Beer pairing has the same transformative effect on food as wine, but the transformation is entirely different. Pouring a liter of lager with your wings won't exactly result in a Michelin three-star meal, but superficial flavors will fall in line like Tetris pieces to build and unlock even bigger, more harmonious flavors. The depth and subtlety of some beers can't be released without a corresponding bite of curry, or piquant sauce, or pungent cheese.
The habit of ordering a drink before you've looked at a dinner menu can undermine your pairing possibilities. (Unless you're settling in for multiple rounds.) Anticipate your food cravings and order a beer for pairing to upgrade your dining experience from the tepid mediocrity of a Coldplay ballad to the irresistible fun of a Childish Gambino rhyme.
Where the nuances of wine pairing can humble you to become overly reliant on that sommelier, matching beer with food can be surprisingly accessible. Common-sense values will get you far, and matching intensity is an easy rule of thumb: Pilsner and pretzels are lightweight flavors, barbecued ribs and Imperial Russian Stout are heavyweight.
Celebrated beer author Randy Mosher outlined three basic principles for beer pairing. Start with flavor equality, like a pastrami sandwich and rye beer. Take another approach and look for complementary flavors in a vanilla creme brulee with a tart cherry lambic. Alternatively, think about contrast: A hoppy IPA will combat spicy enchiladas to make them even hotter.
Grilled cheese short rib sandwich at Little Bear. Lager-braised short ribs, smoked Maasdam cheese, arugula, crispy onions.
Biere de Garde 6.5% abv, from Taps Brewing Company (Brea).
Flavor equality -- Malty beer + braised meat. The degree of toastiness that comes from the grain in the beer is equal to the level of caramelization in the meat.
Why It Works:
Little Bear (former Surly Goat) bar manager Andrew Kelley says, "The slight bite of the beer and carbonation cut through mouth-coating cheese. The malt backbone of the beer subtly mimics the sweetness of the meat and naturally highlights smokiness in the cheese. Subtle, ripe fruit flavors in the beer are intensified by the tang of arugula and onion in the sandwich."
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Brouwerij West Tripel. Says Kelley, "The high carbonation works in much the same way; however, the creamy mouth feel of that beer works to complement the cheese more than counteract it, and its light stone-fruit character balances out the darker, roasty sweetness of the meat. Its high clove and black pepper spice and slight astringency on the finish plays upon the arugula and helps cleanse the palate for the next bite."
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Erika Bolden writes about her compulsive food and drink habit at The Weblog, and on Twitter @Erikabolden.