While just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to see beer pairings on the menu of a nice restaurant, these days more than a few chefs and sommeliers believe that beer works just as well as wine with food—and sometimes better. I’m not talking about the mass-produced lagers favored by armchair quarterbacks but about high-quality and intriguing craft beers. Some are produced only in small quantities, while others are widely available, but many are exceptionally food-friendly—particularly in summer when we want something cool and refreshing to go with our meals. But as with wine, there are so many different styles of beer that choosing the right one can be daunting. This article will help you sort through your options and find the right beer for what’s on your menu.
Most beers fall into one of two categories—ales and lagers—based on the kind of yeast used for fermentation. Beyond that there are also several specialty beers that don’t fit into either category.
How beer is made
All beer is made with barley, hops, water, and yeast. The barley is malted (germinated and dried), roasted, and then ground. Color in any beer is determined by how long the malted barley (or malt) is roasted: The longer the roast, the deeper the color of the grain and the darker the resulting beer. Once the barley is ground, water is added. The mixture is boiled, the solids are separated from the liquid, and hops (the flowers of the hop plant) are added. Hops give beer a distinctive bitterness that balances its malty sweetness. The liquid, called wort, is then fermented by adding yeast. Most beers are filtered, sometimes pasteurized, and either kegged or bottled.
Ales are made with top-fermenting yeasts, strains of yeast that rise to the surface during fermentation, creating a thick yeast head. Ales have a distinctive fruitiness, which is offset by the addition of bitter hops, and are produced in a wide range of colors and styles. Here are some of the most common:
Pale Ales and India Pale Ales (or IPA)
Made with lightly roasted malt, these beers are golden to copper in color and relatively mild, with a distinctive bitter finish. India pale ales have a higher alcohol content and more hops, giving them a pronounced bitterness.
What to pair them with: The crisp, citrusy notes of pale ales and IPAs pair well with a range of foods, from pizza, buffalo wings, and hamburgers to spicy Thai cuisine and Indian curries
Deep amber to brown in color, brown ales display flavors of chocolate and caramel due to the deeply roasted malts from which they’re made.
What to pair them with: Try them with hearty stews and braises as well as with aged cheeses.
Made with well-roasted malt, porter ales are deeply colored, full bodied, and richly flavored beers with bold, chocolatey notes.
What to pair them with: Porters’ deep flavor and full body are best suited to the rich flavors of stews and other hearty fare rather than to the light, bright flavors of summer.
Exceptionally rich and creamy, these extra-dark, almost black ales are made with long-roasted malt, which gives them a caramel-like flavor.
What to pair them with: Stouts pair well with braised meats and rich, meat-based soups or stews.
Storing and Serving Beer
How do you store beer? Although few beers get better with aging, it’s still important to store them properly, keeping them away from excessive heat, temperature fluctuations, and light. Good storage conditions would provide a constant temperature of between 55° and 60°F without light or vibration (itself a source of heat).
What’s the ideal temperature for serving beer? As with wine, be careful not to serve beer too cold. An overly chilled beer will have little aroma and flavor. Instead, serve lighter lagers between 48° and 52°F, lighter ales at 54° to 58°F, and richer ales and lagers at 57° to 65°F.
Is beer better straight from the bottle or poured into a glass? Although there’s nothing wrong with having a cold one right from the bottle, beer is always better when served in a glass. Pouring beer into a glass releases all the aromatics, just as with wine. If you’re interested, you can experiment with a variety of beer-glass shapes, which can affect the tasting experience.
What’s the correct pouring technique? Hold the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour the beer slowly and evenly, gradually tilting the glass upright. You should end up with about an inch of foam as you finish pouring.
The term lager denotes any beer made with bottom-fermenting yeasts, strains of yeast that ferment at cooler temperatures and settle to the bottom during fermentation. Lagers tend to be yellow-gold or amber in color, although there are deeper-colored versions, too. The most widespread types of lagers include:
Pilsners are excellent all-purpose beers with a light body, a clean, crisp flavor, and prominent hoppiness, or bitterness.
What to pair them with: Pilsners are perfect served as an aperitif or paired with shellfish, grilled fish, or grilled or roasted chicken. They’re also a great match for spicy Asian, Indian, and Middle-Eastern food.
American-style lagers and amber lagers
Pale, crisp American lagers are the most well-known and marketed beers in the United States. These clean, zesty brews have a light body and a mild flavor with just a touch of hoppy bitterness. Amber lagers are reddish brown in color with a medium body and a caramelly malt flavor.
What to pair them with: Both are versatile beers that pair with a range of foods, from hearty barbecue to spicy Mexican.
Traditionally brewed in fall or early spring to coincide with festivities like Christmas and Easter, bock beers (now brewed year-round) are strong, wonderfully rich dark amber lagers.
What to pair them with: Bocks are natural partners for hearty grill fare, such as sausages and marinated meats.
While ales and lagers are the two most popular beer styles, there’s a variety of specialty beers that defy categorization. Among the most notable are wheat beers and lambics.
German-style wheat beers (Weisse or Hefeweizen)
These are beers made with a significant percentage of malted wheat (and less barley), in which the yeast has not been filtered out. They’re light, crisp, quintessential summer beers often served with a wedge of lemon.
What to pair them with: Enjoy them as an aperitif; they’re also delicious with oysters, shellfish, and composed salads.
Belgian-style wheat beers
Belgian wheat beers, called “white bier,” are usually made with unmalted wheat and often contain spices such as coriander, cumin, cardamom, and citrus peel. Relatively low in alcoholic content, these spicy beers offer flavors of tart lemon and lime with a touch of malt.
What to pair them with: They pair well with steamed mussels in a garlic and wine broth and with any fish or chicken dish.
These are very distinctive beers produced in the Pajottenland region of Belgium, west of Brussels. While most beers are fermented using cultured yeast, lambics are made with spontaneous natural yeasts, which give them a distinctive dry, cidery flavor. Some of the most popular lambic beers are also flavored with fruits, such as sour cherry, raspberry, and strawberry.
What to pair them with: Lambics are ideal served as aperitifs in Champagne flutes and paired with all kinds of hors d’oeuvre, from spring rolls to bruschetta.