German producer should yield happy results. I couldn't have been happier with my choices of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen and Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen alongside a brat from my local butcher, but I can imagine an instance in which an unusually heavily-spiced sausage could overpower a delicate Märzen. That said, in my tasting for this article and in two brat-filled trips to Munich, I haven't yet experienced it.

What else to try:

To keep with the semi-shaky "if it grows together" theme, stick with German lager. Helles and dunkel lagers have maltiness to soften acidity like Märzen does, but with varying flavors ranging from the bready and doughy to the deeply fruity.

Dry Stout and Raw Oysters

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Why it's considered a classic:

Oysters and dry stouts have been consumed together for a long time. The question is: are they legendary partners because they taste great, or for some other reason?

Some folks, like the notably gloveless beer expert, Michael Jackson, suggest that this pairing arose out of convenience: stout and oysters were just what was available to eat in London in the 1800s. Logical, I suppose, but not very romantic. If this were true, eating them together today would little more than faux-historical navel-gazing.

Other beer fans suggest that the combination of stout and oyster became a popular one because they really do taste great together. On his blog Zythophile, beer historian Martyn Cornell cites a quote from a London alcohol writer from 1889 in reference to a local brewery's stout: "And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?"

Does it really work?

Raw oysters and dry stout are a study in contrast. As you slurp a raw oyster, your mouth is filled with the bright and salty brine of oyster liquor—a flavor that lingers long after you've swallowed. A nice, dry stout plays off that brininess. A hearty sip of a beer like North Coast's Old No. 38 Stout, Moylan's Dragoon's Dry Irish Stout, or Guinness Draught yields a dry, toasty, refreshing counter to all that ocean flavor, while the oyster's salt brings forward flavors in your beer that would have gone otherwise unnoticed. The beer is light enough in body to keep from dampening the fresh and lively flavor of the shellfish, and you're left with a clean palate to prepare you for your next bite. Lemon juice, hot sauce, or mignonette generally won't derail things here.

But be careful: More often than not, I hear this pairing described as "oysters and stout." That's a bit dangerous. This pairing works best with dry stouts: the low-ish alcohol, light-bodied beer style with roots in Ireland. Most of the stouts you'll find out there in the wild are stronger, fuller in body, and will taste somewhat sweeter than a true dry stout. Watch out: richer or sweeter stouts do not taste that great with oysters. They turn down the brightness of your refreshing shellfish with their richer, fruitier side. Stick to the drier, lighter-bodied stuff. I pulled out bottles of Guinness and North Coast's Old No. 38 with a small pile of Kumamoto and Marin Miyagi oysters to revisit this pairing, and each was a great match—Deschutes Obsidian, with its fuller body and aggressive bitterness, was not.

What else to try:

If you're having trouble finding a great dry stout near you, you've got plenty of other options. Gentle wheat beers can draw sweetness from the oyster while embracing the acidity of mignonette or lemon, and gose, gueuze, and Berliner weisse can offer a dose of that acidity themselves, lessening the need for such accoutrements. Saison also works well, with its high carbonation scrubbing the palate of brininess and priming you for your next bite.

Wheat Beer and a Vinaigrette-Dressed Salad

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Why it's considered a classic:

Green salads with vinaigrette dressings are rarely enthralling. I mean, it's lettuce, with some other stuff tossed in, if you're lucky. But the simple dish, with its brightly acidic dressing, is a famous challenge in the world of pairing wine and food. You're dealing with punchy—even harsh—flavors when it comes to vinegar, and the pairing can be abrasive. Wheat beers have long been presented as a better alternative, used at countless 'beer vs. wine' dinners to show diners how brilliant beer can be alongside lighter fare.

Does it really work?

Thankfully, this one really does approach foolproof status. Ho-hum vinaigrette-dressed salads offer up a truly transformative pairing when served alongside Bavarian or Belgian wheat beers. In my tasting, I found that the soft texture and gentle sweetness present in Bavarian wheat beers (such as Weihenstaphaner's Hefe Weissbier and Sierra Nevada's Kellerweis, a well-made American analog) and Belgian-style witbiers (this time, it was Allagash White Ale and Ommegang Witte for me) offer a refreshing counterpoint to the bright and sharp acidity of a vinaigrette-dressed salad. Neither beer is very high in alcohol, so the delicate flavors of your greens and other fresh ingredients aren't trampled. Each beer also incorporates a certain spiciness—Bavarian hefeweizens and their siblings feature a clove-like flavor from their fermentation, while Belgian witbiers actually have spices added—it's traditional to brew these beers with coriander and orange peel. All are flavors welcome in simple green salads. Though each beer has a tanginess that will latch on to similar qualities in the salad's dressing, this is primarily a pairing built on finding complementary flavors, rather than riding on similarities.

Of course, not every wheat beer will work: avoid the especially strong weizenbocks, which will overpower your salad, and stick to hefeweizens, dunkelweizens (essentially a dark hefeweizen), and witbiers.

What else to try:

Other wheat beers, like the tart, famously-salty, currently-hip style known as gose or non-wheated beers like the soft, malty helles lager are worth exploring too.

