Food and beer pairing 101


It’s not just for pizza anymore. When it comes to food pairings, beer is gaining respect as a versatile food-friendly beverage.

Craft beer fans may have known this all along, but in the last five years, claims food site, there's been a change in perspective among those in the restaurant biz as well.

“Beer has made it onto the menu as more than an afterthought,”’s former executive editor, James Oliver Cury, says on the site. “Beverage directors, chefs and even wine lovers have learned that beer has an amazing capacity to pair with all kinds of foods.”

And you’ll definitely find a growing list of craft beer options available on local menus. In fact, some lists can be a bit overwhelming — which begs the question: how in the world do you decide on what to drink with dinner?

Now, just as with wine, I’m all for just drinking what you like. You want a Chardonnay with that steak? Okay, then. Skip the Cab and go for it. And likewise, if you just want your fizzy lager and don’t care that the carbonation is going to amp up the heat on those hot wings, then by all means order it.

But if you want to see what the right beer can do for food, then take a little time and choose a brew that will play up or play off of what you’re having for dinner.

“You can approach it from a complement/contrast approach,” said Brennan Corder, director of beverage education and training at Crown Liquors in Indianapolis. “It's all about how you enjoy the mixture of the flavor and aromatic profiles of the food/beverage combination.”

So what does that mean when it comes to dinner choices? Let’s say you want a burger and fries or maybe even something slow-smoked, like brisket. You can go big or go light – complement or contrast.

“I love to complement a burger or brisket with a weighty full-flavored beer sometimes,” said Corder. “I would recommend a Baltic porter with a burger that has some fat and bleu cheese or a slow-cooked brisket. For a contrasting approach, choose something that is lighter on the palate, like a rustic Saison or Biere de Garde with a spicy backdrop, particularly if you have fresh spinach or arugula as a garnish.”

So coming up with a great beer-food pairing means paying attention to the flavors of the beer as well as of the food. But hop heads take note: your super-bitter IPA doesn’t always play well with food.

“If the beer has a lot of hop flavor and aroma, but not a lot of bitterness, it is easier to pair with food,” said Ron Smith, local beer educator, master’s level judge and certified cicerone. “Play off the herbal, citrusy, spicy flavors and aromas to find harmony with spicy (but not hot) foods, like Thai and Indian dishes, chili, etc. English-style IPAs and some of the new Session IPAs are good for this. If the beer is really bitter, though, it gets harder to pair.”

Arthur Black, corporate wine and sales manager at RNDC and a certified beer server, suggested a simple pairing for a hoppy IPA.

“Olives,” he said. “I spent time thinking about pairings of moderate to excessively hopped beers and came up with a number of things…blah, blah, blah, and all the while I was nibbling on olives and drinking an IPA. It was the most simple pairing and the most delightful.”

One local chef opts for sweets when pairing food with a big hoppy beer. Erin Kem, executive chef at R bistro, turns to caramel, toffee and chocolate.

“To me, it's similar to the way a wine with a lot of tannins cuts through a fatty, rich piece of meat,” said Kem. “The hoppiness and crispness and, at times, bitterness cut through the sweetness for me for a perfect balance. The bitterness of black coffee does the same thing to my mouth when I eat chocolate, and it makes the ‘sweet’ pleasantly not so.”

Local baker Jennifer Carmack Brilliant of Sugar, which specializes in mini cupcakes, makes a “Hopped Up On Ginger” chocolate version with Flat 12's Half Cycle IPA. “The ginger tames the hop while the chocolate enhances it,” said Brilliant. “I use a lot of ginger in the cream, and it makes for a beautiful sweet treat.”

And while stouts may be the most common pairing for sweets, Cari Crowe, certified cicerone with Plow & Anchor, also prefers a contrast.

“I like to have beers like sours or Imperial/Double IPAs with dessert instead of your standard stout,” she said. “Because you've already had a big meal, and you're having a rich dessert, you want something to cut through and aid in digestion. Both styles of beer have a good bit of acid to them. Just think of it as if you were having limoncello after dinner.”

Crowe prefer to pair that stout with beef stew or even red beans and rice.

“You want something hearty next to the beer,” she said, “and even if it is a sweeter stout, the flavors that are usually in stock will balance out nicely. I even make my red beans and rice with a half cup of porter or stout.”

For Crow, IPAs are the perfect accompaniment to rich dishes like lamb, duck or blue cheese. “These foods have stronger flavors and tend to be a little fattier,” she said. “The acidity in the IPA will cut through it nicely and balance the flavors out.”

For plenty more food pairings featuring Midwest craft beers, check out The site offers a long list of beer-food combos that feature some familiar brews – such as apple pie with Upland’s Bad Elmer Porter or even Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Imperial Stout.

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.