Pairing Beer with Food Is Rewarding

By Gerald Jowers
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A few weeks ago, USC’s McCutchen House held one of its occasional beer dinners. That facility’s extraordinary chef, Brian Hay, masterfully paired five courses of his creations with five different beers from the same brewery. I provided commentary on the pairings and the techniques for matching beer and food.

I mention this for a few reasons. First was the attendance. Events and classes at the McCutchen House are primarily wine-oriented and are not widely publicized. Despite this, the 30 places for this event sold quickly and the chef told me they turned many away. This interest was remarkable and gratifying. I started conducting beer classes and pairing events at McCutchen House almost nine years ago. When we began, those were dark days for beer. We rarely had many participants — I once taught a class on beer appreciation with only two participants. The attendance at this dinner is hopefully an indicator (along with brewery openings and many other beer-related events that are regularly occurring) that beer culture is finally taking hold in the Columbia area.
The second reason I note the recent dinner was the skillful pairing by Chef Hay. The beers were selected first, and the chef paired them with small plates. Hay was familiar with the beers, and he adjusted the seasoning and spices in each course to harmonize with the flavors in the beers. The selections included a Belgian saison-style beer with herbes de provence-infused chicken wings; a balanced IPA with Indian curry-spiced country captain (a chicken dish); and a Scotch ale served with bacon-wrapped quail legs and a toffee-infused sauce. These pairings were outstanding and illustrate the possibilities of excellent beer accompanying equally fine food.

The goal of food and beer (or any beverage) pairing is to enrich the dining experience — the combination of the two should be a better taste experience than the parts alone. In any pairing, the beer and the predominant flavor of the main course should be of approximately equal flavor intensity. Next, the flavors of the food and beer should have similar elements or contrasting elements or some of both. For example, common elements in many styles of craft beer are caramelized malt flavors that are very similar to the caramelized flavors found in grilled, braised or sautéed meats and vegetables. The similar flavor elements in the food and beer will create a resonance of these flavors, enhancing the taste experience. An almost perfect match occurs when there are flavors in the food that are similar to the flavors in the beer so that the transition from food to beverage is seamless.

Contrasts are possible by using the dark-roasted flavors of some beers, reminiscent of coffee or dark chocolate, to match with sweet desserts or even fruit-based sauces. Hops’ bitterness can serve to reset your palate when eating high-fat foods, and the bright citrus and floral hop flavors can serve as a contrasting or complementary match for a variety of foods.

The best thing about pairing is you can try at home or in a restaurant. Some writers have suggested that, if in doubt, one should use a Belgian-style beer at a meal; this is generally a sound advice because most of these beers have the flavor and alcoholic strength to match most rich and flavorful dishes. The Belgian tripel style can be a go-to style when in doubt if the main course is richly spiced or herb infused. The light color of the beer is deceiving because it packs a big, spicy flavor punch with herbal notes that will match up with a similarly spiced dish. The Belgian saison style is equally versatile at the table and will harmonize with well-seasoned dishes. Even the popular IPA style will work with dishes ranging from aged cheeses to a variety of proteins. The best approach is to experiment with the food and beer you like. Cheers! 

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