Fine wines and fine dining are as synonymous as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — timelessly sophisticated and inseparable, they are the classic components for a memorable dinner. However, today’s haute trendsetters lean more towards a Kim Kardashian and Kanye West ambiance — bold, brash and exciting. And beers are quickly supplanting wine as the drink of choice for many meals.
In fact, beer may even be easier to pair with a wide range of foods. Brewmasters have the ability to play with many ingredients to create an amazingly complex drink — in stark contrast to wine, which is limited by grape variety, the age of the vines, soil and climate, and the casks in which the wine is aged.
With beer, by varying the types and amount of yeast, hops and barley, and incorporating various fruits and spices — not to mention the brewer’s ability to age beverages in stills and used whisky casks — layers of flavours can be created and tailored in order to cater to various dishes and meal settings.
The oversimplified adage of pairing light, refreshing foods with white wines and heavy, rich foods with red wines can also be applied to beers. Think of the most decadent triple chocolate cake you’ve ever had, now imagine eating it accompanied by the caramel, nuts and coffee flavours that reside within a good porter. Matching the flavours in beers with food takes the same kind of intuition as selecting a side dish to go with your main course. Light citrus beers naturally accent fish and salads, dark ales and strong doppelbocks match steaks and game meat, and fruity sour lambics pair well with roast pork and bacon.
The texture of the beer can play a role when matching it with food as well. Pungent turmeric and chilies combined with clarified butter in curry and vindaloo can coat your mouth and sit right on your tongue, causing everything to taste of spice. Having a bubbly IPA along with your East Indian meal provides respite. The carbonation refreshes your taste buds while the bitterness and acidity cut through the heavy flavours much like lemon juice lightens up the oil in a salad dressing.
Cooking with beer also brings about dramatic changes in the characteristics of a dish. Beer has a long history in marinades, sauces and gravies. Welsh Rarebit, which is essentially a Georgian-era version of our nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce, is made from nothing more than melted cheddar, mustard, a bit of ale and spices. Beer battered fish and chips use both the flavour and the carbonization of the beer to help create a tasty and light crust. Meat pies, shepherd’s pies, and anything else that needs a sauce can benefit from using the nutty qualities of brown ales or dark lagers to give the gravy a full-bodied flavour without resorting to using a roux with butter or drippings.
Using the same general rules in pairing beverages and meals, selecting a beer to cook with is not a difficult task — the food will take on the subtle qualities of the beer, so choosing complementary flavours will enhance the dish. As an added bonus, the naturally high acid content helps break down the tough fibres in meat, making it tender and juicy. The notorious grill favourite, beer can chicken, is a perfect example of how the beverage can produce and enhance a commonly used meat.
Ambiance is the greatest difference beer creates at the dinner table when compared to wine. Open a bottle of ’82 Lafite and a reverential hush will fall over your guests. They’ll sit around swirling it in their glasses, discussing the floral nose, obeisant at its splendour. If you pop the top off a bottle of Rogue Dead Guy Ale while eating your cheesecake, your dinner party will carry on laughing and smiling. Beer may not have the profile wine does, but it is a whole lot more fun.
Read Kevin McLeans take on the superiority of dining with wine here.