Wine pairing for meals is a pretty popular concept. So why not beer? For some reason, when we drink beer with food, we aren’t as likely to stop and taste and think about the flavors that the beer and food bring out in each other. You can open your friends’ eyes (and taste buds) to a whole new world of culinary delight, and have a ton of fun doing it.
We’ve hosted a few beer pairing events in the last year or two. My husband Chris is a homebrewer and certified by the BJCP (Beer Judging Certification Program). Together, we brainstorm menus and pairings, then he takes care of the narration while I dish up small plates of goodness to go with his beer selection. It’s one of our favorite things to do together, and I’d like to think we’re pretty good at it.
The events we’ve planned have been seated, multi-course meals, but you could recreate this concept at a reception-style party with finger foods or small plates, depending on your budget and how many guests you’d like to accommodate. And it’s also worth noting that you do NOT have to be a BJCP-certified homebrewer to host a beer pairing dinner. In fact, I’m hoping that this post inspires you to do it yourself, no matter your level of beer expertise!
Before diving into our menu from this most recent event, let’s go over some general concepts, both for pairing choices and for logistics.
VARIETY: It’s good to offer a variety of beers, and tasting in order from lightest to darkest is usually the best bet. There are some exceptions — you’ll see we ended with a sour for our dessert pairing — but you don’t want to start with a very intense/dark/heavy/hoppy beer that may deaden your senses to the following courses.
FLEXIBILITY: Offering just one beer with each food course is OK, but you could be limiting the experience and knowledge to be gained. It may not be feasible to pour all the beers at once; however, even just offering two beers with a certain food course (or two distinct food flavors with one beer) could help people figure out what they do or do not like, and will encourage some great discussion among the participants. It’s always cool to hear which pairings people prefer and why, and that helps other guests notice things they may not have otherwise noticed. Get people started by telling them about the featured food and beer, why you chose to pair them, and what flavors to look for in each. Once you get the discussion going, encourage them to share their opinions. In later courses, simply introduce the fare and let your guests comment without any prompting! They should be pros by now.
QUANTITY: Don’t overdo it on number of beers or volume of each “taster.” Limiting the selection to about six or less is probably wise. That will allow a great variety but shouldn’t overwhelm anyone. And the amount you pour for each taste should be large enough to get a feel for the beer but not so large that everyone’s drunk by dessert. Do the math. Six 3-oz beers = 18 oz. Over the course of a long, casual meal, that’s a reasonable amount to drink. Too much more than that and you may not be fit to judge a good pairing from a bad one.
CREATIVITY: There are some rules of thumb (see ours below) but don’t feel bound to the “normal” pairings. Throwing in an unpredictable match will make the event more interesting. And if you pick a pairing that everyone hates, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s an awesome opportunity to learn!
Some Pairing Rules of thumb:
- Similar to wine pairing, sweet foods will make sweet beers or ciders taste less sweet. That may be okay, but it’s something to be aware of when choosing pairs.
- Beers with intense flavors will overwhelm wimpy foods, and vice versa. It was easier to note the complexities of our cider when paired with the cheese course than it would have been if we’d served it along side the short rib sliders.
- Any beer with a high alcohol percentage or strong hop bitterness can intensify the effect of spicy foods. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paired together. We purposely pair IPAs with spicy foods for this reason. Take care not to make the food too spicy on its own, and be sure to warn guests of that effect in advance. Allowing guests to regulate their own spice level (e.g. by serving tacos with hot sauce on the side) will help ensure that everyone gets the intended experience at their own level of comfort. And if you’re offering a double pairing with your spicy course, consider a more malty beer to calm the spiciness.
- It’s not just about flavors, but also about mouth feel. Greasy foods that leave a “film” in your mouth (eww…) will pair nicely with highly carbonated beers, as the carbonation will help wash away that filmy feeling. Alternatively, if you don’t want to wash away that dark chocolate truffle so quickly, maybe you should pair it with a smooth stout.
- Don’t serve the beer too cold, or the flavors you selected so carefully won’t be as prominent.
I hope these lists give you some ideas. If you’re looking for even more inspiration, check out the menu we planned below. Refer to the bottom of the post for recipe notes. And peep the full short rib sliders recipe here.
first course: cheeses (manchego, raspberry ale-soaked BellaVitano, and fresh ladysmith); salami; honey chevre almond apricots; tomato mustard tart
second course: spicy crab dip; shrimp tacos
third course: stout-braised short rib sliders; green salad
beer pairing: Bock
dessert: flourless chocolate cake
beer pairing: Raspberry Sour
This menu is merely a suggestion. This is the way we did it one time, and we will surely do it differently next time, just to keep things interesting. Feel free to copy any of these pairings for your own dinner, but also be open to your own new ideas!
Our shrimp tacos featured shrimp seasoned with a bit of cayenne, paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper. Saute those and place on corn tortilla with mashed avocado, cilantro, radishes, and a lime wedge on the side.
The spicy crab dip was a mixture of lump crab, cream cheese, mayo, lemon zest and juice, peppers, spices, hot sauce, and fresh herbs. I roughly followed this recipe.
The flourless chocolate cake recipe is here, and it was outstanding. We topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a little blueberry.
And the short rib sliders are detailed in this post.
Trying out pairings in advance (though not everyone will have the same taste preferences as you) is the best way to ensure your choices are good. But you could also wing it based on some rules of thumb and your general knowledge.
Pay attention to the intentional and unintentional pairings you make during your everyday life, and if you find something you feel strongly about, make a note of it. As I type, I’m sitting here drinking a hefeweizen and eating a raspberry macaron, and it’s a wonderful match. May have to add that to the menu next time!
Do you have any favorite pairings? Or stories of disastrous combinations? Let us know in the comments below!