As beer and food pairings go more and more mainstream – and believe me, they are! – I’m asked with steadily increasing regularity about how to best partner the two. Most often, I reply with a reiteration of my four basic guidelines for beer and food pairing, first posited over a decade ago in my book, A Taste for Beer. In brief, they are:
1. Think of Ale as Red Wine and Lager as White Wine: In other words, when red meat or any other dish that you normally pair with red wine is on the menu, select an ale to serve with it. Conversely, if the main course is fish or poultry, try a lager.
2. Hoppiness in Beer = Acidity in Wine: Anywhere that you would seek high acidity in a wine – such as with spicy, salty or oily food – choose a beer with significant hoppiness. The more acidic you would like the wine, the hoppier you will want the beer.
3. Complement or Contrast: Try to match foods to beers with complementary characters, such as a robust stew with a full-bodied ale. Or for a change, try a directly contrasting flavour, such as a crisp, delicate lager with a heavy cream soup.
4. Keep the Beer Sweeter than the Dessert: Nothing kills the flavour of a beer like the overpowering sweetness of a dessert. Keep the sugar contents of both beer and dessert balanced, however, and the pairing will work tremendously.
As a starting point, I believe they still work well. However, after recently enjoying and fully appreciating a pairing I did not concoct myself, I thought it might be fun to deconstruct the relationship of beer and food and present the detailed results. So here we go.
The dish and drink was enjoyed at the Duke of Westminster in Toronto as the concluding course of a beer dinner designed to showcase the beers of the London brewer Fuller’s, as well as welcome their Organic Honeydew to the local draught family. The beer was Fuller’s London Porter and the dish was described thusly: “Bittersweet Chocolate Tart, served warm, dusted with cocoa powder.”
This is a pairing that definitely violated Number 4, as the dessert was definitely sweeter than the beer, but as I always explain as a coda to that Guideline, you can do that with chocolate. Like beer, cocoa has a bitter component to it, even when sweetened liberally with sugar or fruit, and so a beer can play off that element even when it doesn’t necessarily have the malty sweetness to play in the same league.
Additionally, porters and stouts are great beers for chocolate pairings since they often have a cocoa or chocolate flavor to them, as do some Belgian dubbels, barleywines, brown ales and assorted other brews. (See how versatile beer is with chocolate? Try doing that with wine!)
And indeed, the cocoa dusting was key to the way this pairing worked, as it brought out all the roasty cocoa character of the ale, prompting me to make a note that I was tasting elements of the beer I hadn’t previously encountered. Additionally, Chef was wise to make the crust relatively dense and chewy, rather than light and fluffy, since a shorter crust would have provided more fat than the beer could properly balance.
Next, the chocolate filling itself was particularly well-balanced, neither too sweet (which would have overwhelmed the beer and made it taste sour, chocolate exception notwithstanding) nor too bitter (which again would have been at odds with the Fuller’s Porter, itself not a terribly bitter beer). And finally, by serving the tart warm, and the beer not too cold, the flavours in each were allowed to emerge and mingle with one another, creating the proverbial party in my mouth.
Simply, a splendid partnership of comestible and potable. Congratulations to all concerned.