29 July 2021

Monthly Myth-Buster: Wine with food – Beer with bar snacks?

In the first of our monthly myth-busting posts, we aim a wrecking ball at the idea that wine’s the only drink to have with a meal.

There’s a popular but misguided belief that the only alcoholic drink which should be served with a meal is wine. (Let’s put the ‘substantial meal’ of Scotch egg washed down with beer behind us!). Wine with dinner has a ring of sophistication about it, as if only wine is posh enough for the purpose. But according to writer Stephen Beaumont, in his book The Beer & Food Companion, it’s an attitude we’ve adopted from the French.

He says it began when the French formalised meal service in the 18th Century. Along with French terms for courses, such as hors d’oeuvre for starter and entrée for main course – which are still currently used on many British menus – it also influenced our choice of mealtime booze. The theory stands up, given that wine is the drink most associated with France. Slavishly following the practice though? Well, it’s a bubble we’d like to burst.

Because of the variety of flavours available from beer, along with its range of different alcoholic strengths and its secret weapon: carbonation, it can pair with food in ways wine simply can’t.

It’s not as if beer and food matching is new or a fad either. It’s likely been around for centuries, perhaps longer. Then there’s the cultural element. If we’d taken our gastronomy lessons from the beer-loving Germans or Czechs, rather than the French, things this side of the Channel might be very different says Beaumont.

Even so, the idea of Brits enjoying beer with a meal is well-established and celebrated. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson wrote about it and renowned wine expert (and beer fan) Fiona Beckett dedicated an entire book to it. Come the 21st Century ‘craft beer revolution’ and you couldn’t move for someone singing the praises of matching beer and food. So why hasn’t the idea gone mainstream in the same way as craft beer?

The exception that proves the rule is beer with curry. It’s a popular pairing because lager often has a predominant, subtle, cereal flavour (which works with most foods) and because of the aforementioned carbonation. All those tiny bubbles have the effect of refreshing, cleansing and cooling the palate between mouthfuls of even the spiciest curry.

Arguably though, other than fine dining or high end restaurants, we don’t truly do much wine and food pairing either. At least not beyond, red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or chicken. Yet this could play in your favour if you’re looking for something new or unusual to attract customers, or to keep loyal patrons from getting bored.

Although anyone can match beer and food, if they put their mind to it, it’s still niche enough to be the sort of unusual offer that makes your pub, bar or restaurant stand out from the rest. Join us as we banish the notion that wine’s the only drink to offer with meals – and make use of our beer and food matching guide below.

How to match beer and food

 The traditional approach to beer and food matching is the three Cs: cut, contrast and complement. Beer can cut through rich flavours and refresh the palate, or it can contrast with the flavour of the food to help bring out the taste of both. Or it might taste similar to the food, complementing it via the flavours both have in common. A perhaps more simple approach is ‘FBI’ – flavour, balance and intensity.

Flavour: When you bring a beer and food together, the flavours in both should support each other rather than clashing. A bit like how ingredients work together in a recipe.

Balance: Ensure neither beer nor food overwhelms the taste buds. (A good match can increase the enjoyment of both though, or amplify certain aspects of flavour.)

Intensity: As a rule of thumb, subtly-flavoured beers go best with simple, lightly seasoned dishes; middle weight beers are best with food of corresponding depth of taste and powerful, boozy beers usually work best with stronger flavoured foods. The rule also reminds us to start subtle and light, working up to stronger flavours, if matching several courses.

Beer’s simple ingredients play a huge part in its food pairing versatility. Malt, with its range of different cereal tones can taste similar to everything from bread, cakes and biscuits through to roasty, toasty and even char-grilled flavours. Hops are the herbs and spices of beer and because they also have fruity flavours they have much in common with food. (Beware how hops can emphasise spicy heat and bitterness though.) Yeast is the trickiest beer ingredient when it comes to food matching, because it can alter flavours in unexpected ways. This is one of the reasons why the only way to be sure of a pairing is to taste it.

Also, don’t overlook the fact that beer styles made by different breweries can vary enormously and this will alter pairings. It’s best to make matches with particular beers rather than styles. That said, here are some tried and trusted generic pairings to get you started on your own pairing ideas.

  • British pale ale is a great match for one of our national dishes, fish & chips.
  • Best bitter or darker golden ales (if British hopped) pair well with Sunday roast and also with burgers.
  • Porter or a lighter bodied stout – but not Guinness, nor milk stout – goes surprisingly well with beef chilli. (Vegetarian or vegan chilli will definitely need taste-testing first.)
  • Belgian lambic or gueuze (spontaneously fermented, ‘sour’ beers) can be fabulous with seafood dishes.

Hopefully we’ve inspired you to experiment. Also, testing matches with colleagues is great for training purposes as well as expanding staff knowledge and team building. Surely a case of beer, food and time well spent?!

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