Perfect Winter Pairings

Pairing beer with food is a great skill to have. In a good pairing, the combination will coax out interesting flavor nuances in both the food and the beer; it will be greater than the sum of its parts. The right combination will bring your dining experience to a whole new level as the flavors in the beer and food interact and play off each other in new and sometimes surprising ways.

Although bringing beer to the table is becoming more commonplace these days, especially with the proliferation of brewpubs over the past decade or two, the more common belief is that wine is the beverage best suited for pairing with dining experiences. Why is that? One theory of note is that, for many years, the majority of fine-dining establishments served Italian or French food. These are two countries where wine is more traditionally served at the table (although both now have thriving craft beer movements as well). It therefore became natural to think of wine as the beverage that should be served with higher-end food, and to relegate beer to pubs.

Another reason that certainly helps explain why pairing beer and food is not as common in North America when compared to some other countries, like Belgium for example, is that the ability to compellingly pair beer with food is fairly new. This has to do with the fact that for a good 30 years the beer selection in North America was very limited. In the years following Prohibition, breweries had to merge and consolidate in order to thrive. They also pared down brands to be more efficient and, as a result, the beer landscape was almost entirely populated with golden colored, lightly flavored, highly carbonated lagers. That’s not a lot to work with food-pairing wise. Had the only wine available to us for those 30 years been a range of oak-aged Chardonnays, we probably wouldn’t be pairing wine with food either. 

Those days are long gone, thankfully, and this is a fantastic time to get into pairing beer with food. With such a large selection of beer styles and flavors to choose from — from light, crisp Pilsners, to full-bodied, complex weizenbocks, and dry, tart fruit lambics, it’s possible to find a great match for any dish.

In a nutshell, putting together a pairing involves breaking down the characteristics in the beer you plan to drink, and then finding a dish with characteristics that will work well with those in the beer (or vice versa). At a beginner level, there are three characteristics of the beer and food to consider: Intensity, tastes, and flavors. Beyond these three aspects there is a lot of room for fine-tuning to get from good to great pairings, but aligning the intensity, tastes, and flavors of your beer and food will reliably yield a harmonious match. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these three characteristics.

Intensity is the overall impact of a beer or food. At a high level, the concept of intensity is quite straightforward: With beer, a double IPA, for example, is more intense than a witbier and, with food, a vindaloo is more intense than hominy grits. When picking a food to pair with your beer, your best bet is to match their respective intensities. If you drink a light lager with a chocolate cake, the richness of the cake will completely overwhelm the delicate character of the beer. On the flipside, if you pair a doppelbock with a green salad, the delicate flavors in the salad will be hard to appreciate. Although it is possible to get quite granular when gauging intensity, working with a general impression is a great first step.

On to taste. Tastes are the structural characteristics of the beer. They include bitterness, sweetness, acidity, umami, and — in the case of Gose — salt. In a food-pairing context, these tastes all interact with each other differently. They can also interact with other sensations such as warming and cooling sensations, from wasabi or mint, for example. Some interactions, like the one between acidity and salt (think salt and vinegar chips) are harmonious, while others like acidity with sweetness (imagine having a chocolate marshmallow brownie with a side of pickles) will result in a sharp distortion of flavors. While it’s good to be aware of common taste interactions when experimenting with beer and food pairing, the best way to learn about them is through trial and error. Once you taste an unpleasant interaction, you never forget it!

Wine isn’t the only beverage that pairs well with food. With the wide array of beer flavors and styles, it’s possible to find a great beer match for any dish by considering the intensity, tastes, and flavors of both.

The third characteristic to consider when approaching beer and food pairing is flavor. Both beer and food have a large range of possible flavors. There is also a notable overlap between the two. Malt flavors, such as cereal, cracker, biscuit, bread, toast, caramel, toffee, coffee, and chocolate can all be found in food. Similarly, there are a wide range of fruity and spicy flavors in beer that mirror food ingredients and flavors. When putting together a pairing, you want to look at flavors that either match or work well together. For example, a beer with lemon notes can be paired with a dish like lemon chicken, which is prepared with lemons, or with a dish like wiener schnitzel, which is typically served with lemon. Both approaches work, but it’s best to resist the temptation to pair beers and foods that match too closely (raspberry beer with raspberry pie, for example). While this type of pairing will work in a pinch, because of the similarity in flavor, it won’t be particularly compelling.

