How to pair food and beer
By Kerry Cyganiewicz
Sometimes, it’s hard to match the beer to the meal. Pairing food and beer is an inexact science. With Restaurant Week coming up in Worcester at the end of the month, I’ve created a basic guide that will help you get the most out of your meal ~ and your beer.
Seafood ~ Perhaps you are feeling like sushi. Maybe it is a special occasion, and steamed lobster is in your future. Baked haddock seems to be on just about every menu. Regardless your seafood choice, you simply cannot go wrong with a witbier. This style is usually cloudy and well-carbonated, with a long-lasting head that clings to the glass. It has a light mouthfeel, with notes of coriander and citrus. You might know it as Blue Moon or Shock Top Belgian White. Hoegaarden Original White Ale is the original witbier, and in my opinion, is outstanding, as is Allagash White. I just tried Sam Adams Cold Snap, and it was a very good example of the style and should be available everywhere by the time you read this.
Burgers ~ How times have changed. Ordering cheese used to be as fancy as burgers got. Now, not only are burgers made with different types of animal and non-animal protein, but bacon, mushrooms, hot peppers and even eggs are appearing as toppings. A more complex burger deserves a more complex brew. I recommend a Belgian dubbel. These are well-carbonated, malty, slightly spicy ales with a reduced hop character. Grimbergan Dubbel and Chimay Rouge (the red label) are excellent examples from Belgium. Alagash Dubbel Ale is brewed right in Maine and is readily available. I recently had the opportunity to enjoy a Trappistes Rochefort 6. It is brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium. It pours a deep copper with a small, persistent head. Its smell and taste are of sweet plum, raisin and a sweet tannin-like finish. Red wine drinkers should definitely try this style, as well as those that wish to have a flavorful beer without the hop bitterness or aroma.
Italian ~ This is probably the most difficult cuisine to pair with beer. Is it red sauce or cream? Spicy or bland? Northern Italian or Southern Italian? There are many more variables that I could list. Peroni is an Italian beer that is becoming available on draft at many establishments. I would recommend a Belgian aaison, otherwise known as farmhouse ale, to go with most Italian dishes. Ommegang Hennepin has been reviewed previously in this space. Saison Dupont and Boulevard Tank7 are other examples of the style that are easily found. I have a special place in my heart for Fantom Hiver (Winter Ghost) from Brasserie Fantome in Belgium. If you like wine, you will love this. It smells and tastes of orange, pepper, flowers, mint, apple and general nameless funk. There will be no shortage of dinner conversation trying to pick up all of the intricacies of Fantom Hiver. If you see it, or any other offerings from Fantom, try it.
Steak ~ There are many ways to order steak, but I will break it down into two broad categories. If you are ordering a basic steak with no sauce or special seasoning, skip to the last section of this article for the best option. If you are ordering blackened steak, prime rib, Steak Au Poivre or any other variety with a sauce or heavy seasoning, a stout is the way to go. Narragansett makes an Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout that has a light mouthfeel for those of you with an aversion to dark beers. At the other end of the spectrum is Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, which at more than 14% ABV is quite thick and dark. It is as smooth as crushed velvet. It’s also barrel-aged in old bourbon barrels, which gives it its complexity. My pick would be somewhere in the middle ~ Founders Breakfast Stout. At about 8% ABV, it is brewed with chocolate, coffee and oats. The coffee and chocolate come through in both the smell and the taste, while the oats add a full, smooth mouthfeel. It is a meal in itself.
Spicy ~ So many types of food fit into this category ~ Indian curries, hot wings, various types of Thai and Chinese cuisine and even a Lobster Fra Diavlo. You need something that stands up to the spice, but doesn’t leave your palate in shattered pieces. An IPA (Indian pale ale) will do the trick nicely. It is a natural with curry, going back to the invention of the style. Just about every brewery puts out an IPA. Harpoon and Wachusett Light IPA are good examples and available in most places. I have reviewed Ballast Point Sculpin and Sierra Nevada Torpedo here previously and would eagerly order either if they’re available. Maine Beer Company Lunch is an excellent beer, and if available, I would choose my dinner around this beer. It pours a beautiful tangerine head with a luscious creamy head. There are notes of citrus, tropical fruit, pine and a deep complex sweetness from the malt. This is one of the best IPAs I have ever had. Enjoy it with an extra spicy pad thai like I did and prepare for enlightenment.
Barbecue ~ If you have never had barbecue with a properly matched beer, you are in for a treat. You need something smoky, roasty, or both to stand up to the smoked meat and spicy-sweet sauces. A stout like a Guinness would do nicely. A Scottish ale, with its peat-smoked malt, would be excellent, as well. A Bellhaven Scottish Ale or an Innis and Gunn Oak Aged Beer are examples of the style. I prefer a porter. Stone Brewing Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean is my go-to beer for barbecue. It pours the color of root beer, with a head that is reminiscent of a vanilla shake. It has complimentary notes of smoke, chocolate, vanilla and an earthy goodness. It accents barbecue nicely and is also available without the vanilla.
Everything Else (or I am not sure what I am eating) ~ Perhaps you are having something not listed here. Maybe you have no clue what your host is feeding you, but you eat it anyway out of courtesy. Do not fret; a pale ale goes with just about everything. Berkshire Brewing Steel Rail and Bass Ale are readily available choices. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an old favorite of mine. Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blue’s Brewing Company gets the nod. It pours a clear orange, with a fluffy, 1-inch head. There’s some fruit, some cereal and a touch of citrusy pine in the background. It tastes as it smells, but better. It is familiar and comfortable; try it with your new mother-in-law’s/roommate’s/third date’s mystery dish and you will see.