Food and Beer Pairing

In the early 2000s, Garrett Oliver set out on a colossal endeavor: to convince the general public that the most pleasurable pairings of food and beverage are not accomplished with wine alone. In fact, Oliver argues in his book, “The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering The Pleasures Of Real Beer With Real Food” (2003, Ecco) that the complexities and range of flavors inherent in beer leave diners with little choice but to serve Märzenbier with charred steak or oatmeal stout with cheesecake.

The first obstacle Oliver had to overcome was redefining many Americans’ concepts of beer. As Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, notes in his book, “If you’ve tasted only mass-market beer, I’m afraid that you haven’t actually tasted beer at all.”

Discovering Real Beer

The truly flavorful, particularly complex beers of which Oliver speaks spark a moment of discovery when first tasted, much like hearing a certain type of music for the first time.

“Think of it this way: if you are a big jazz fan, there came one day when somebody played you your first Coltrane record or your first Miles Davis record, and it might have been a small moment,” Oliver says. “It might have only lasted five minutes, ten minutes or half an hour, but on that day, a little door opened up for you and on the other side of that door was a better life. You will now be a jazz fan, and you will get lots of pleasure over the course of your life from the enjoyment of jazz. So, I look at teaching people about beer as being something very similar to that, which is a small moment that turns into something you can enjoy for the rest of your life.”

Oliver vividly recalls his first experience with true beer, 20 years ago and fresh out of college. “When I first had cask-conditioned beer in England, it was genuinely an epiphany for me,” he says. “I had never known that beer could be so interesting and complex and enjoyable. Before that, beer was just there.”

The second barrier Oliver met was convincing wine-lovers that beer provides a much broader range of flavors than wine. “Beer flavor is much, much wider than wine flavor,” he says. “You go all the way from imperial stout to a Belgian-style wheat beer, and even in those two styles, you have a much wider range of flavor than you have from the lightest white wine to the heaviest red wine.”

“Really, the big take-home message about beer is that you have wonderful complexity, you have wonderful abilities for food matching, you have a much wider range of flavor to work with.”

Oliver is so sure of his conviction that foods — even desserts — pair well with beer, that one time, Oliver invited the top sommeliers of New York City to a luncheon at Gramercy Tavern and challenged them to come up with the name of one wine that paired better with the rich, chocolate desserts, than his beer selection. The wine enthusiasts were shocked at Oliver’s audacity, and many admitted afterward that they had “beer epiphanies.”

According to Oliver’s book, those poor sommeliers were sitting ducks. “My challenge was a bit unfair — wine never stood a chance. I served my own Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, an imperial stout with a huge, complex dark chocolate and coffee flavor, and Lindemans Framboise, a sweet Belgian lambic fermented with outrageously fragrant raspberries.”

Beer. Food. Food. Beer.

Oliver acknowledges that food and beer have had an ongoing relationship for the past thousand years. However, his book aims to formalize this relationship. According to the New York Times, Oliver’s knack for pairing the two is “brilliant.” Here is what he told Brew Your Own regarding pairing food and beer:

“First, you’re going to start off by making sure that one does not overwhelm the other, and that’s what I refer to as matching up the ‘impact’ of the food and the beer.” To Oliver, “impact” is generated by the intensity and weight of the food. “We want the beer and food to engage in a lively dance, not a foot-
ball tackle.”

“So, it’s pretty simple. You want to make sure that you’re not going to serve an imperial stout with delicate fish,” he says. “You’re not going to serve a really powerfully spicy dish with a beer that’s so light that you would be unable to taste the beer. Once you’ve done that, then really the principles come down to finding what the harmonies are between the beer and the food. Wine tends to work more on a contrast basis, so you have a contrast between the flavor of the wine and the flavor of the food, whereas beer is better at being a harmony.”

“Flavors such as caramelized flavors, for example, in food can be linked up with caramelized flavors in beer, and that tends to be a really pleasant combination. And you can take it from there.”

Certain herbs and spices used in cooking lend themselves to specific types of beer. “I would say that rosemary, thyme, and tarragon tend to work quite well with beers that have herbal flavors, and that would include Belgian tripels and dubbels, and especially French bières de garde, which are very herbal in their flavors,” Oliver says.

