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...


Beer - more than a match for curry and kebabs

For most people, food and beer matching is an anathema – odd, when you consider how well-matched wine transforms a simple meal into a special occasion. I recently hosted my 40th at a restaurant run by Roux scholar Kenneth Culhane who offers both a beer and wine flight with his tasting menu. Almost everyone tried the beers, and had a much more interesting time because of it, showing how well good matching can work. 

To help understand the process better, I’ve enlisted the help of craft brewer and CAMRA member Jon Kirby. Over the coming months we’ll taste a variety of his brews and develop recipes that work well together.

The beer

Jon’s first offering, Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, is a “strong Mild with a deeply rich character, the crystal and black malt giving a dark colour and an acid bite to finish. Despite the strength it has a smooth character and plenty of malty flavour.”

Where to start?

When matching any beer, you first need to determine its key flavour notes. As well as helping to identify foods that will work, this is a great exercise in developing your palate and appreciating the elements that make each beer different. 

For this particular brew, it didn’t take a lot of “taste testing” to identify the predominant flavours of malt, dark chocolate, coffee and red fruit.

Even for newcomers to the art, picking out individual flavours this way makes it easier to start identifying food matches. From the simple list of ingredients above, most people could start to imagine dishes that might work well.

Complement or contrast?

The next consideration is whether to complement or contast the beer with the main flavours in the food. Either approach works well, but in this case, the bitterness would complement any big savoury dish, such as a robust game stew, whilst the chocolate and coffee notes would work well with toffee or caramel dishes such as crème brulee. Keep in mind that you do not always have to match the main protein element, i.e. the fish or meat, but might match a dressing, sauce or side dish.

Match strength with strength

Finally, you need to think about the beer’s strength in terms of alcohol, flavor and colour. This ruby mild is pretty strong on all three fronts and so requires a robust food match - this isn’t something to drink with lightly poached white fish…

The result

I decided to match Jon’s beer with a cherry and chocolate clafoutis. As a warm dessert, it brings back memories of drinking dark beers by a roaring country pub fire. To complement the colour and flavour profile I’ve added bitter chocolate to the batter and macerated the cherries in kirsch to really maximize their “cherryness”. Serving a scoop of vanilla ice cream completes the black forest gateaux homage, which works brilliantly with the chocolate and red fruit notes in the beer, as well as providing a temperature and flavour contrast for the dish itself.

Cherries, chocolate and booze - what's not to like?

For those who struggle with the idea of drinking beer with dessert I also created a welsh rarebit as a more conventional alternative. The mature hard cheese, sage and onion make this a particularly savoury version and there is just enough of Jon’s beer in the recipe to tie the food and drink together.

Hopefully we’ve got you thinking that wine is not the only option when matching food. Celebrity chef Tom Kerridge famously serves a shot glass of dark ale with his chocolate ale cake at the two Michelin starred Hand & Flowers - and if it’s good enough for him…