Beer & Food Pairing Guide

Turns out there's more to it than PBR and cheeseburgers

You've most definitely heard of wine pairings, those endless flights of reds and whites guiding guests through highbrow multicourse dinner affairs. But did you know beer is just as easily suited to culinary greatness as its more refined sister?

"There are a few things beer can bring to the table that wine can't," Certified Cicerone Anne Becerra, who heads the beer program at NYC's Treadwell Park (among other duties), says. "Beer is carbonated, making it an ideal choice to refresh your palate. The layers of depth and complexity are unparalleled, and the possibility of flavor combinations is endless."

Beer pairings can be as fun as they are mind-blowing, giving drinkers the chance to sample their way through a huge assortment of styles from crisp, dry lagers to hop-heavy Imperial IPAs, all the while seeing how they match with some of their favorite foods.

"I think the most surprised reactions I've seen come from people realizing that food really can change their perception of a beer," Becerra says. "I've seen someone literally spit out a smoky Rauchbier on its own, but then love it paired with venison stew."

But if you thought creating a pairing menu was as simple, think again.

To help you through your next beer bash, we've asked a couple of experts—namely Jimmy Seifrit, the brewmaster over at 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, Oregon, and Becerra—to weigh in on this wild world of pairing dos and don'ts.

①  Celebrate Beer's Diversity

"Beer is pretty damn dynamic," Seifrit says. "It can be sweet; it can be sour; it can be bitter, even salty. You can also infuse all types of ingredients into it to complement whatever you're eating, whether it's unusual components like bay leaves, rosemary or lavender, or more standard spices like coriander and cardamom. Depending on the dish, you can go big with an Imperial Stout or supple with a really nice soft sour, like our Cucumber Crush, to get people's palates going."

"Something I think is important to keep in mind is knowing what you're looking to get from the pairing," Becerra advises. "Do you want to brighten the dish? Accentuate the herbs? Play up caramelized flavors? The same meal can often be paired with different beers to create different experiences, so I think deciding the direction you want to go in is a great start."

②  Contrast Is Key

"To me, everything's about contrast—the more contrasting the pairing, the more each one highlights the other's flavors," Seifrit notes. "For instance, I love putting a robust Stout with a hearty steak. There's some bitterness to the beer, but also a little bit of sweetness, which plays nicely off the steak's earthiness."

But beer's not just for savory occasions, as Seifrit explains. "The same philosophy goes for desserts, too. Look to beers infused with tart cherries when you're having chocolate cake or take a highly sweet, velvety Barley Wine and pair it with a salty, crunchy peanut brittle. I think a Belgian-style sour, like an Old Bruin, with grilled peaches and vanilla ice cream is really interesting. Most people don't think of Belgian sours as being for dessert, but that malty tartness cuts through the smoky caramelized peaches perfectly, and then the milky ice cream brings everything together."

③  Make Sure It's a Fair Fight

"The number one-selling craft beer style is IPA, which is actually a pretty tough beer to pair with, because bitterness can be mouth-fatiguing," Seifrit warns. "The IPA is the bully in the fight, so you have to go with foods that can stand up to them. Big flavors like blue cheese really play well with that."

④  Create a Journey with Each Course

"Beer gives you the unique opportunity to really build as the dinner goes," Seifrit says. "Start with something easy, like a Helles lager or a Gose, to get your palate going, before moving into something maltier like an Amber. Then hit yourself with a palate-cleansing Pale Ale, balanced by something like a bright citrus salad. For the main, go with a hearty Baltic Porter or a stout, then finish it off with your dessert beer. Within those five or six courses, you're able to have a nice diversity but also a progression, a culinary journey."

⑤  Every Season Has Its Suds

Take spring for example. "This is going to sound a little philosophical, but to me, spring is a rebirth," Seifrit says. "It's a cleansing, a spring-cleaning of your body. So, I find myself going back to lighter foods like raw fish, which goes great with a crisp, clean Japanese-style lager."

Got summer on the brain already? "One of my favorite pairings ever is BBQ ribs with Schwarzbier," Becerra says, describing her summertime go-to. "The rich, sugary barbecue sauce goes great with the dry, roasty lager, and because of the beer's charred, dark chocolate notes, it's not overpowered by the saucy meat, and the dry, crisp finish scrubs out any residual fattiness. Delicious!"