For years, wine-lovers have prattled on to the annoyance of mere mortals about wine-food pairings. There is a similar art to pairing beers with food dishes in general, matching foods with varieties of beer such as India Pale Ales (IPAs), ambers, and wheat beers. Just as with wine pairing, beer pairing plays on easily predicted interactions between food flavors and beer characteristics.
Matching up hot food and cold brews is beyond a simple matter of killing the “hot” reaction. Indeed, that’s more facilitated with a nice big glass of milk, which binds to capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers. Alcohol dissolves capsaicin, but adding beer to a hot food is more than the fulfillment of a buffalo restaurateur’s tricky goal, or the pursuit of a chemical reaction. You are adding to your food the character of the beer you choose. Your pairing depends on how well the beer fits with the flavors – other than “OW HOT!” – in your apocalyptic appetizer or infernal entree.
Beers can complement or emphasize various aspects of dishes: the bitterness of hops and the flavor of roasted malt balance fat in a rich dish, as do carbonation and alcohol content. Sweetness and maltiness balance spiciness in food, whereas hop bitterness emphasizes it. Again, alcohol dissolves capsaicin, so a stronger beer may make an ideal “cooler.”
If barbeque is on your mind, look into an Abbey Dubbel, a Porter, or a Sweet or Oatmeal Stout. These big flavorful beers are perfect for a food that’s both rich and spicy, whereas something lighter might feel like an afterthought.
With a range of spicy foods, but especially curries, try an India Pale Ale. These crisp, medium-bodied ales are perfect for strong, bold, spicy foods, adding a flavorful counterpoint without weighing down most dishes. An amber or red ale adds a slightly sweeter, more hoppy option that’s great with a range of spicy foods, especially chicken and fish.
I know what you’re thinking: what about Mexican food? Spicy foods with lots of substance – loaded nachos, tacos, chili – can all be approached, though perhaps not optimally, with the typical domestic light lagers. But try Mexican food with an Oktoberfest, Marzen, or Vienna-style beer, and find out what you’re missing. The only way to explain the difference is to imagine one day trying hot fudge on a sundae, after being told for a lifetime that condensed milk is the right topping. After you try this pairing you may never go back.
If your tastes run to Asian or Cajun foods, a Helles or a Dortmunder is your best bet. They’re beautiful pairings with lighter foods as well, like chicken, fish, and salads. The delicate mixes of just plain hot and other complex spice flavors found in Asian and Cajun cuisine won’t be overpowered by these beers’ character. A clean-tasting lager like Thailand’s Singha is ideal for Thai food.
You don’t have to remember all these precise pairings to successfully match beers with spicy foods. Although mass-produced light lagers might not be ideal in a pairing, a light crisp lager is a good default for spicy foods of all sorts – so it is hard to go wrong, even with a “default beer.”
But bear in mind that there are principles to beer pairing: if you have strong, rich flavors in your food, it will stand up to a bold, flavorful beer, and vice versa. If there are delicate interplays in the food, stay with something lighter and less imposing. Alcohol content is a good gauge for the quenching quality of a beer, and the interplays of hoppiness, maltiness, sweetness, alcohol content, and carbonation can be great predictors of how a beer will taste with a particular food. If you know the flavor of the beer you’re contemplating, and of the fire you’re fixing, imagine the pairing – or try the same dish with a variety of brews then settle on one or two before that big barbeque or dinner party.
Make note of the pairings that work best, and build a mental inventory. Fire and ice are as well combined in a meal as in a poem, and Frost, after all, belongs on a mug.