Pairing food and beer

The idea of giving deep thought to which food to serve with a selected wine goes back centuries. It will surprise many that the same is true of pairing a good beer with a favorite dish.

Beer has a long and glorious history, in some forms stretching back as far as 6,000 years, though modern brewing methods go back a mere 200 or so. But during those 200 years, many fine minds have experimented with forming the perfect partnership between beer and food. Here are some of the results...

In selecting the right beer-dish combination there are three basic considerations: contrast, complement and cut.

To 'cut' a dish is to try to offset its dominant flavors by proper beer selection (or dish selection, if you start with the beer first). A heavily buttered duck can be cut well with a light pilsner, helping to achieve a good balance.

To 'contrast' is almost self-explanatory. Beyond cutting flavors, you want to actually highlight both by finding pairs that are distinctly different. The hearty flavor of barbecued steak is delightfully contrasted with a pale ale, for example.

To 'complement' is just what it sounds like, combining like with like or pairing two that go together 'naturally'. A Belgian complements a chocolate dish in ways that go beyond geography.

In no case would you want the flavor of the beer to overwhelm the dish nor vice-versa. Though beer goes well with many cheeses, some of the stronger dairy will drown any good brew. Similarly, a strong vinegar-based salad dressing, high in acid, will interfere with even a highly malted brew, such as a Scottish ale.

For those fond of cheese - happily, a very wide group - there are still many choices. An American wheat beer goes well with soft cheeses, such as cream cheese or ricotta. Cheddars pair well with a double bock or even a fruity ale. Hard cheeses, such as parmigiano, benefit from pairing with a porter or barley wine, as does Roquefort.

But pairings go far beyond cheese.

Pizza, obviously, is a favorite among Americans. And consistent with the common sense found among them, they often instinctively select a domestic lager or pale ale.

Wheat bear complements not only cheese but fresh fish where the beer may be the appetizer. A light lager with the halibut is always welcome, too.

A roast chicken forms a delightful contrast to a pale ale, but turkey makes a good complement. But to really bring out the best of both beverage and bird, try a steam or amber ale with that Thanksgiving meal. For stronger-flavored game birds try a fruity, dark ale.

For those well-done steaks or roast beef think traditional English bitter. The truly adventurous will go all the way with a porter.

And last but not least, wine isn't the only fermented drink that pairs well with dessert. Those delightful Lambics, made with the wild yeasts of West Flanders, are the perfect way to wash down raspberries or cherries.

For sweet desserts, such as a rich chocolate, think Belgian Trappist dark ales, oatmeal stout or even a Scotch ale. But don't forget, sometimes beer is dessert all on its own.