IPA and Carrot Cake

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Why it's considered a classic:

When you want to make an impression at the dinner table, it's in your best interest to zig whenever your guest is expecting you to zag—predictability is boring. The Cicerone-favorite pairing of IPA and carrot cake is all about surprise: people often think of IPA as bracingly dry and bitter, and no one expects that to taste great with dessert. But expected or not, IPAs are everywhere right now, and this pairing has been embraced as way to bring this aggressive, less-food-friendly beer style onto the menu with some grace.

Does it really work?

Well, sometimes it can! I've found that if you want to help your chances of success here, you've gotta bring on the cream cheese frosting. This pairing works best with really rich, fatty carrot cakes. The thick, palate-coating frosting and buttery cake can take the edge off IPA's bitterness and allow for a transformative eating experience. All that richness helps to unite the contrasting elements across dish and glass, letting the bright aromatics of the beer interact in a novel way with those of the cake.

Sweet carrot and caramelized sugar flavors in the cake connect neatly with gentle caramel flavors in the beer, while citrusy, fruity flavors from hops pop atop the tart and sweet vanilla-tinged frosting. With the right IPA and the right carrot cake, this is a truly great pairing.

But here's the problem: picking the right IPA to go with the right carrot cake is not easy. As the IPA style has taken off in the United States, so too has the creativity surrounding it. The beer world now has several distinct (if not necessarily agreed-upon) styles that lay claim to the IPA name—each with its own hop flavors and levels of bitterness and malt-derived sweetness. We simply cannot expect a category of beers with such broad range to reliably offer a mind-blowing match with a single dish. This holds especially true when IPA is suggested as a pairing with desserts, where it is all too easy for these pairings to go horribly, horribly awry.

For this pairing to work, you'll need an IPA with some amount of malty sweetness and, ideally, a fruity hop character. Malty double IPAs can be a good place to look. Think Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA, not Sierra Nevada's Torpedo. Really dry, bitter IPAs will taste dramatically more so aside the comparatively sweet dessert, and no amount of cream cheese frosting will offset that. Drier beers can work, if there's a suggestion of sweetness from really citrusy or tropically fruity hops. This principle worked for me to help match a rich carrot cake with Ballast Point's Sculpin and Sierra Nevada's Hop Hunter IPA.

If it's starting to sound like there are a lot of rules to this pairing, you're right. A pairing worthy of designation as a classic should be pretty foolproof, and this one is not. Whenever IPA is suggested as a food pairing, without a specific beer attached, get suspicious.

What else to try:

There are many safer alternative options for serving with carrot cake. Caramelly, malty beers, like rich English barleywines and doppelbocks are delicious here, as are softer options like hefeweizens and dunkelweizens, which play off the cake's sweetness and spiciness with more of those great fruity top notes. And because the cake has that palate-coating richness, you can throw a beer with higher alcohol at it as well. Really fruity tripels, like Tripel Karmeliet and sweeter style benders like Dogfish Head's Midas Touch work nicely as well.

Okay, let's try this again: IPA with Indian Food

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Why it's considered a classic:

We're dealing with another "if it grows together"-type pairing here, albeit a questionable one. The driving force behind this pairing is the idea that it's a sort of taste-able history. IPA (or India Pale Ale, as its mother refers to it when she's angry) has, as the name suggests, a history in the country of India, and it's tempting to want to reunite beer and cuisine.

Does it really work?

The IPAs of America today are nothing like the stuff the British colonists in India drank. Today's IPAs are fresh and bright with the citrusy and floral aromatic pop of American hops, quite unlike anything made from English ingredients and stuck on a boat for a months on end. But even though there's no real history behind this pairing, it could still be delicious, right?

Well, remember what I said about generalized IPA pairings: get suspicious. Certainly, every IPA won't work with every Indian dish out there. Still, as a whole, the IPA style isn't a totally terrible choice for a "one-size fits all" pairing for your Indian food. The idea is this: American hop aromatics fit in nicely with complex and intense Indian spices, while the beer's bitterness helps it to assert itself against richer dishes incorporating ghee, cream, or yogurt.

Does this pairing deserve its oft-repeated classic status? Not really. Exceptionally bitter IPAs intensify the spicy heat that is present in so many favorite Indian dishes, and overpower those that are more delicate. A poorly-chosen beer can take a masterfully balanced dish and push it over the edge, into way-too-spicy territory. You'll be reaching for your water glass more often than your pint. The possibility for brutally clashing combinations outweighs the potential benefits that can be gained here.

What else to try:

You'll get much of what you seek from IPA in American pale ale, generally with less bitterness and sharp alcohol. These beers tend to have a bit more even a maltiness/hoppiness balance, which will make for more forgiving pairings and less potential for face-melting spiciness.

Hop-focused beers aren't the only realm worth exploring here, though. Czech pilsners have enough heft to hold their own amongst this bold cuisine, and their bready malt body and earthy hop flavor complement the food without intensifying heat too much. Hefeweizen is worthy of a nod, too. Its fermentation-born clove-like flavor fits right in amidst the cardamom, ginger, and curry used frequently in Indian food, and its lively carbonation will allow it to hold its own against the richer dishes.