Focusing on these three traits and taking the time to align the intensity, considering interactions and finding complementary flavors is an effective technique and yields solid beer and food pairings. Having covered the basics, we’re now going to focus on pairing foods with high-ABV beers and then three specific styles that are great for the wintertime (and happen to be featured in this issue’s cover story found online here.

Pairing Food with Big Beers

Winter is a great time to indulge in fuller-bodied, high-alcohol styles that might be less enjoyable in hot weather. These include barleywine, wheatwine, and imperial stout; beers with a warming quality and round, luscious mouthfeel as well as a more notable sweetness. Their rich, warm character makes them ideal sippers in cold weather. Although these beers certainly have enough presence and complexity to be enjoyed on their own, they’re also great with food. In fact, pairing them with food can highlight new dimensions of flavor and bring a new appreciation for the many contexts in which each style can be enjoyed. Let’s now take a moment to examine intensity, taste interactions, and possible flavor combinations with these styles.

These beers all have a similar high intensity. This intensity comes from a combination of high alcohol, complexity of flavors, richness, a full body, and moderate sweetness. Their high intensity works out well for food pairing in the winter months because it can be matched with some of the more intense, richer foods that we gravitate to for comfort in cold weather. The foods that pair with these beers will derive their intensity from a notable flavor impact or a rich texture and, in many cases, both. This combination of characteristics will allow the foods to stand up to these bold beers and, with the appropriate combination of complementary tastes and flavors, yield an array of complex and satisfying pairings.

In terms of interactions, the key trait to be aware of in these strong beers is alcohol warmth, which can be notable in all three styles as they tend to hover around 9–12% ABV. The warmth of alcohol reacts with certain tastes in a way that can overwhelm both the dish and the pairing. The first characteristic to approach with caution is a high salt content. A dish like salt cod stew, for example, will lose its nuance of flavors and taste sharply salty when paired with a high-alcohol beer. High bitterness in food is another trait best avoided when pairing with high-alcohol beers. This is less of a concern because rich dishes that also have a strong bitterness are quite rare. The third characteristic to be mindful of with these beers is spicy heat. The warming sensation of a high-alcohol beer will aggravate the capsaicin heat in food to distracting levels, detracting from the flavors in both the beer and the food. 

While barleywine, wheatwine, and imperial stout are alike in intensity and share a similar alcohol warmth, when it comes to flavor, there are a number of nuances to consider. Each of these three styles has its own balance of flavors, resulting in a wide number of pairing options. Their flavor differences allow for fine-tuning to find the best candidate to pair with any given hearty/rich food. Let’s next examine the flavor profiles of each of these three bold styles as well as the types of food that might best pair with each.

Barleywine Pairings

There are both matching and complementary flavors when pairing barleywine with roasted, seared, braised, or stewed meats. Roasted duck with plum sauce is a great pairing as the Maillard products and caramelization in the beer matches that of the roasted duck and complements the sweet plum sauce.

Barleywines are English in origin and date back to the late 1800s. They have a round, chewy malt presence that features varying levels of caramel flavor, depending on the interpretation, as well as a complexity of toast, biscuit, and other Maillard products. These malt flavors are accompanied by dried fruit esters that can range from prune, raisin, and fig to plums and dark berries. Hop aromas and bitterness varies, depending on the interpretation. Some barleywines have an English character, with delicate earthy or floral hop notes and enough bitterness to balance the malt. Others are American in style, typically with bold citrus or resinous hop notes and an accompanying firm bitterness. 

When it comes to main courses, barleywines call for roasted, seared, braised, or stewed meats, especially lamb or duck. Here we find both matching flavors and complementary flavors because the Maillard products and caramelization match the seared and caramelized flavors of the cooked meat and the dark fruit notes mimic common accompaniments to the meats (think duck with plum sauce or lamb with blueberry sauce). The richness of barleywines, along with their sweeter caramel and dried fruit notes are also a great match for paté or foie gras, which are commonly served with caramelized onions and dried fruit respectively. 

Dessert-wise, barleywines are great with crème brûlée where caramel flavor serves as a bridge, allowing other flavors in the beer and food to shine. 

When it comes to cheese, English-style barleywines pair very well with aged, caramelized cheddar, while the added intensity of the American-style makes it well-suited for bolder blue cheese. In both cases, the combination of sweet malt and fruit flavors of the barleywine mirror sweet notes in the cheese and a chutney or dried fruit accompaniment.   

Wheatwine Pairings

Sweet potato pie pairs perfectly with wheatwine as the bread and honey flavors tie in with the crust and delicate sweetness of the pie.

