The death-bell of wine as the drink of sophisticates echoed years ago. Beer rose on a golden tide, showing the world that finely-tuned tastebuds and working-class tastes weren't so far apart. Craft breweries have spent the last ten years growing so fast as to almost become a passe; now, whether you're in the middle of New York City or the middle of Nowhere, South Dakota, your options for elegant, excellent beer have exploded.
But with the increased interest, has come a question: are beer pairings ready to reach the table? Where a platter of steamed mussels once asked for a nice Sauvignon Blanc, can we confidently push the wine aside and serve a goblet of Dogfish Head's Namaste Witbier? Is there room beside a roast duck for anything other than a Cotes du Rhone?
Beer pairing is catching on in the more experimental restaurants. Why shouldn't you let it catch on in your kitchen?
The Complexities of Beer
Plenty of people seem to understand the basic tenets of pairing wines - if it's bread or fish, pick a white; game or fat, go red. Beer pairing is slightly more complex, and can seem intimidating. There isn't a clear divide between "light" and "dark" beer like you see in wine, which leads people to confusion. An IPA and a Hefeweizen may have the same color, but they are worlds apart in flavor. What to do, what to do?
In Body We Trust
Beer has a beautiful cheat if you don't want to memorize a table of flavors or guess at final outcomes. Better still, it's a cheat that actually requires you to take a drink. Dishes that traditionally rely on a white wine - things like fish, salad, lighter pastas - are foods that usually have brighter, more delicate flavors. If you know that's what you're cooking, take a drink of a beer. Does it feel thick in your mouth, like some stouts, wheats, or IPAs can? Better put that drink aside. Is it light, bubbly, or have little aftertaste? You're on to a winner. Vice versa with red meats and heavier bodies - if it's thick in your mouth, it'll pair well with that steak.
But I Don't Want A Stout in the Summertime
As with any other pairing, choosing the right beer pairing also means considering the weather. If it's too hot out for the style, no amount of flavor matching will make an oyster stout refreshing. A Thai salad may be what you crave after walking through winter, but you don't want to come in from the snow and be reminded of the cold with your American wheat ale. Don't disappoint yourself - and your guests - just to follow an arbitrary rule.
Simple Rules to Pair Your Booze
You've sent out your invitations, you've got your recipes prepared, and you've made sure the temperature outside - and in - is perfectly neutral. You've picked up a dozen different beers and tasted them all, and you still can't work out what beer pairing will be perfect with your pork. Don't worry. Relax, take a breath, and have a drink. It's not that hard.
If you're serving something hearty or meaty, something with a lot of reds and browns, your first choice should be a brown ale. It's not too heavy as to make your meal dense, but complex enough to balance the flavors nicely. Other interesting choices are a doppelbock, a strong ale, an amber lager, or even a Belgian-style dubbel. Serving something lighter, more delicate? The American wheat ale is your friend, but also consider a witbier, a kölsch, or a pilsner. Are you pairing your beer with something spicy? Pick a smooth, sweeter stout, or a rich, tasty red ale to soothe the burn... or go in the other direction and amplify that spice with a hoppy, spicy IPA!
Dinner isn't the only place to show off your beer pairings. When your dessert rolls around, why not suggest something intense to bring out that sweetness. Just like coffee and chocolate are friends, or chilies and ice cream, you can serve a small glass of some of beer's most intimidating flavors to go with almost anything decadently sweet. Pick up a double IPA, or a barleywine, or even a sour ale and watch your tastebuds soar.
Beer is ready for pairing at every table. Whether you're sipping a pale ale with your burger at lunch or chasing a mouthful of dinner enchiladas with one of the delicious Oktoberfest offerings that appear every year, you can find the right beer pairing for any meal. It's time to put aside the merlot at your next dinner party, and pick up a bottle of beer. Your taste buds will thank you.