If someone ordered an Indian Pale Ale with their cheese, would that be so wrong? No. It's all about personal preference after all. Wine always has its place beside any aged, dairy delicacy—or other less moldy edibles—but a perfect lager or ale can stand up to any red or white vino when pairing food and drink.
"Beer is a great match for food because of the complexity of its flavors, its ability to provide refreshment and to interact with many food flavors," says Marc Stroobandt, master beer sommelier for the Food and Beer Consultancy, UK. "Even before the meal, beer already is doing its work for food pairing as the hops stimulate the appetite."
When pairing beer and food, it all comes down to matching the food's flavors to the flavors of the beers. We went directly to the experts to get their advice on mating the best brews with your favorite bites.
Cheese, Sandwiches, Pizza
Wine and cheese is a universally-known pair, but what most people may not know is that beer is one of the best matches for cheese. "Wine may cover up some of the flavors in cheese while the carbonation in beer creates a lighter acidity and lifts the fats in the cheese off the palate," says The Beer Sommelier, Matt Simpson. "Whether it's a straight-up cheese platter, pizza, sandwich, goat cheese salad, almost any beer is a go when it comes to cheese.
Recommended: All beer (Note: for stronger cheeses like goat and blue, grab a darker lager or ale.) Try Hennepin Saison (Belgium)
Chicken, Seafood, Pasta
The one rule with dishes like chicken, fish, salads or pastas are that you don't want to overpower them with a beer. Therefore, lighter is better. A light German lager or Belgian Saison with chicken or fish is perfect. (If creams or sauces are added you need a heavy, richer beer.) Pasta is slightly more versatile but still pairs well with similar brews like blonde ales and German or American wheat ales.
Recommended: Belgian Blonde ale; German Hefeweizen; American Hefeweizen or wheat beer (as long as it is not too hoppy). Try Duvel (Belgium), Widmer Hefeweizen (US), Blue Moon (US)
Frites and Fried Foods
Even if the Belgians make the best frites in the world and are the largest consumers per person, those salty potato sticks are still an American staple cuisine. In general, fries (or frites) are light in flavor profile, so opt for a brew that will help cleanse the palate. "In general ask for a beer to cleanse your palate without washing away all the salty flavors, cutting through and bringing out the taste of the food," says Stroobandt, who prefers a nice Stella Artois with his frites. The same recommendation goes for most fried, salty dishes.
Recommended: Light German Lager, Marzen-style (more malt); Octoberfest brews; Belgian Blonde ale or lager. Try Samuel Adams Octoberfest (US), Stella Artois (Belgium), Leffe Blond (Belgium)
Steak and Cabernet are classic, but darker, heartier beers like brown ales or stouts can balance the bigger meats. It's all about finding a beer that is equal to the meat. "The idea is to balance the sweet malt and bitter aromatic hops," says Simpson. "Any big robust beef or meaty food should include a beer that is big and bold enough to stand up to roasted meat like a darker, fuller porter or stout."
Recommended: Belgian-style lagers; pale or amber ales with deeper, roasted flavors; more toffee-like brown ales and stouts; darker, spicier lagers like German Dunkels and Belgium Dubbels. Try Newcastle Brown Ale (UK), Guinness (Ireland), Maredsous 8 (Belgium)
Buffalo wings, spicy Thai, Szechuan Chicken and Mexican dishes all go well with light lagers—basically anything with more hops, which help cut down the spices in the food. "Little goes better with spicier dishes than a light Mexican-style lager," says Matt Simpson. "It's almost like milk when it comes to spicy food. It doesn't coat the tongue, but the spice in the hops cut through the spiciness in the chilies and peppers and allows the beer to shine through."
Recommended: Lighter lagers; Indian Pale Ales. Try Negro Modelo (Mexico), Corona (Mexico), Spaten-Fransikaner (Germany)
The Chocolate notes in stouts always pair well with brownies or any rich dessert. Lighter, fruit-based lagers or ales can also provide a nice balance or contrast. Think raspberries and chocolate. "Beer and dessert is not the first choice for most, but a whole new world of flavors await you when you try fruitier beers with a wide variety of puddings, ice creams or sorbets," says Stroobandt.
Recommended: Light, fruitier dessert beers; stouts; Indian Pale Ales. Try Lindeman's Framboise Raspberry Lambic Beer (Belgium), Brooklyn Chocolate Stout (US), Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Rasputin (US)
When in Doubt . . . Go Regional
If chicken chimichanga or fajitas are on the menu, then opt for a Mexican brew. Leave it to the country of origin when pairing if the options are too overwhelming. "German foods like pretzels, brats, knockwurst, I like to pair with German beer," says Simpson, who believes Americans and beer drinkers still need to educate themselves on the possibilities of pairing beer and food.
"It's all about trial and error and finding that unique combination of food and beer," says Stroobandt. "The wine industry is years ahead with informing and educating the consumer, so brewers have to step it up a gear and provide some info on how their beers can work with food."