Beer is a delicious, refreshing beverage on its own, but this book is about enjoying beer with food. While you can't go far wrong drinking beer you like with foods you like, some combinations are bound to be better than others.


The pleasure of matching beer and food, like that of pairing wine and food, begins with attention to the sometimes subtle differences among beers. Professional beer tasters can identify dozens of flavor components, from hop and malt varieties to compounds often present in minute amounts, that give each beer its unique flavor and aroma, and they use these flavor breakdowns to rate beers against established style standards. The rest of us may not be able to spot or name all the things that make our favorite beers taste the way they do, but it's clear that paying attention to their features can enhance our enjoyment of them. Whether or not you keep formal tasting notes, trying to describe what you like or don't like about a beer helps you focus better on both the beers and your own taste.


Tasting beer begins with looking at the beer in the glass. Depending on the style, the color may be anywhere in the spectrum from pale straw through shades of gold, amber, brown, or black. The head may be nonexistent, thin and quick to disappear, or thick and long-lasting. Before you sip, take a sniff and enjoy the aroma. Look for a floral aroma of hops, sweetish aromas that may suggest caramel, toasty, or even burnt overtones, as well as chocolate or coffee aromas. Depending on the style, you may find fruity, spicy, or winy aromas as well. Take a sip; notice the initial taste impression, the middle flavors that develop, and the finish or aftertaste after you swallow. Notice the body (the "weight" on the palate), the balance of sweet and bitter flavors, the amount of carbonation, and the changes as the flavor fades away.

Finding the balance
The first measure of a match of good beer and food is the balance of flavors. At least two thousand years ago, the Chinese identified a system of five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and "pungent" or hot (see note below). It's a system that still works very well in analyzing why certain flavor combinations work better than others. The best combinations of food and beverage contain all of these elements in balance, and a drastic imbalance is apt to show either the food or the drink in a worse light.


Certain flavors act to reduce an excess of others: sweet balances hot and sour; salt reduces the perception of sweetness; both hot and sour balance sweet and salty; bitter offsets sweet. Other combinations are relatively neutral, but sour flavors can intensify hot or bitter flavors.


Balance in flavor terms does not mean that all the elements are there in equal proportion. It may take just a small amount of a bitter, sour, salty, or sweet flavor to bring an otherwise one-dimensional dish into balance, and that amount may be barely perceptible. A chocolate chip cookie that tastes salty is all wrong, but one made without enough salt tastes flat. And the chocolate chips themselves combine bitter and sweet in a delicious way that is missing from the same cookie made with white chocolate.


In the five-flavor system, beer mainly contributes bitter and sweet flavors, and in a few styles a bit of sour acid. (Salty and hot do not enter the equation from the beer side, except in silly exercises like chile-flavored beers.) Beers also have some important components that affect the flavor of foods, including alcohol and the tannins in the hops. Like the tannins in tea, unsweetened chocolate, or red wine, hop tannins contribute an astringent effect, a drying and shrinking of the gums that also cuts through the film of fat left by rich foods. Let's look at how these elements work in good and bad combinations with foods.


Salty foods stimulate thirst, and many of the obvious "beer foods" — such as chips, pretzels, processed nuts, and pickles — are mostly salty. Whether they became standard beer companions because of a natural affinity or a cynical attempt to sell more beer, the fact is that something salty invites a sip of beer. At the same time, sip after sip of beer, with the sweet and mildly bitter flavors, can get monotonous, and a nibble of something salty keeps the palate interested.


Most of us don't eat a lot of simply sour foods; there's not much appeal to chomping on a slice of lemon or sipping straight vinegar. Usually sour flavors combine with others, like salty (pickles, preserved lemons), sweet (fruit and tomato sauces, ketchup, and many other condiments), or hot (chile salsas and other hot condiments). Drinking beer with foods like these offers a little more sweetness to cut the acidity, as well as a touch of bitterness to keep the palate fresh.


Bitterness in foods can get tricky when you add beer. A lot of spices and herbs have a bitter component to their flavor, but they are generally used only in small amounts. Where a bitter vegetable like watercress, mustard greens, or broccoli rabe is a dominant part of a dish, I don't want an especially bitter beer. One with more emphasis on malt than hops is likely to be a better bet. (On the other hand, a compound in artichokes leaves an effect on the palate that makes whatever you taste next seem sweeter; a sip of beer along with an artichoke dish may taste startlingly sweet.)


