Above: Fish & chips with a lager at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Photo courtesy Iron Hill Brewery.
By Pam George
Unless you’re in a brewpub, wine options often outnumber the beer. Even the cocktails menu might have more listings. However, that’s changing as more people realize that craft beer is a viable option for any course — from the cocktail hour to the dessert.
“Having the right food and beer can really elevate the experience,” says Mark Edelson, co-founder and director of operations for Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, which has 20 East Coast Locations including Wilmington, Newark and Rehoboth Beach.
The variety of flavor profiles — along with the increased interest in low-ABV products — give beer a place at the table. However, pairing beer with food can be challenging, particularly for novices. Still, the mission is simple: “The goal is to not overpower the food with the beer and vice versa,” says Daniel Sheridan, owner of Stitch House Brewery in downtown Wilmington.
Here are some tips to help you choose.
Know The Basics
Beermaking can be incredibly complex, so consider this a crash course. The difference between ale and lager includes the fermentation time, the temperature and where the yeast ferments — on the brew’s top or the bottom. Generally, ale ferments relatively quickly at a warm temperature with top-fermenting yeast, while lager ferments for longer at a lower temperature with bottom-fermenting yeasts. Within these categories are subcategories, such as brown, blond and pale ales. Despite the latter’s name, pale ale can stand up to flavor-forward dishes (More on that later.)
An India Pale Ale, or IPA, started as a British pale ale with extra hops to keep the beer from spoiling en route to India. IPAs have become incredibly popular among American craft beer enthusiasts who like to push the envelope. Consider Twisted Irons Brewing Co. in Newark’s That’s What She Said, a “cold” IPA fermented with lager yeast at warmer ale-like temperatures. Stitch House’s Hazy Dazy IPA reflects a growing trend. Also known as New England Pale Ales, the dry-hopped, hazy beer has fragrant, fruity notes and doesn’t taste as bitter as many IPAs.
Think Blue Moon or Allagash White when you picture wheat beers, which are typically top-fermented and contain about 30% wheat. Often hazy, the flavor includes spices and citrus. Within this category are hefeweizen, American wheat beers and witbiers.
Pilsner, a lager, originated in the German city of Plzen. It has a crisp finish and can be hoppy, depending on the style. Stitch House’s Furio II is an Italian take on pilsner that is a favorite with Italian foods.
On the opposite spectrum, porter is a dark lager with a roasted malt aroma. Iron Hill’s Pig Iron Porter is a classic example. Meanwhile, most stouts sport a creamy head and, often, a coffee-like bitterness. Wilmington Brew Works’ Harmonic Oscillation is an imperial chocolate stout. There’s no doubt about what you’ll taste.
And for something completely different, try the trending sours, an ancient style that’s back in favor. Twisted Irons’ I’ve Got Those Raspberry Blues is a Gose, which started in Goslar, Germany. At just 4.3%, it’s “sessionable,” meaning you can have more than one without falling off your barstool. Belgian Lambic is a sour style that some say should only refer to beers brewed in a particular region, much like Champagne.
Of course, there are exceptions to the norm, especially in craft breweries that buck European standards.
Locate the Style’s Source
As with Gose and pilsner beers, understanding a beer’s origin can help you choose the proper pairing, an approach that wine lovers have followed for years. Select ingredients native to the grape-growing region or brew’s origin and dishes that define these areas.
“German sausages go great with German lagers, right?” Edelson asks. “That’s not luck.” Centuries ago, brewers without today’s bells and whistles adjusted the ingredients to match their diet, he adds.
Sip It Solo
However, some beers are best enjoyed on their own, says John Medkeff, author of Brewing in Delaware. He has a New England-style IPA or a sour beer without food to fully appreciate the style and flavor. It’s not unlike savoring a cocktail.
