Beer with food - Anything goes

By Richard Fox

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Beers Beer style Ale

Sarah, Meg and Sam in the shop.
Sarah, Meg and Sam in the shop.
Or does it? Over the next few pages Richard Fox, author of the new Food and Beer Cookbook, gives advice on matching different beer styles with food.

Or does it? Over the next few pages Richard Fox, author of the new Food and Beer Cookbook, gives advice on matching different beer styles with food.

 When it comes to the principles of matching beer and food, it's all about common sense and gut feeling, although newcomers to the concept tend to think there must be some kind of scientific formula along the lines of E=MC². This is understandable from the point of view that beer has only recently renewed its place at the gastronomic table. However, when we look at the principles for any food and beverage matching, the whole beer and food thing becomes an absolute no-brainer.

 These broad principles centre on the concept of compare, contrast, cut and cleanse. This idea is exactly as it sounds: compare like flavours; contrast opposing ones; and cleanse the palate. These events can take place individually or at the same time, creating a fabulous food and drink flavour combination. This is best illustrated by examples based on beer style.

 Wheat beers​Wheat beers do not look like beer, and they don't taste like beer either. Or at least they don't taste like what we traditionally think beer should taste like: all malt and hoppy bitterness. In fact, beer has more colour and taste variations than any other beverage category. So, to look or taste like beer is one giant red herring. Most wheat beers have a pale, pasty, lemony hue, which is the first indication of what they might taste like: light, citrussy and refreshing. The presence of coriander in some also gives a faint herbal quality.

 All this lemony zestiness and herbal freshness has fish written all over it when we're talking about food matches. But this is only half the story, because this food-loving beer will match all manner of food styles, from Thai and Malaysian to Italian iced desserts. The citrus and herbal element marries perfectly with the lemon grass, Kaffir lime leaf and coriander so prevalent in south-east Asian cuisine. Wheat beers also love poultry - particularly with herb-based sauces.

 Fruit beers​There's nothing alcopop about these beers. Fermented in open vessels by wild yeasts in the atmosphere, they pre-date the discovery of yeast itself. From real fruit macerated for several months to oak cask maturation, these beers are about as artisan as you can get. The perfect balance of sweet and sour makes them an ideal partner for game - particularly venison and pigeon that have a natural affinity for soft fruit. They are a vastly cheaper alternative to Sauternes as an accompaniment to foie gras, chicken livers and other offal. But it's when they're matched with desserts that they come into their own. The fruit flavours match with fruit-based desserts and fruit coulis, and chocolate matches particularly with the cherry and raspberry beers, while the subtle sourness contrasts with the sweetness in all manner of desserts.

 Trappist and abbey ​ Trappist beers are still solely made by monks within the abbey walls and are truly artisan products of the highest value. Let's face it, who better to prepare your brew than someone not distracted by girls, mindaltering substances or on-line poker. And, although they are brewing on a commercial basis, the dollar is not their god. Abbey beers tend to be copies of these, albeit damn good ones. While there are a few substyles within this category (namely dubbels and trippels) one word can sum up the whole genre: complexity. Great big, dark, fruity, alcohol-laden, extraordinary complexity. Flavours rise and fall in fleeting seconds - and they just keep coming.

 In many ways, this makes the process of comparing and contrasting based on specific flavours quite difficult: much better, then, to think about things in bigger, broader terms. In the case of dubbels, the dark, plummy flavours lend themselves to rich stews and sweeter meats, such as lamb and duck, where the caramel flavours in the beer compare with similar flavours generated by the caramelised fat of the meat.

 Trippels are lighter in colour and stronger in alcohol and go fabulously well with pesto, where the intense flavours of basil, garlic and Parmesan can stand up to their complex intensity. When it comes to super-strength dark strong ales, you need super-strength, dark strong food to match the intensity of flavour: venison, pigeon, braised oxtail are all contenders, as are big-flavoured cheeses.

 English ales​This definition covers an awesome range of bottled, bottled-conditioned, cask and keg ales. The real artisan products in this genre, however - and beers with gastronomic credentials comparable to the Belgian classics - are bottle-conditioned and cask-conditioned, ie, top fermented brews, where live yeast in the bottle or cask continues to give character and complexity to the beer after it has left the brewery. Within these two categories alone there are many different styles generating all manner of aromas and flavours, from intense tropical fruitiness to freshly-cut hay. There are, however, certain characteristics of English ale that run through many of the different types, whether they are bitters, pale ales, milds or strong ales.

 These are essentially: caramel sweetness, hoppy bitterness, and varying degrees of fruitiness. It's no coincidence that our traditional classic dishes are perfect matches for these styles of beer. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, roast leg of lamb, slow-cooked belly pork, Welsh rarebit, apple crumble - all have their traditions steeped in the grain rather than the grape. Throw in stews, casseroles and game dishes and there are very few good British meals that don't suit quality British ale.

 Stout and porter​Toasted caramel, chocolate and astringent bitterness are hallmarks of these richly-dark beers. These features make them incredibly diverse when it comes to matching with food. From shellfish such as lobster and oyster, when their bitterness offers a dynamic juxtaposition to the sweetness of the meat, to rich desserts, such as Christmas pudding, where the beer brings out the fruit in all its glory, while the food helps flavours to emerge in the beer which are undetectable when it is drunk on its own.

 Pilsner​At the top end, these beers are floral, honeyed and buttery. Their crisp, dry carbonation makes them the ultimate beverage for cutting and cleansing. This means they are the ideal combination with oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. They'll cut through deepfried food like a knife through butter, and cleanse the palate more effectively than the spritziest mineral waters or wines when drunk with spicy ethnic cuisines.

 These are just a few examples of the vast array of beer styles and how they can match with food. You should also check out: Bière des Gardes from Normandy with their wonderful herbal complexity and their affinity with the great French cheeses; Saison beers from southern Belgium, in their corked, Champagne-like bottles, and smoked beers, bock beers and black lagers from Bohemia. Keep experimenting, tasting and trustingthose gut instincts, and before long you'll have a beer-and-food-matching repertoire to rival the finest châteaux.

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