A big beer will overwhelm a subtle dish, while a balanced beer could be obscured by powerful ingredients. Think about the beer’s strength of flavour and alcohol content. Sometimes big, robust dishes just need a big, robust beer
Compliment or contrast
Complimentary matches involve the same flavours in the beer and food. For example, a chocolate-y porter should go well with chocolate cake.
Contrasting flavours are different but compatible. For example, a fruity pale ale can contrast and cool hot spices and peppers.
Hops and bubbles
Beer and cider have the potential to cut through richness (oil) and cleanse the palate. This is through bitterness (hops) and carbonation (bubbles). That’s why beer goes so well with deep-fried food or rich dishes such as duck.
Where an element of the beer or the food just ties the two together. For example, look for a herbal note in an IPA which highlights the coriander in an Asian dish.
Region by region
Try regional food with regional-style beers. For example German weisswurst (sausage) and hefeweizen (German-style wheat beer), or a proper pork pie with an English-style bitter.
What are you drinking?
First and foremost – and it’s not a sin to say it – Lager loves a good packet of crisps; chicken, salt and vinegar … you name it. And in that vein, it’s best to keep things simple with Lager: a roast chicken, a club sandwich (with some crisps on the side, of course), salmon and cream cheese bagel, ham and pineapple pizza, cheddar cheese and crackers … you get the drift. Just don’t over-complicate things and let the beer do its work in refreshing and cleansing the palate.
Pilsners, with their refreshing, brisk hoppiness and gentle malt are like your charming friend who’s at ease in any social setting – they go well with nearly everything. Most commonly you’ll see Pilsner served with Asian foods like Thai and Indian. But they’re equally at home with modern food favourites such as a Reuben sandwich, Croque Monsieur, Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, Chinese pork buns … and because Pilsners don’t step on anyone’s toes they can dance happily with shellfish and light cheese such as a brie or camembert. Dessert-wise they’re much better suited to shortbread or simple cakes.
Pale Ale is a classic pub-grub match – burgers, pizza, roast chicken, grilled meats – but because the style is so closely associated with California it has evolved to match some of the cuisine you’d find there: think tacos, Pacific fusion, avocados. Pale Ale goes particularly well with nachos topped with sour cream and guacamole – the spices trade blows with the hops, sometimes accentuating each, sometimes cancelling each other out, while the fruity bitterness and bright carbonation of the Pale Ale does a great job of cutting through the fattiness of the avocado and sour cream, while tempering the salt on the chips. A classic Kiwi gourmet burger benefits from the same effect, while a roast chicken with kumara is a delicious Pale Ale partner.
With the hop flavour and bitterness turned up high, IPA needs big food to scrum against, as it can too easily overpower many dishes and have its own flavour tempered by the wrong match. Try it alongside rich food such as lamb shoulder, beef brisket, pulled pork, milder Indian curries, blue cheese and desserts such crème brûlée or cheesecake. Sweeter, juicier double IPAs go well with salty foods such as ham, sausages, hamburgers or cuisines that accentuate umami flavours. And anything with a sweet, salty gravy can be nicely offset by a big IPA. Try one beside salted caramel ice cream for a real taste twist.
The soft malt structure and firm, tannic bitterness of British-style ales is classically English so start thinking English pub food: a ploughman’s lunch where the fatty meats and cheeses complement the earthy bitterness, while the salty, tangy pickles will benefit from the beer’s gentle sweetness. A mixed grill, pork pies, toasted cheese sandwiches, battered fish or roast chicken are equally good accompaniments.
The intensity of flavours and the pronounced sweetness of Belgian strong dark ales make them a great substitute for red wines, sherry or port. They can go with almost any food but think of roast meats, especially salty or highly-seasoned meats, or gamey meats that go well with fruit, such as duck and venison. Smoked food including oily fish like mackerel can go extremely well with the sweet fruitiness while salty, stinky blue cheese is an ideal way to enjoy these big beers after dinner. And if there’s one time of year when you want to try these treats, it’s Christmas where ham, mince pies, Christmas cake, trifle and fresh berries all delight in sharing the table with a hefty Belgian beer.
American Brown Ales are universally food friendly – the sweet malt complexity with hints of nuts and fruit sits harmoniously alongside most meats, from simple barbecues to wintry stews. The hopped-up styles are the perfect match for my go-to chilli recipe. I’ve been perfecting a slow-cooked, chipotle and smoke-driven recipe for years and I’ve found this beer to be the best friend I’ve found for it. Dessert wise, it’s equally adaptable but is best paired with nuts and fruit. Perhaps a cheese board with walnuts and poached figs.
Stout, porter and black beer
Porters and Stouts are among the most food-friendly beers you can find. At one end of the spectrum a dry Stout has long been regarded as a perfect match for creamy, salty oysters. As weird it seems, it works – the rich, bitter dry char of the beer is the ultimate contrast to the briny sharpness of the oyster. Dry Stouts also love barbecue food, with the lovely blackened bits on the meat countering some of the ash notes in the beer to leave you with a perception of a sweeter finish. On that note, you will often hear recommendations to pair a sweet Stout or Porter with chocolate desserts. I say no, no, no. The dessert will always rob the beer of its choco-sweetness. Better to pair these sweeter beers with a plain dessert like vanilla ice cream, where the flavours can create friction and contrast. Sweet Porters and Stouts also like to mingle with smoky food to create a sultry mix that could conjure up the image of Nina Simone singing is a smoky dive bar. Cured meats, antipasto and shellfish also tango nicely with the sweeter styles.
Wheat and other grain beer
With their yeast dominance, tartness and spice Wheat beers are great food companions. The classic combo in Belgium is witbier with mussels and crusty bread where the tangy citrus spice of the beer cuts through the plump mussels. Better still is to use a witbier to steam the mussels in. Witbier is also at home with dishes other beers might not fancy such as delicate fish, risotto, creamy pasta and Caesar salad … and as a summer dessert match for strawberries and cream you can’t do much better. In fact, any time you might think a Sauvignon Blanc, try a witbier. But what happens when hops come into the mix and you turn up the volume as is the case with this year’s winner? Just think bigger flavours: fish and chips, paella, fish curry.
Cider’s tart fruitiness with the added spritz of bubbles takes it places where wine normally rules – and then beyond. The crisp, tart, fizziness cuts through all sorts of fats and creams and the fruit lends itself to salty and savoury foods. The most natural destination for cider is alongside pork – Asian-style pork belly, roast pork, sausages. But try it with creamy dishes such as creamy chicken pasta, cauliflower cheese, pumpkin soup and even creamy desserts such as cheesecake or trifle. Strong, aged cheddar is another perfect match. And if you’re looking for champagne breakfast with a twist, some freshly baked buttery croissants would go well with a dry pear cider, while gently hopped or fruited ciders will happily embrace the tempura batter and oily fish, like salmon and tuna, of Japanese cuisine.