A simple approach to beer and food matching

I've recently taken a slightly-too-keen-interest in the art of food and beer matching, even developing a simple framework for pairing the two. This 3-step approach is a great introduction for the uninitiated and easy enough to follow at home.


Step 1. Analyse the beer: before even thinking about food, you need to understand the key characteristics of the beer you want to match. As this involves copious amounts of tasting, it's also the most fun part of the process, so my advice is to take as much time as you need! Key aspects to consider include:

  • Flavour notes: can you detect red berry, spice, citrus, tropical fruit, caramel, chocolate, banana, or maybe mineral notes in the beer? Identifying individual flavour compounds will suggest complementary or contrasting ingredients for the final dish. To help, I'd recommend the "new beer flavour wheel", by Mark Dredge, which identifies the 85 different flavours most commonly found in beer.
  • Bitterness: used to offset spicy food and cut through richness. This means very bitter beers are ideal for foods that are naturally high in fat or cooked in oil.
  • Strength: particularly alcoholic drinks, such as Belgian Trappist beers, need robust food pairings to stand up to them.
  • Colour: is it dark or light? As a general rule lighter beers match well with lighter dishes - a lightly poached fillet of plaice will never go well with an Imperial stout. The Standard Reference Method (SRM), a system used by brewers to specify beer colour, is useful to assess this on a consistent basis.
  • Temperature: is the beer served cold or warm? The sensation of taste is more than just flavour, so temperature matching can also be useful - for example, pairing chilled lager with a spicy curry.
  • Carbonation: bubbles are a well known way of cleansing the pallet between mouthfuls.

Step 2. Identify candidate ingredients: use the beer's profile to identify "candidate" ingredients for your final dish. There are, broadly speaking, three areas to consider:

2(a) complements: ingredients with a similar flavour profile to those of the beer. For example, apricot wheat beer works well with light fruit based desserts. You could also consider the beer itself as an ingredient (think beer-based batters or stews). 

2(b) contrasts: foods that balance the main flavour profiles of the beer can also work well. For example, sweet and sour, or bitter and savoury.

2(c) cleanse: many naturally rich and fatty foods require something to cut through them and cleanse the palette. This might be because of the ingredients they contain (e.g. foie gras) or the cooking method used (e.g. frying). This can be achieved by bitterness from the hops or carbonation.

Much like the beer flavour wheel, I often refer to Niki Segnit's flavour thesaurus to help identify candidate ingredients. However, experience is usually enough to identify a suitable list of candidate ingredients.

Step 3. Develop matched dish: once you've identified potential ingredients you can develop complete dishes to match the beer. These might include elements that complement, contrast or cleanse; or - as you become more adept - a blend of all three.

As an example of how to use the framework consider Kirby's Pale Ale.

Analyse the beer: in Jon's own words, his beer "is a golden hoppy ale brewed with plenty of citra hops, giving a powerful aroma; it has an enjoyable session bitterness with additional amber malt giving a rich golden colour."

Candidate ingredients: For me, the tropical fruit from the citra hops is a real feature of this beer and I wanted to find a dish that incorporated similar flavours. The lingering bitterness from the hops also suggests it would pair well with something rich.

Develop matched dish: sometimes, you taste a beer and know immediately what you'd like to find on your plate. Chef Rob Spencer once introduced me to the combination of crab cakes and chilli-mango salsa, which would match this pale ale brilliantly. The bitterness of the ale cuts the natural richness of the brown crab meat, whilst the tropical fruit characteristics of the beer complement the salsa perfectly.

As you can see, beer matching doesn't need to be complicated, but done properly it's a great way to enhance your eating and drinking experience.

Many thanks to Jon Kirby for providing samples of his Kirby's Pale Ale. Hope you approve of the result...