Wine Versus Beer: The Food Pairing Challenge
I was having a conversation with my sommelier friend a few weeks ago about foods that are hard to pair. When she mentioned the “textbook dos and don’ts” of wine pairing it made me laugh. In the beer world we don’t really have any textbooks and there aren’t many rules. While wine sommeliers have centuries of experience and tradition to draw from, we beer people haven’t been at this for very long. The whole idea of conscientiously pairing beer to food is a new one to most. We’re still in the Wild West, trying this and that combination to see what works.
Related Post: MMM, Lomo de Cerdo and Beer…
That the art of pairing wine to fine cuisine is more structured than that of beer is more a matter of establishment than appropriateness. People have been talking and writing about wine and food forever. Sommeliers and chefs have spent years uncovering classic combinations. Consumers, even those unschooled in the intricacies of wine, are accustomed to thinking of wine as a beverage to be pondered and paired. In the imaginations of most people though, beer is still pale, yellow, fizzy, and hopefully low in calories. It’s a refreshing alcohol delivery system. Why would one bother thinking about what to eat with it? A cold beer goes with anything.
Those people are right, but for the wrong reasons. It’s the variety and type of the flavors in beer that make it a great partner for food, not its relative flavorlessness. Beer is made from four main ingredients—malt, hops, yeast, and water—compared to wine’s two—grapes and yeast. Each of those four ingredients comes in many different forms and flavors. In addition, brewers can add sugar, spice, and other things nice to add intriguing twists and turns.
The flavors brought by beer’s constituent parts closely match those found in food. Hops give bitterness and plant-like flavors such as citrus, herbs, and spice. Yeast brings luscious notes of fruit and spice. The character of malt comes from the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction of sugar, amino acids, and heat that causes browning. It’s the same chemical reaction that turns bread into toast and leaves that lovely char on a grilled cut of meat. In this case, the flavors of beer and food are not just similar, they are the same.
Some would make the case that this makes beer a better partner for food than wine. I hesitate to go that far. I have tasted too many amazing wine pairings and I’ve seen too many of my own pairings succumb to the work of a skillful sommelier.
Things are looking up for beer. We’re learning. Wild experimentation is uncovering unique interactions between food and beer that are different from those of wines. Classic pairings are emerging and guidebooks are beginning to appear. It is not a competition between beer and wine. Both are fine beverages. I like wine and find it immensely fascinating. Beer may be my passion, but I remain a fan of the grape. You might say I’m on both sides of the wine versus beer debate.