With the recent explosion in brewery numbers to over 1,000 in the past few years and their combined output of ales at over 6,000, pubs have a fantastic opportunity to increase both food and beer sales by matching their menus to different beer styles.
Beer buffs will tell you about the broad range of aromas, finishing notes, tastes and texture of beers and it is in this complexity lies the near limitless choice of complimentary food. But with so many beer styles and brewers and the wide range of food options available in pubs these days getting started on pairing these together can seem a daunting task. So to take some of the heartache out of this job here’s a short guide to food and beer pairings.
The Basic Principles…
Strength for strength: common sense dictates delicate dishes work best with delicate beers and equally true is strongly flavoured foods demand a punchy beer. With beer, flavour intensity involves a variety of qualities such as alcoholic strength, malt character, hop bitterness, sweetness, richness and roast.
Finding the “harmonics” of food and beer: blending often works best when the food you serve and the beer you offer share some common flavour or aroma. Thus, the nutty flavour of an English-style brown ale and a handmade cheddar cheese work well together; chocolate desserts are perfect with the deep, roasted flavors of an imperial stout and the rich, caramel of an “Oktoberfest lager” compliments a traditional roast pork joint.
Consider the balance of sweet/bitter, spice/richness and carbonation: this may seem complicated, but it’s really quite straightforward as the specific characteristics of food and beer interact with each other in expected ways. You can take advantage of these connections to make sure food and beer you offer balance each other, creating a mutual desire for a taste of the other, which is the perfect up-selling opportunity for you and your staff. For instance nothing goes better with a steak than a Leffe Brun, not only does the sweetness of the beer balance with the rich flavours of a well cooked piece of beer, but it’s strength and richness are a great alternative to, say, the rich red wine one might normally have as an accompaniment.
Noshtalgia, from classic styles of cuisine from around the world: offers another great food and beer pairing, as for centuries other cultures have many traditional beer and food combinations. Schnitzel (veal for instance) with a pale lager is an obvious choice and for our Victorian forebears stout with oysters was a hugely popular preference. Classic matches like this can be found if you look for them and offer a great start in your quest for the perfect combinations.
Perfection through practice: just as our ancestors found out, not every pairing works as expected, whilst this can be fun for you if you learn to appreciate the unexpected, your customers may be more conservative, so build on the things that work and keep seeking those ‘magic’ combinations.
Top Tip – When you introduce a new menu or food special, why not offer a tasting session with small samples of the food offered to selected customers along with a variety of beer samples? Not only will you get valuable feedback as to what does and doesn’t work, but you also get the chance to engage with your customers and strengthen the all important sales relationship you have with them.
A season for all things: whilst warm summer months often mean offering light foods and beers, heartier fare works best in winter, so try to match the beers and foods of a given season. Brewers help with this by often producing seasonally adjusted brews, golden ales in summer, ruby bitters and stouts in winter, so sometimes the food pairing follows the beer choice.
Distinction and balance: all beer and food combinations should involve both of these principles, so whilst some pairings will be more dependent on the contrast between flavours and aromas, others will rely more heavily on complementary flavours. Whether it’s food before beer or beer before food dictating the pairings you choose, one should always strive for some kind of balance to appeal to the maximum number of customers.
The Brewers’ Association (a U.S. based organisation) has kindly allowed me to offer you this free download pdf of their Food and Beer Pairings Chart. (And lest we not forget the enduring appeal of cider, Thatchers’ Cider has teamed up with some Michelin starred chefs to produce these cider and food pairing ideas).
Somewhere to start with your pairings could be with choosing to pair beers with cheeses, the ‘rules’ of pairing craft beer with artisan cheese are constantly changing and always based on individual taste. As with other food variations, styles and flavours are what makes pairing craft beer and cheese so interesting and increasingly popular as ‘events’ in themselves and as the perfect add on to any beer festival.
So don’t dismiss a mango Stilton paired with a blonde beer because it’s against some rule (even the guidance in this article), don’t knock any pairing until you try it. Here are some suggestions to help you create an enjoyable and memorable beer and cheese experience.