There is not much better in this world than a great meal paired with a delicious, full-flavored craft beer. Most people think of pairing food with wine, but fine beers offer much more versatility than wine does. Because there are so many styles and such a wide range of flavors, craft beer compliments a whole spectrum of food flavors. Seasonal beers go wonderfully with seasonal meals as well.
In order to make it easier to think of which beer goes with what food, a good rule of thumb is to think of ale like red wine, and lager as if it were white wine. Strong hoppy ales, like IPAs, can overwhelm the cuisine so be sure to pair them with strong and spicy food. Also remember to pair like flavors; tart goes with tart, and sweet, with sweet. The beer ought to be slightly more sweet or tart as the food being served. Taste is subjective, though, so it is important to be experimental and adventurous. Try new and unusual beers, and discover how they taste paired with your favorite meals.
The most widespread lager style beer is Pilsner, and the most common ale is a Pale Ale. Both, of course, are terrific with an excellent meal. A classic pairing for any number of the outstanding American Pale Ales would be with a juicy hamburger and cheddar cheese. If you can muster dessert, Pale Ale also goes greet with a maple bread pudding. A classic Pilsner is ideal in the summer because it is so crisp and refreshing. Pair a nice German Pilsner with barbecued chicken breast and a fresh mixed greens salad.
For more extreme barbecues you might want to bring a strong, hoppy IPA. I’ve found that a very peppery bone-in ribeye tastes amazing with a well hopped IPA. The piney and citrus notes of the hop bomb perfectly compliment the tender, spicy, slightly fatty meat. Recently there is a craze for double or Imperial IPAs that are extremely hoppy and high in alcohol content, but normally balanced with a thick almost sweet maltiness. These double IPAs are delicious with a grilled leg of lamb seasoned with much garlic and rosemary, or a tender smoked beef brisket. Furthermore, cheese lovers swear by the flavor combination of blue cheese and Gorgonzola with IPA.
Strong, hoppy IPAs are also classic with curry, whether Thai or Indian, green or red. The strong hoppy overtones balance spicy meals very well. I also believe that the exotic flavor undertones and citrus elements found in the extremely hopped IPAs match the over the top shock of some Thai or Indian food.
Years ago I went to Belgium and could not get enough of the the classic Belgian meal, moulle e frites, mussels and fresh-cut French fries. Of course, the Belgian beer is world renowned. Every small town has a pub that makes remarkable beer, and in the cities you can sit outside in an outdoor cafe and enjoy a big steaming pot of mussels and drink some amazing beers. Witbier is a classic with steamed mussels, but when I was in Belgium I preferred to try as many different Abbey Dubels and Tripels as I could, and they paired perfectly with the succulent North Sea Belgian mussels.
Belgian Abbey Ales are getting quite popular in the U.S. and it is now easier to find Abbey Dubels and Tripels in the more well stocked liquor stores. Expert American craft breweries are also adapting the traditional recipes to create concoctions that dazzle. They carry quite a flavor punch because of their unique natural yeasts, as well as the tradition and craft that goes into producing them. Because it can be quite strong, an Abbey Tripel compliments spicy cajun food and the marriage of extreme flavors is a high in and of itself. An Abbey Dubel is slightly more subdued, and tastes terrific with a hearty meat stew. For dessert, try a Tripel with dark chocolate bread pudding, and pair an Abbey Dubel with baklava and other non-chocolate desserts.
I prefer dark beers in the winter time, and these hearty brews need a meal that is equally warming and substantial. Porters, though very dark, are not high in alcohol content, and are slightly sweet with a nice toasty malt flavor. Pair a porter with smoked and roasted meats or fish. Porter is perfect with chocolate, and desserts with peanut butter and coconut too.
Stouts are already pretty filling, so be prepared. I tried an oatmeal stout with Oaxcan Mole chicken once and it was amazing. The sweet and thick stout was the perfect match for the spicy, earthy mole. Imperial Stouts are very strong and high in alcohol content. They overpower most foods, but are fabulous with dessert, like a chocolate raspberry torte.
There are so many remarkable beers to try. The recent boom for American craft brewers is producing a fantastic amount of outstanding beers of various styles to discover and enjoy. I recommend that you ask your favorite bars and restaurants to expand their beer menu and that you make it a point to experiment with beers you have never tried and pair them with foods to discover sumptuous flavor combinations that take the taste buds to new heights.