We seem to be running short on pairing tips and tricks, so this seems as good a time as any to expand on that subject. Food and beverage pairing can be intensely intricate and daunting, but it needn’t be. Simplicity can, and often does, yield amazing results, so you don’t have to be a Master Sommelier or Brewmeister to find a beverage to go with your meal. With a little knowledge, experience and thought, it can be as easy or as complex as you make it.
First, when contemplating a beverage pairing I always think in terms of comparative or contrasting flavors. I like to go with contrasting most of the time as it tends to add more interest, unless there is a really special ingredient (read as rare or expensive or both), then I try to go with something understated and complementary to let that ingredient be the star.
Complimentary flavors are the easiest to start with. Certain foods will always pair well with certain beverages, but always keep in mind the full ingredient list of the dish and method of cooking when looking for a good pairing. Pork and shellfish, for instance, will go with beer no matter what the method of cooking. It’s the other ingredients involved that will determine what you should pair with it. Mussels steamed in white wine can certainly be paired with a beer, but it’s a trickier pairing than just going with white wine. The same or similar, maybe even a better quality wine than was used in the cooking process, is a no-brainer as far as pairing for such a dish goes. If you used a $5.00 bottle to steam them, serve them with a $15.00 bottle (especially if you are already familiar with that bottle) and life is easy.
Bottom line with the complimentary method is you really only need some basic knowledge of beverages to pull off a successful pairing. The typical flavor profile of the various beer styles and for grape varietals and blends. Intuition often helps immensely here, too. Once you have that vision of the final dish in your head, what you want the end result to taste like, just stand in front of the beer or wine shelf and browse with that in the back of your mind. In any well stocked beverage store I’m sure something will jump out at you. Trust your instincts, and if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, ask yourself why. What was the beverage lacking? Was it too heavy or too flat? Did it overpower the food, or vice versa? Once you determine the answer, congratulations! You’ve just had a learning experience, and that is never a bad thing! This will guide your future selections.
The point is, don’t take this too seriously. The comparative flavor method is fairly forgiving, and works well enough most of the time. Acidity cuts through fat, is probably the best advice to give to someone who wants to venture into this endeavor. If the dish at hand is rich or has a rich and fatty sauce, go with a beverage that has some acidity. Braised pork, for instance, loves a lager or a white wine with higher than normal acidity. Hard cider is also a valid option since there’s a fair amount of acid and apples are a classic pairing with pork. But, as I said, the other ingredients in the dish might scream for something more specific. Curry braised pork? I’d go with a light or medium bodied beer, depending on what sort of curry is used. Jerk braised pork? Would benefit more from a light lager, or maybe even bold white.
Of course, if there is a particular beverage used in the construction of the dish, then that beverage is a no-brainer for
pairing. Beef Burgundy (Bourguignon) loves a bold red wine, because that’s one of the liquids in the braise, and beer poached bratwurst on a summer afternoon cannot and should not be paired with anything other than a good beer! I doubt even Ian, our resident wine guy, would argue that.
Another thing to consider are the ingredients used in the brewing of the beverage before you. This counts more for beer and cider than wine, since wines are nearly always made with grapes alone. Many beer styles incorporate herbs, spices, citrus, even seaweed in the brew kettle. If those adjuncts would pair well with the food on the plate if they were part of the dish, then they will work well when present in your libation. Beer with citrus peel works well with deserts and fish, one with heavy spices like a winter ale will go well when game or curry or jerk seasoning are on the plate, and one with fruit additives will go well with anything that particular fruit would. Chocolate and raspberry, for instance. A classic combination. Chocolate cake and/or ganache loves a raspberry lambic. And lambics are high in acidity, which will cut through the fat and richness chocolate brings to the table, thus washing your palate clean and preparing you for the next mouthful.
So let your intuition, instincts, and sense of adventure guide you. Count failures as learning experiences. Above all, dare to explore your options. Some great pairings can come from unlikely places, and the only way to find out is to try! There is a universal “ah ha!” moment in this endeavor, one that every beverage snob has had. Most people just don’t get it until they’ve experienced it. The synergy that can occur with food and beverage mingling on the tongue, making each other greater than the sum of their parts.
I have a few more ideas in mind for future posts right now, but I’ll get back to this subject. Next time I touch on this I’ll tackle the not-so-easy pairing ideas of contrasting the potable with the plate.