Consider The Cuisine
As Edelson noted, certain dishes have a natural pairing. Medkeff, for instance, likes a stout with Irish food. (There’s a reason Guinness is an Irish pub staple.) Beverage menus can influence your decision. For years, Asian eateries mainly offered refreshing light lagers like Kirin and Tsingtao. A crisp beer cuts spice without dampening the other flavors, says Sheridan of Stitch House. Highly carbonated beers also curb the heat. Edelson recommends Iron Hill’s Vienna Red Lager.
Admittedly, some like it hot. In that case, try an IPA., which accentuates spice. “There’s a compounding effect,” explains Craig Wensell, CEO of Wilmington Brew Works in Wilmington
With Indian cuisine, Medkeff reaches for German Dunkel, a dark German lager, or Belgian tripel, a strong pale ale.
Both stand up to the food’s spiciness and bold flavors. And with a charcuterie board’s rich or peppery meats, try Bellefonte Brewing Company’s Small Wonder IPA, a hoppy choice that weighs in at 5% ABV, says Sarah DeFlaviis, the brewery’s director of marketing.
If you prefer more fruit-forward beers, try Bellefonte Brewing’s The Fruited Offering series, which complements spicy food, she says. The white peach goes well with jerk chicken or the passion fruit guava with pad Thai.
Compare Or Contrast
It’s not surprising that experts would recommend opposing options for the same cuisine. When it comes to pairing food and beer, look for styles that are complementary or contrasting. For instance, choose either an IPA or a sour with curry, says Matt Found, owner of Twisted Irons Brewing Co. in Newark. The sour is a contrast, and the IPA is a complement.
Pile on the Comfort
Dining preferences change with the season, affecting both food and beverage menus. “Our brewer at Stitch House definitely bases the lineup on weather, ingredients and what people will likely be eating,” Sheridan explains. Not surprisingly, people want heavier dishes in winter, and many are standard pub fare. Consider Irish stew, fish-and-chips, sausages and shepherd’s pie. Pretzels with mustard, burgers, wings, cheese boards and barbecue are also popular pub items.
Why is beer a natural choice for these dishes? Credit the benefits of carbonation and a low pH. “It goes a long way to cut the thick profile of something that’s kind of fatty like beef stew,” says Wensell, who likes heavier beers with hearty fare. However, give him an order of chicken nuggets and fries, and he’ll reach for a pale ale. “There’s nothing better than that,” he says. “It’s nostalgic.”
The marriage of beer and comfort food won’t go away any time soon because “it’s good,” Sheridan notes.
Don’t Forget the Dessert
As far as Edelson is concerned, beer is better than wine when it comes to dessert pairings. Chocolate is made from roasted cacao beans, and darker beers come from roasted malts. “That’s why they make such a great pairing,” he says.
A stout is a frequent suggestion for chocolate desserts. But Sheridan also likes triple or double IPAs. For fruity sweets, Found has paired sour or crisp or fruited beer; To be sure, DiFlaviis suggests Bellefonte Brewing’s Chakra Chai for pie, particularly apple or blueberry.
Attend a Beer Dinner
Like a wine dinner, the multi-course meal has a different beer for each course, and usually, there is a guide to tell you why the match works. For Valentine’s Day, Twisted Irons will feature a flight of five beers with mini cupcakes from Erin’s Sweet Side. “Each cupcake will be different, and I’ll pair them with each beer,” Found explains. Call the brewery for details.
When In Doubt …
And if you’re still confused, you can’t go wrong with a “nice, crisp, light lager,” Wensell says. His brewery’s Krauch’s Creation is an homage to Christian Krauch, the creator of Delaware’s first lager beers.
For Edelson, it’s saison, which “goes with everything,” he maintains. French for “season,” saison is a highly carbonated pale ale. Carbonation, Edelson, cleans the palate. But that’s not its only attribute. “It’s born out of the Belgian farmhouse style, and it has all these wonderful characteristics when you think of a beer that needs to go with the food on your table,” the brewer explains.
But, in the end, it’s all about personal choice. “Eat what you love to eat, and drink what you like to drink,” says Edelson.