With really sweet foods, beer doesn't have much to offer. Like coffee or port, very rich, winy-tasting barley wine or Imperial stout can go well with chocolate or not-too-sweet puddings, but in general when the dessert comes out I either finish off the last of my beer or put it aside for later.


Which leaves hot foods, one of the obvious partners to beer but also one of the more troublesome. The heat from chiles, pepper, ginger, and other spices actually creates a low level of pain in the mouth, which is relieved to a certain extent by any liquid. A little sugar also helps soothe a burning palate, and the slight malty sweetness in the middle flavor of most beers fills the bill nicely. Where the trouble comes is in the assumption by a lot of writers, chefs, and beer drinkers that you need a full-flavored (which usually means highly hopped) beer to "stand up to" a dish with a lot of hot flavors. I find just the opposite: Beyond a certain moderate level of both hops and chile, the bitter, astringent quality of hops amplifies the heat of chiles rather than balancing it. Higher alcohol also increases this effect, and bigger beers tend to be a little higher in alcohol as well. Ironically, the typical microbrewed India pale ale is one of the worst choices to go with a hot Indian curry! A softer, maltier brew, like a brown or amber ale, works better for me.


Beyond balancing the five flavors, some beers can add flavors and aromas that add to the overall flavor mix. Besides contributing an appetizing aroma and bitter flavor, hops add some herbal flavor. Fruit- or spice-flavored beers are another obvious possibility. "Echoing" flavors between the beer and the food may sound like a good idea, but I wouldn't serve a fruited beer with a dish or a sauce containing fruit. The same goes for smoked-malt beers; they are often suggested to accompany smoked meats or fish, but I don't think the combination does much for either one. However, I won't let this principle get in the way of serving spiced beers with Thanksgiving dinner and other holiday meals; with so many sweet-spicy flavors going on, the more the merrier.


Beer in the kitchen
Only a very few recipes in this book call for beer as an ingredient. Plenty of books and articles have been written on cooking with beer, and I can understand the desire of brewpubs and oversupplied home-brewers to make distinctive dishes featuring their own brews. But for me, beer has a very limited role in cooking. Like wine, or for that matter rosemary, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and sun-dried tomatoes, it can be a useful ingredient in certain contexts, but there is no reason to assume it will automatically improve any dish.


Where beer is to be used in cooking, it's important to choose carefully. Cooking with beer generally means boiling it down, which concentrates its flavors. If the beer has a lot of hop bitterness — and if there is one generalization that can be made about West Coast craft beers, it is that they are almost all generously hopped — the resulting sauce can be quite bitter. It's a good idea to taste the beer you are planning to cook with, and perhaps to try several varieties of the same style, to find the right one.

NOTE: There has always been some argument over whether pungent/hot is a true flavor or a separate physical sensation. The four other primary flavors — sweet, sour, salty, and bitter — each have identifiable taste receptors on the tongue, but the heat of chiles and other spices, like the astringency of tannin, is a more general, tactile sensation.


Some academics and chefs have proposed a fifth (sixth?) primary flavor, variously called "savory" and "a taste of fullness." The Japanese even have a word for it: umami. Foods considered high in umami, including ripe fruits and vegetables and fresh shellfish as well as ripened, aged and fermented foods ranging from aged cheeses to Southeast Asian fish sauce, contain high amounts of l-glutamate, the free form of an amino acid that has recently been shown to stimulate separate taste receptors from the other four flavors. Perhaps the most purely umami ingredient is the widely used but controversial monosodiumglutamate (MSG), used to "enhance" other flavors in food. A number of chefs have begun to incorporate umami into their concepts of balancing flavors in a dish. I wonder if glutamate/umami has a role in evaluating beer flavor.


Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook

• Brewing in the West

• The Brewing Process and glossary of terms

• Beer at the Table

• From the Beer Belt (includes recipes)

• Pizza and Beyond (recipes)

• From the Spice Bazaar (recipes)

• Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy (recipes)

• From the Home of the Chile Pepper (recipes)

• Beer in the Melting Pot (recipes)



The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook 

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From The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.

The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook: Beer at the table
While you can’t go far wrong drinking beer you like with foods you like, some combinations are bound to be better than others.