How to pair beer with food: from burgers to oysters and more

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As a certified cicerone (beer sommelier), Don Farion knows that many people don’t have much experience pairing food with beer. Sure, they may drink a light lager like Coors Light or Molson Canadian with hot wings and fried foods at a bar, or with pizza at a restaurant. But while that lager pub-food combination may work, pairing the same beer with one of the regular dishes they cook at home can be a buzz kill.

“When you try to bring that beer home and drink it at the dinner table, it doesn’t match,” he says. That’s because while the crisp lager nicely offsets the fatty, spicy pub food, it doesn’t work with a dish like a Sunday roast, which can stand up to a much bigger beer, such as a porter or stout.

“There’s no better way to understand pairing beer than getting a bad match,” the co-owner of Bomber Brewing and BierCraft restaurants tells the Straight by phone. “When you find something that doesn’t work, it’s quite obvious: it’s bitter, it fights.…That’s why beer has a bad reputation as a food drink.”

That reputation, however, is changing as both Vancouver diners and chefs become more familiar with the principles of pairing food with beer, as well as the range of brews available. For example, executive chef Cam McGowan creates dishes to match rotating brewery offerings at Craft Beer Market’s monthly beer-pairing dinners. He considers himself an “enthusiastic apprentice” of beer pairing because, like that of many classically trained chefs, his culinary education emphasized wine. “That approach has helped me with understanding [beer pairings] and being able to pair food with beer,” he tells the Straight in a phone interview.

Pairing food with beer is both simpler and more complex than pairing it with wine. That’s according to cicerone Chester Carey, who teaches an eight-week Serious Beer course at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts and also works as the product manager for Brewery Creek Liquor Store. “It’s more simple because, generally speaking, beers tend to have an underlying bready flavour to them,” he explains in a phone chat. “That allows them to pair with just about anything.” Also, because beer is carbonated, it cleanses the palate, which makes it well suited to spicy and greasy foods.

That said, “there are approximately 80 to 120 different styles of beer, and each one is going to pair a little bit better with some things than others,” he says. “The simplest principle is drink what you like with what you like to eat…Personal preference always overrides the guidelines.” But if you aim to create more harmony with your pairings, follow the “Three Cs”, which also apply to wine pairings. “You’re looking to contrast, complement, or cut the food or the beer, with the food or the beer,” he explains.

Another principle: “Try to match the intensity of the dish that you’re having with the intensity of the beer…so one doesn’t overpower the other,” he adds. “Colour is not an indicator of intensity,” he cautions. For example, dark-coloured Guinness, at about four-percent alcohol content, is actually a fairly light beer. “It’s not a super-intense flavour bomb, and it can pair with much lighter foods,” he explains.

Stout and oysters is a classic pairing. “The brininess of the oysters plays off the roastiness of the stout,” he explains. “A lighter stout like Guinness, Lighthouse Keepers Stout, or Persephone Dry Stout are all going to be pretty fantastic.” However, a heavier Imperial Stout may overpower the oysters.

If you’re throwing some burgers on the barbecue, Farion recommends this winning combo. “Pale ale has a little bit of a malt backbone that goes really well with the grilled, smoky, umami meat flavour,” he says. “Throw a big piece of Cheddar on the burger….Cheddar cheese and pale ale are an absolute dream.” Along the same lines, “macaroni and cheese with a pale ale will never fail.”

For those concerned that pairing beer with a meal will fill them up too quickly, Carey notes that beer is more carbonated—and therefore filling—if it’s drunk straight from the bottle. “If poured properly into a glass, 60 percent of the carbonation is pushed out,” he says. Moreover, whether you’re at home or in a restaurant, you don’t need to drink a full pint. He encourages parties to share 750-millilitre bottles, matching each course with a new bottle. Not only is it fun, it’s economical: three bottles of beer might run you $35 at a restaurant, while that’s barely the starting point for one bottle of wine, he says.

On June 4, Farion will demonstrate how beer pairings compare to wine pairings. Part of Vancouver Craft Beer Week (May 30 to June 7), the Cicerone vs Sommelier event at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel’s ARC Restaurant will allow guests to try both beer and wine pairings with each of five courses, and then vote for their favourite beverage overall. At a similar event last year, beer came out the winner, but in the two previous years, wine took the crown.

For those looking to begin pairing beer and food at home, Farion recommends first identifying the characteristics of a beer you already enjoy: is it hoppy, malty, or crisp? “Understand two or three beers and have them as go-tos,” he advises. Then start tasting them with food—you’ll know if they belong together.

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