If you’d prefer to design your meals to match your beer rather than vice versa, Oliver offers advice for
dish selection.

“Your cooking can also be changed to bring it closer to your beer,” he says. “For example, if you’ve roasted a chicken or something, you might decide before you serve it that you’re going to pan sear the surface, to slightly blacken the surface of the skin. So you might take a leg off, and then toss it into a hot pan for a couple of minutes. Hopefully the skin is brown anyway, but then you turn it dark brown. That’s going to make that particular dish pair up even better with a beer that has caramelized or roasted flavors, because you’ve developed even more of that kind of character in the dish itself.”

Oliver warns that, as an exception to the rule, some seemingly complementary flavors do not pair well. “I think that many people will try to pair barleywines with dessert, because they have some residual sweetness. However, despite the fact they have residual sweetness, usually they also have a very high level of bitterness,” Oliver says. “You have to be fairly careful to see whether or not that’s going to work. Aside from that, I’ve seen all kinds of interesting attempts at pairings: IPAs with chocolate, for example, which I’ve never really quite got, but some people might like.”

Pairing the perfect beverage, whether beer or wine, proves difficult for one common dish. “To this day, I have to say I still have not found something that’s entirely convincing with a straight tomato sauce with no cheese, when it comes to beer,” he says. “It’s also the most difficult thing to pair with wine. My friends who are sommeliers tell me that basically they recommend the rosé and then they go
and hide. There’s nothing you can do that truly matches with a straight marinara sauce.”

Some dinner themes tend to go better with beer than any type of wine. “Last night I was out eating Indian food at one of the places where we did some pictures for the book, Tabla,” Oliver says. “They have a very nice wine list, but even the general manager there says that their beer list, which is quite considerable, really works with the food much better than the wine list since the food is all very spicy. The flavor profiles just tend to work better with beers.”

Indian cuisine doesn’t stand alone as an ethnic cuisine pairing better with beer than with wine. “Thai food, which does tend to be spicy, is much too spicy for most wines,” Oliver says. “You could apply that also to Vietnamese and a couple of other Asian cuisines. And then there’s Mexican food, which I have generally found to be very complementary to beer and not that friendly to wine. Also, sushi, which I think is great with sake, I’ve never found it to be at all convincing with wine,” Oliver adds, “but beer can work wonderfully with it, especially wheat beers, which is one reason why in Japan now, they have their own microbrewing revolution. You see people brewing lots of Belgian and German style wheat beers because they have chosen a style which works well with the local cuisine.”

So, several ethnic foods pair well with beer. What about regular-old-cook-out foods? Not to fear. “The same is true of barbecue, which is a pretty broad area, I know,” Oliver says. “Not that you can’t do some types of barbecue with some wines, but beer works better with the smoky flavors and the caramelization.”

Homebrew and Food

Pairing specific foods with specific types of beer is described in detail in “The Brewmaster’s Table” — but what if the beer you are serving does not clearly fit into a category? What if it’s a homebrew that defies categorization? How can you identify your perfect brew/meal combination?

“If you break up the beer’s flavor into its components, say caramelization, roast, citrusy flavors, and then think, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a dish then, with citrusy flavors,’” Oliver says. “Say I have a citrusy flavor because I used Simcoe as a hop, which has a very orangey, citrus character to it. Then you think about what dishes have lemon juice, lime juice, et cetera. Well, Thai food does. Lots of lime juice in Thai food, generally speaking. Then you look at the impact of the beer and the food — do these seem to match up? Well, yes because you have a big, flavorful beer with big, flavorful food. And if you try those things together, you will see the way those harmonies come together.”

Oliver explains this theory using a specific example. “Same thing if you take, say, a steak, and you look at the steak and think what the steak is actually about,” he says. “You have the flavor of the meat, but frankly, the steak is mostly about how it’s cooked. If I offer you a grilled steak or a boiled steak, even if they’re both medium rare, you’re not going to want the boiled one, I can promise you. It’s really about the grilling, so what’s that about? It’s about caramelization and char. So, you think about caramelization and char and what beer ingredient flavors are going to lead in that direction — you look at caramelized malts, you look at roasted malts, you look at smoked malts. And all of those things are going to harmonize with that character that you get from grilling a steak.”