Wheatwines are the most modern of these three styles, having emerged in the United States in the late 1980s. They are typically lighter in color than barleywines, often deep gold or pale amber. Although interpretations vary, the most compelling examples are brewed to highlight the bready and honey-like flavors of wheat, which forms a large part of the grain bill and lends its name to this style. Consequently, caramel, toast, or biscuit notes from specialty malts are usually very light, as are hop aromas, and there is just enough bitterness to clip the malt, without overpowering it. These beers also have fruit esters that can lean towards dried fruit or sometimes reflect dark fruit notes such as plum or black cherry.

Wheatwines, being lighter than barleywines and more bready in flavor, fare better with lighter roasted gamey meats like pheasant and rabbit. While the body and deep fruit flavors of these beers allows them to stand up to any sauces and condiments required to offset the dryness of the meat, their leaner flavor leaves room for the delicate, gamey flavors in the meat to shine through. Examples of other foods that benefit from this combination of rich texture and delicate flavors include meatier fish (such as swordfish) and mild chickpea curries. 

For dessert pairings, wheatwines work well with sweet potato pie. The bread and honey flavors tie in with the crust and delicate sweetness of the pie, highlighting the baking spices and whipped cream. Another fun option is French croquembouche, which has a similar balance of flavors to sweet potato pie, but a completely different texture. 

Cheese-wise, wheatwines are a good match for Limburger. Wheat and honey flavors in the beer mirror the grassy notes and light sweetness of the cheese, without masking that trademark funk. 

Imperial Stout Pairings

There are both matching and complementary flavors when pairing barleywine with roasted, seared, braised, or stewed meats. Roasted duck with plum sauce is a great pairing as the Maillard products and caramelization in the beer matches that of the roasted duck and complements the sweet plum sauce.

Imperial stouts, like barleywines, originate in England and date back to the late 1700s. These beers are dark brown or black and opaque from the use of dark roasted malts, which also give them bold coffee, cocoa, or chocolate notes. These bold, bitter flavors are usually supported by softer malt notes of caramel or toast as well as fruit esters that contribute aromas of figs, dates, prunes, or raisins. Some interpretations have a richer malt character and subdued bitterness, while others are fairly dry, with a firm bitterness and American hop character. The bitterness and finish of these beers usually features a combination of hop and roasted malt characteristics.

The deep roasted malt flavors in imperial stouts are a great bridge for smoked flavors in foods like brisket or ribs. The complexity of underlying malts and dried fruit in these beers also result in a great match for saucy smoked pulled pork or baked beans. Here, sweeter sauces should be met with sweeter interpretations of the style. 

Imperial stouts are particularly great with dessert. Creamy chocolate desserts, like mousse or cheesecake taste richer when paired with these beers. The dark chocolate and cocoa character of the beers cancel out the bitter chocolate notes in the desserts, emphasizing their richer, creamy qualities. Another creamy pairing for imperial stout is tiramisu, which is made with biscuits that mirror the underlying malt notes of the beer as well as coffee that ties in with the roasted malt flavors. This pairing is so compelling, in fact, that some people include imperial stout in their tiramisu recipe. 

With cheese, again, a creamy texture works well; sweeter imperial stouts are great with triple-crème brie. Drier examples of the style, with a more pronounced American hop character, like barleywines, are wonderful with a bold blue cheese. 

Barrel-aged Pairings

Adding to all this fun is the fact that all three of these styles are often barrel-aged, to great effect. When barrel-aging these beers, it is common to use barrels that previously housed spirits like Bourbon, rum, or Cognac. This will add a complexity of sweet flavors that can include vanilla, brown sugar, honey, dried fruit, and baking spice. Barrel-aged strong beers are great for dessert, but they’re also great with dessert. Desserts with dark chocolate notes, in particular, are highlighted by the many flavors that barrel aging can bring, coaxing out an underlying complexity of flavors in the chocolate. Barrel-aged beers also have tannins that provide a lovely textural contrast to the creaminess of chocolate.

There are so many different possible pairings for each of these three styles. Barleywine, wheatwine, and imperial stout are all great at the table, especially in the winter months. In addition to offering the perfect complement to a range of heartier food, their bold, complex flavors and warming character make them an ideal choice for cold weather. These beers are already showstoppers in their own right. Pairing them with food will open a whole new dimension of flavor appreciation and the experience is bound to be both satisfying and memorable. 

Issue: November 2022