The Joys of Beer Pairings
My process for pairing beer with food
Growing up with a mom who can cook will spoil you. I compared almost every meal I ate to hers. Most didn’t compare—like the collard greens I had that were cut into wide sheets instead of thin ribbons. I would run home ready to tell my mom about the disastrous meals I consumed. Knowing I would one day have to cook for myself prompted me to pay closer attention in her kitchen.
I can still hear her voice when I’m dicing onions, telling me to make sure each piece was uniformed. In her kitchen, I learned the importance of tasting food and how to tinker with a dish until it reached our level of perfection. But most importantly, she taught me how to cook with love and care.
Given my fascination with cooking, it’s no surprise that I fell in love with beer pairings. For the last few years, I have been sharing my pairing adventures on Instagram. And most recently, I started a summer beer pairing series featuring Hefeweizen, Witbier, and American Wheat.
Though they have their similarities, each style is distinctly different. Which I was reminded of when I tried ceviche with an American Wheat instead of the planned pairing with the Belgian Witbier. The American Wheat seemed to fight the ceviche, leaving a clashing taste in my mouth. While with the Belgian Witbier, the pairing brightened and elevated the flavors.
But that’s the key to pairing food with beer—you just have to try different shit out. While there are plenty of guidelines to follow, sometimes you have to listen to your gut. Sometimes you have to experiment.
When I’m coming up with pairings, I usually start with the food. I think about the flavor profiles of the dish—is it rich and savory or bright with citrus flavors? Even if I’m cooking something new, I’ll usually have an idea of the flavor profile. I consider the flavors used in the dish and when. Lemon juice squirted over the top of a finished dish will taste different than if it’s used in a marinade.
Then, I think about the beer pairing and sometimes I’ll have a particular style in mind or at least a flavor profile. If I’m baking a pound cake, I could be in the mood for something malty and sweet or maybe I want to add a lemon glaze, which would call for something different entirely.
Next, I’ll either grab my books or do a quick (sometimes extensive) Google search to see what other people have tried. I also imagine both flavors together. Does it seem like a winner? Or would they clash with each other?
Once everything is before me, I start with the food, noting the flavors. I’ll try the beer by itself. And last, I’ll taste the two together and assign them a score.
I found my favorite way to judge beer pairings in Julia Herz and Gwen Conley’s Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros. Here’s a breakdown of the scale:
+2 both the food and beer improved
+1 either the food or beer improved
0 neither improved
-1 either the food or beer taste worse
-2 a complete disaster (like the ceviche and American wheat)
Most pairings fall into the middle range (+1, 0, -1), but sometimes you’ll find a winner that’ll blow your mind. Currently, my favorite pairing is sweet potato pie with Allagash’s Barrel and Bean. The two flavors completely transformed into something altogether beautiful and delicious. I wrote about my favorite beer and pie pairings here. (Side note: who else is counting down to fall?)
While beer pairings are mostly trial and error, I have a few recommendations that have helped me on this journey besides Herz and Conley’s book.
No conversation about beer pairings should go without mentioning Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table. I purchased his book in 2016, and was blown away by the information inside. I still refer to it weekly.
I also love Claire Bullen and Jen Ferguson’s book The Beer Lover’s Table. There’s a recipe for carnitas in there that is chef’s kiss. I also love their recipe for blondies with sweet potato ripple.
Then there’s The Beer Pantry by Adam Dulye with Michael Harlan Turkell. I love the way this book is laid out. The authors group the beers into different categories like crisp and clean or malty and sweet, which is how I naturally think of pairings. While I mainly use this book as a guide, there are plenty of tasty recipes included.
After six years of studying and perfecting pairings, I have learned quite a lot, though I still have so much to learn. You’ll see even more of my journey into the world of pairings on IG, so follow me over there.
Also, leave me a comment if you have questions or if you want to share your favorite beer pairings with me. I’d love to hear it!
Why Black Women Are Divesting From Excellence & Embracing Mediocrity — a fascinating read about the pressure to excel. If you grew up hearing, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much, give this a read.
I devoured The Bear, which takes you behind the scenes of a family sandwich shop based in Chicago. I spent five years cooking on the line at Steak ‘n Shake and actually contemplated working in a restaurant full-time. This show brought up all those good (and bad) memories.
My friend Tiffanie Barriere, AKA the Drinking Coach, always lives up to her moniker. She recently had me try a glass of Russell’s Reserve 13 Year Old Bourbon neat. It was smooth, full of oak and cherry flavor, with that delightful burn of bourbon at the end. But when she added a large ice cube to my glass, it transformed into something else. She made the connection for me, saying how the ice chills the liquor and mellows out the heat. And honestly, it made it so dangerously easy to drink. I’m still on the hunt for that bottle.
First off, I’m absolutely ready for fall! During the pandemic I reduced my beer intake but I love the idea of making beer pairings at home. With the rising costs everywhere, it makes good economic sense. I love Allagash but I’m not familiar with that beer!