For centuries, wine lovers have known that their enjoyment of a particular varietal can be enhanced or hindered depending on the food it’s been paired with. Seemingly dozens of other factors can also affect a wine-tasting experience, from the temperature of the wine to the shape of the glass to the company you’re with.
Not surprisingly, food pairings and numerous other influences can make or break a beer, especially with today’s diverse craft beer styles and variations. I wouldn’t suggest turning down a brew because the food pairing isn’t ideal or it’s served in the wrong glass, but I’d like to offer a few suggestions to optimize your beer drinking experience.
Craft beer often brings hoppy or bold flavors. Alcohol strength, malty or caramel flavors, bitterness, sweetness and other characteristics drive beer flavor. The simplest rule, according to the Brewers Association, is to match strength with strength, so foods with strong flavors match better with bigger beers. Delicate dishes pair better with lighter beers.
Another hint is to look for specific interactions to either balance or intensify flavors. For example, a hoppy or bitter beer might balance well with food that is sweet or rich. A sweeter or malty brew figures to offset best with food that is spicy or acidic. Conversely, pairing a bitter beer with spicy food will actually boost the flavors. The best way to know what you like is to try a few different combinations for yourself.
Presentation also plays a role in beer taste, and that’s not just how the beer looks in your glass before it heads to your belly. How a beer is poured, its temperature and the type of glass it’s in all influence beer quality. Style really does impact substance.
Temperature is another vital factor, not only with the beer, but the surrounding climate as well. The idea of having the “coldest beer in town” isn’t always good. Sure, it’s hard to beat a cold light lager served at 38 degrees at a ballgame on a hot summer day. But there are optimum temperatures for chilling different styles of beer. Cold serving temperatures help generate refreshing results from lighter styles, but darker and heavier beers often need time to warm up a bit. Most English ales and Belgian styles should be slightly warmer at around 45-50 degrees, and darker and heavier beers often need a little more time to warm up to around 55 degrees. Many bigger beers lose some of their full body and character when served straight out of the fridge or the tap.
The glass the beer is served in also matters. There is proper glassware for different beer styles, with each designed to best capture and present the beer’s aroma, bringing in the olfactory component to round out the experience. Tall Pilsner glasses are ideal for pale lagers and allow the head of tiny bubbles to maintain its perfect level without overflowing. But not even the glass can hide a careless pour. Take your time, angle the glass and let the brew flow slowly down the inside wall.
Tulip glasses and smaller snifters are best for heavier and more intense “sipping” beers. Even with less carbonation in some of these brews, it’s still wise to pour carefully.
Stouts and porters using the nitrogenated method for carbonation are different. Nitro beers should be poured hard down the middle of an upright pint glass. Instead of rising from the bottom of the glass, the bubbles cascade and swirl, allowing for a more predictable head at the end of the pour and a silky mouth feel.
Perhaps the most popular beer vessel at craft breweries is the tapered “shaker pint” glass, despite the fact that its shape does little to enhance the beer’s flavor or aroma. They’re also great for collecting, and most local taprooms offer them for sale.
The rule about glass styles goes out the window when you’re sampling several brews at a single sitting. Order a flight of tasters at any craft brewery taproom and decide for yourself, starting with the lighter beers and moving toward the heavier or more flavorful brews. Let the cicerone be your guide.
Or head over to Pacific Wine Merchants in Upland for one of their Friday “tap takeover” events, where $15 gets you eight beer samples and a pint glass to take home. Not a bad way to make the most of a beer sampling opportunity.
Sid Robinson is managing partner of the strategic communications and public relations firm Robinson and Associates, LLC. (www.robinsonandassociates.us). His articles about craft beer, wine and spirits also appear in publications such as Foothills Reader and 909 Magazine.