4 tips for pairing craft beers with the flavors of summer
By Robin Shellman, Better Beer Society
Summer is more than half over, and I don’t know if it’s the setting I am in, or perhaps the fact that fall is just around the corner, but I thought I would take this time to write about craft beers and pairing them with the flavors of summer, as by now you are no doubt enjoying picnics in the park, cabin trips on the lake, and backyard parties by the grill.
Before we get into pairing techniques, there are a couple important things to keep in mind. First things first, tasting is subjective. If you find your palate doesn’t agree with any of the recommended pairings, that’s absolutely okay. Move on and try something new! After all, experimenting is half of the fun, and who knows… your recent creative discovery may inspire new recipes from breweries or restaurants.
The beauty is, today’s craft brewers have many different choices for ingredients, allowing them to be precise with their intended flavor and aroma profiles. If they want to make something that tastes like a key lime pie or a campfire s’more, it’s now a reality. This is great news for you foodies out there, as this means there is a near perfect match for practically every dish you can imagine.
The second thing to remember is, don’t over think it, and try not to get too caught up into “rules.” There are however, a few basic guidelines to pairing that should help you get started; understand these and you’ll be able to find great matches almost every single time.
The first recommendation I have is to be in the moment and really try and focus on the flavor and aromas of your surroundings. This applies not just to beer, but also to the foods you eat, to the freshly cut lawn from your neighbor next door, the smell of toasted bread in the morning. Taking a moment to really concentrate on these aromas and flavors is essential to enhancing your palate. The more in-tune you are with your senses, the better off you will be with pairings. If you are able to focus and can pick out the cilantro or citrus notes in your Mexican or Thai dish for example, that might help you pick out certain beer styles that share similarities (i.e. – the orange peel or coriander used in a Witbier). Be in the moment, and take notes.
The next suggestion is to match strength with strength when pairing meals. In other words, if you are serving up Grandma Mary’s chicken salad, a hoppy IPA might not be the best choice. Start out with something lighter like a Kolsch, or a Cream Ale. Matching intensity ensures that flavors won’t overpower one another, and instead work with each other.
Intensity in beer can include the bitterness of hops, the sweetness of the malt, or even the alcohol content. Intensity in foods can vary from how the food is prepared (i.e. – grilled, fried, etc…) to the spices used, as well as fat content. That hoppy IPA you still have in the fridge might be a better choice if you are frying or grilling up some chicken, or throwing burgers on the grill. This beer will cut right through the grease, and the hop bitterness can hold up to just about anything you add to the burgers.
The next tip is to try and find harmonies. Look for similarities in both your food and your beer that seem like they should work well together, and try it. Again, there is no wrong pairing. If it doesn’t work, move on to the next beer. However, before you open one, take a second to think about both the prep methods for the meal, as well as the ingredients used in each. If both the meal and the beer share similar flavor and aroma profiles, there is a great chance they’re going to harmonize well together. Beers with a nice caramel malt profile, such as a Marzen or a Brown Ale will work great with caramelized onions or barbecue sauce for example, or beers with a fruity yeast character will go great with fruit-based glazes or chutney. Again, just concentrate on like-flavors, and be willing to experiment.
Lastly, and one of my favorite pairing techniques, is finding contrasting flavors that work with each other. This one isn’t as common, and you have to seek these out, but when they work, they work. I am sure you’ve heard that one of the classic beer pairings is that of an IPA with carrot cake. If you haven’t already tried this, do so soon. This odd couple works because of the bitterness of the hops balancing out the sweetness and richness of the cake.
Eat any sort of spicy dish and your palate should welcome a nicely balanced malt forward beer, as the malt sweetness cuts right through the spiciness. Also, keep in mind that alcohol will rinse that chili pepper heat from your mouth a lot more quickly than water will. In this case, a Dopplebock could fit the bill perfectly. If you’re like me though and love to torture yourself with the heat, you can accentuate that spice by reaching for something hoppy instead.
That’s it, those are the basics. Knowing these guidelines should at least point you in the right direction. When you’re making your grocery list for the cabin or for your next backyard cookout, make sure you take a few moments to ponder the beer list as well. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a nice pilsner or two while grilling, or hanging out at the lake… but taking the extra time to put together a well—thought beer list for each meal will completely add to the meal and enhance your experience, not to mention open some eyes for your guests.
Below I have included some summertime staples, and I also wanted to share a couple of my personal discoveries over time. I hope you’ll enjoy.
Try Aecht Schlenkarla Helles Lagerbier paired with pepperoncinis on the smoker.
This Brewery/Tavern in Bamberg, Germany is known for their world famous Rauchbier, or smoked beer. The malt used in this specific Helles lager is actually unsmoked, but because of its proximity to the stove used in the process, it still carries a nice smokiness to it. Put these peppers on the skewer and let them rest in the smoker for awhile. The subtle smoke, combined with the malt sweetness and crispness of the lager helps balance the spiciness of these peppers. These were a huge hit at my last party.
Another one my faves on the grill are plantains with a rum brown sugar glaze.
Plantains are a little less sweet and a bit firmer than your typical sweet banana you find in the market, so this makes them great for grilling, as they can hold up to the heat of the grill. I like to pair this side plate with a nice Weizenbock, and you can’t go wrong with Schneider Weisse Aventinus. The wheat and yeast in this beer really sing with its notes of bananas and cloves, as well as its dark fruit flavors like raisins and dates. It’s absolutely incredible with the rum brown sugar glaze.
I would hope that you packed the s’mores (marshmallow, graham cracker, chocolate) and that’s just the basics. A coffee stout or robust porter might be a nice choice here to cut some of the sweetness of the chocolate. Not to mention, you can dip the marshmallow in the beer before roasting it, creating a nice caramelized layer. Otherwise, feel free to get creative, throw in some unconventional ingredients like peanut butter and bananas, or Nutella and coconut shavings, substitute the graham crackers for ginger snaps, and have fun exploring the beer choices.
Here are a few more staples you might find on the picnic table this summer, along with a couple beer recommendations for each dish…
• Barbecued chicken: American brown ale or amber ale
• Grilled sausages: German or Bohemian style pilsners or a Munich Dunkel lager
• Asparagus: Belgian Tripel or Witbier
• Strawberries: Milk Stout or Imperial Stout
• Grilled salmon: American Wheat or Witbier
• Burgers: American Pale or IPA, or Schwarzbier
• Apple pie: Imperial Stout or Saison