Pintful: Learn how to find the right beer with your food

jfrank@newsobserver.comDecember 9, 2013 

Pair beer with what is on the dinner plate. By matching the intensity of the beer with the intensity of the food a great alternitive to wine can be served with success. From left, pale ale, cherry Belgian fruit beer, brown ale, cream ale and a dopplebock.


  • What’s on tap Howard Brewing tasting

    5-8 p.m. Thursday, BottleMixx, 8111 Creedmoor Road #153, Raleigh

    Howard Brewing in Lenoir is building a solid reputation. This tasting offers a chance to sip Mistletoe, a robust porter with North Carolina raspberries that is aged in apple brandy oak barrels. Info:

    Home-brewing championship

    5 p.m. Saturday, Raleigh Brewing, 3709 Neil St., Raleigh

    The quarterly home-brew competition hosted by Raleigh Brewing is reaching the championship level, and the public will help pick the winner. Try free samples of the finalists and cast your ballot. Info:

    Big Sip Expo

    2-7 p.m. Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum Pavilion

    This second annual event showcases an assortment of beverages from beer to espresso. Look for a number of local breweries and distilleries. Tickets range from $25-40. Info:

As a beer enthusiast, a dinner invitation from friends now typically includes a request: Bring a great beer to pair with the meal.

I stress more than I should about these decisions. Like food, beer is viewed from the eye of the beholder. One person can love and another can hate the same beer, just as one competition can give it a gold medal and different one ignore it completely.

But I’m a big believer in the idea that beer pairs better with food than wine – a profane stance in the minds of some chefs. Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, explains it better than I can in the foreword to recently released “The American Craft Beer Cookbook.”

“Craft brewing, like cooking, is an act of expression and creation – the brewer has an idea and then gathers ingredients together to create the beer he or she has dreamed up,” Oliver wrote. “As a result, craft beer can taste like sea air, like bananas, like ginger, like chocolate or coffee, like cherries, like rum, like virtually anything at all. This versatility gives beer vast superiority over other beverages when it comes to compatibility at the table.”

John Holl, editor of the Durham-based All About Beer magazine, spent more than two years compiling the new beer-themed cookbook touted by Oliver. It is packed with recipes made and paired with beer, including a few North Carolina shoutouts. (Find one recipe online at the N&O’s food blog,

As the holiday dinner party season begins, I called Holl and a couple of local brewers for advice on beer pairings.

“What I try to do is think about beer in food terms,” Holl begins.

Water has a mineral character, malt can range from biscuit to coffee flavors, hops impart citrus or piney notes and yeast can leave anything from peppery to cotton candy taste. “Then you can find ways of pairing it with a dish,” he explains.

‘Finding flavor bridges’

The first good piece of advice Holl offered: Ask more questions about what’s being served. A steak pairs with well with a roasty stout, but if it has a Gorgonzola sauce, an India pale ale will better cut the strong cheese flavors. “It’s about finding flavor bridges,” Holl says.

It isn’t as black and white as wine pairing (red to darker meats; white to chicken and seafood). “With beer and food, there isn’t one cardinal rule,” adds Harmony Schilling, tsales director at White Street Brewery in Wake Forest.

White Street recently worked with 18 Seaboard in Raleigh for a beer dinner that included a Sea Island red pea cassoulet with hog jowl-braised pheasant, house-cured sausage, crisped pork belly and cornbread croutons. The beer: a Scottish ale with rich, malty flavors to match the intensity of the dish.

The second part of the decision is picking a strategy: complementary or contrarian, or both.

“There’s different ways you can mix and match beer with food depending on what type of food and beer you like,” says Jon Connolly, the brewmaster at Carolina Brewery, the Chapel Hill brew pub that does many beer dinners.

His favorite method is complementary flavors. “So the beer brings out the best of the food, and the food brings out the best of the beer,” he explains.

A sweeter meat like pork or turkey goes well with a malty lager, he says, which has “a little sweetness of its own and not too acidic and not too hoppy.” He added: “Sometimes what can happen if you pair big beers with food is it can dominate the food.”

The traditional rule is the more strongly flavored the food, the bolder the beer. But in the book, Holl shows that opposites attract, too. He paired Front Street Brewery’s Coastal Kolsch, a light-colored lager, with the Wilmington restaurant's rich shrimp and grits. Another common match is a bitter IPA with spicy Mexican food.

The tougher pairing is a holiday party when you don’t know the food. For this, the beer gurus suggest bringing a holiday or winter ale to match the season.

What I’m tasting

After talking to Holl, my wife and I made a rich chili to fight the cold weather, using a homebrewed Oktoberfest in the chili.

We paired it with Lazy Magnolia Brewing’s Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale, bought on a recent trip to Alabama. The beer’s sweetness juxtaposed the chili’s spice nicely. A darker porter or stout would have worked even better.

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or

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