Homebrewers know that hop choice plays a significant role in the taste of the beer. After all, hops are one of the “big four.” According to Oliver, hop choice can directly affect the foods that should be paired with the homebrew.

“Hop variety certainly can provide what I refer to as the flavor hook,” he says. “That is, the particular harmony that something might work with. I mean, American hops tend to have a lot of citrus flavors, they tend to have flavors of, say, pine needles, and these flavors are very close to certain herbs, like cilantro. And cilantro tends to pair up very nicely with American hop varieties. Lime juice and lemon juice tend to pair up very well with American hop varieties.”

Spreading the Word

As a homebrewer, telling you to pair beer with food is like preaching to the choir. So, how do you convince your friends that wine is passé and beer is here to stay? Not tough to do, according to Oliver.

“I mean, some of the best beers in the world cost less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks, which is pretty amazing when you think about it,” Oliver says. “You might have a brewery that’s been in a family for 200 years, one of the best producers of some particular type of beer, say Schneider Weisse, and you go out and get a Schneider Weisse for $2 or $2.50, and turn a meal into a wonderful meal, whereas a bottle of a wine of similar complexity will probably cost you $20 and up.”

The Brewmaster’s Top Picks

Oliver pauses for only a moment before describing his favorite beer-meal combinations. “Belgian farmhouse ales with any number of Thai dishes, I think, are wonderfully explosive and complex, enjoyable combinations,” he says. “For a casual meal, with a pork chop and doppelbock, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. There’s something about the nutty flavor of good pork and the nutty flavor that you have from the German malt in doppelbocks that just make those two things go together.”

Lots of people are familiar with the best wines and champagnes. So, what, according to Oliver, is the “Roederer Cristal” of beer?

“These days, I think that title would probably be taken by the Brouwerij Bosteels in Belgium and the beer’s called Deus,” he says. “It actually goes through the methode champanoise (the traditional method of Champagne production). And it’s a wonderfully light, fluffy beer, but it’s about 11.5%, so it’s quite strong. Wonderful flavors, and it beats out most Champagnes pretty easily, I’d say.”

As far as home-entertaining, Oliver feels beer can add to any dining experience. “For the time being, only some restaurants so far have great beer lists, but people can have great beer lists at home all the time. It makes entertaining a lot different, because whether you’re just serving some hors d’oeuvres, or you’re going to be serving a big, serious meal, you have a wide range of flavors to choose from,” he says.

“Also, you really have a much better opportunity to show people something new, exciting, and different when it comes to beer. To a lot of people, white wine tastes like white wine and red wine tastes like red wine. And there’s not a huge difference between all the different types, so it’s kind of hard for people to make out. Well, it’s pretty easy for anybody to tell the difference between an IPA and a stout. These are much bigger differences in flavor, so you have a lot more to work with.

After a long pause, Oliver sums up his passion for matching beer and food with a final thought. “Basically, what you want is to have something come together and become larger than its parts,”
he says. “You don’t want just one thing or just the other. At the end of the day, what you want is the two things to come together and become something better than either of them were by themselves.”

“I have hosted about 500 beer dinners and tastings over the years, and so I run into people all the time, who tell me, ‘Oh, I took a tasting with you ten years ago and it really opened my eyes, and I’m drinking this and that,’ and it’s so great to hear that, because otherwise, if that person hadn’t gone to that beer tasting, they may never have even discovered great beer. And now they’re enjoying themselves so much more than they would have before.”


Here’s a quick guide to some food-friendly beer styles and the foods that often pair well with them.

American amber ale
barbecued chicken
pork ribs

American pale ale
salted almonds

Belgian strong golden ale
pasta with pesto
tandoori chicken

Brown ale
bison, burgers and steak

au gratin potatoes

Fruit beers

roast chicken
macaroni and cheese

most Asian foods

Sour beers
crème brûlée

beef stew

most Asian foods
fish (and sushi)

Issue: July-August 2006