A Cicerone Explains How To Choose The Best Beer Pairing For Spicy Dishes

Washing down your dinner with a cold beer is always satisfying, and beer might just be at its most magical with spicy food. There are many classic beer and food pairings, and something about how refreshing beer can be makes it feel that much better than wine or cocktails when your meal has a little heat. The only issue is that the beer world is very diverse, and not every style is going to tame that heat or taste refreshing when served with something spicy. In fact, even some of the more obvious choices might not work as well as you think. That's why Tasting Table asked Lindsay Jo Whirley, certified cicerone and assistant director of culinary operations at Newfields in Indiana, how she would go about making the choice.

The top advice Whirley had for us was: "When seeking a beer companion to food when dealing with spice, it is integral to match strength of spice to strength of the beer. You will want a beer that can stand its ground." She explained that a spicy dish can easily overpower lighter beers, especially light-bodied American lagers that might seem like a natural option given how refreshing they are. However, she went on to note that for some people "the other side of this power dynamic that can also be enjoyable ... is to let the spice take the lead, and pair a less flavorfully powerful beer like a crispy Mexican lager served ice-cold with the dish."

Strong spice calls for a stronger beer

"Pairing a hoppy beer like an American IPA will even accentuate the spice, which some people also enjoy," said the cicerone. That said, she told us her personal preference is using beer that has a strong body and higher alcohol content to help mellow spice.

Once you have a style you think can hold up to the spice level of your meal, the next step is flavor. While you may want to pair like with like, for example a spicy beer brewed with chiles, Whirley prefers contrasting flavors. "What I find is most successful is to seek out a beer that doesn't add more fire to the flame but instead acts to counter that heat and therefore, make for quite a balanced, interesting and enjoyable beer and food experience."

Luckily, that still leaves you with a lot of options. If you're avoiding hops and looking for a strong body with more intense flavors, dark beers like stouts and brown ales are perfect. The mix of roasted and sweeter malty notes will balance out the spices without being overwhelmed by them. If you prefer something less dark, many wheat beers are heavier in body and stronger in flavor than your standard American pilsner. For something unique, lighter Belgian beers tend to be strong in body and flavor, as are some golden German beers like a Helles bock. Pairing beer with spicy food can be tricky, but you're bound to find something you love.