The Perfect Match: Pairing Beer with Food

Open a restaurant menu and you will often find a specific wine suggested to pair with a particular dish. But what if you prefer a crisp lager over a fruity Riesling? Certain beers pair just as well with food as wine does: Hefeweizen goes nicely with haddock, for instance, while IPAs are a fine complement to spicy food.

Restaurants all over the country are incorporating beer into their menus, and those who enjoy entertaining at home are considering their own menus. Is it OK to braise a turkey in pilsner? Which dark ale should you add to a beef carbonnade? Understanding the different flavors and complexities of beer can help turn any meal into an unforgettable experience.

In our recent keynote, “The Perfect Match: Pairing Beer with Food,” we explore beer styles and dish combinations with our expert panel: Doug Miller, lecturer in the Cornell University Nolan School of Hotel Administration and author of the Beer Essentials certificate program; Ari Sanders, director of tavern operations at Fullsteam Brewery; and Michael Wille, associate professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America.

What are some basic rules about pairing food with beer?

Wille: “When I’m trying to pair food and beer, I usually look for things like the flavor impact of the beer; that can range anywhere from delicate to intense. I’m looking at the body of the beer and the type of food I’m pairing it with. Some beers can be light and citrusy and fizzy. Others can kind of have malt characteristics and be dark and caramelly.

I’m usually trying to find harmonies within the flavors. You also might want to look for contrasts. If you have something in your food that might be fatty, you might want to cut that with something acidic, light, or fizzy in the beer. Harmonies and contrast, I think, are two of the most important things to take into consideration.”

Miller: “Look for how the food’s being prepared. Is it fried, so potentially more fat content? Is it grilled, so does it have a smoky element to it, in the case of a steak? Build mostly off the protein. The sauce can come into play, if there is a sauce, but I would key your pairing off how it’s being prepared and the protein or the main component of that dish.”

Is there a hard and fast rule when it comes to pairing beer with food like with wine? For example, most of us think about pairing a white wine with chicken. Does that relate to beer as well?

Wille: “When you have high alcohol, that’s going to usually intensify the heat in a dish. But when you begin to understand some of the flavors and tastes of different styles of beers and you understand complementing and contrasting, the rules are there to be broken.”

Sanders: “I’ve always thought about it as, ‘What does meat eat?’ Meat eats grain. What’s beer made of? Grain. I think beer is always a very natural complement to food. I do think it’s very important to have some intentionality when you decide to set a pairing up. What are you trying to show off? Do you want to break the palate up to reset for the next dish? Are you trying to show off the light buttery complexity of a sauce? Are you trying to show off the richness of a red meat? What you are trying to accentuate when you make your pairing is really important. Intentionality is important, but play. I won’t say rules are meant to be broken; rules help us along the way to learning.”

With beer now becoming more prominent, have you seen a change in your students’ taste buds whereas before the major focus was on wine pairings?

Miller: “I started teaching a beer course 14 years ago at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and I would have the students try a sour beer. They were ready to throw it back at me. They just thought there was something wrong with me. And I’m talking about world-class sours like Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen. Now my students love it. One of the reasons this might be the case is we’re looking at the generation that grew up eating Sour Patch candy and sour items, so they were more accustomed to having sourness in their diet.

Also, now they’re shifting away from IPAs. When I taught the class last spring, they were indifferent about IPAs. When it came to lager or pilsner-style beers, they were all in. I’m curious to see when I teach it this spring if this indifference on IPA continues and we have another transitional shift of what’s popular amongst students.”

IPAs can be bitter. Are there some foods to pair with it to make it more palatable?

Sanders: “IPA is probably the broadest category of beer available in America right now. You’ll see an IPA that’s sitting at 135 IBUs, which is how we measure bitterness, and you’ll see one that reads sweet and juicy – almost like lemonade. What I would encourage is to think about what type of flavors you enjoy. Think about what a fruity, juicy, hazy IPA can go well with. I pair those about the way I would pair white wine, with fish or things with light buttery sauces. But every IPA is going to go great with a nice piece of fried chicken.”

Wille: “As chefs we say, ‘Fat is flavor.’ Any item that’s going to have that fat in there is going to be something that’s going to be strong enough to stand up to those IPAs and the bold flavors.”

Miller: “Also, make sure that your IPAs are fresh because IPAs do change. Those lovely, juicy, citrusy notes after about 60 days start changing to be more bitter. It’s not that they spoil or go bad, but the flavor profile changes.”

What are some things people should look for when trying to pick out a beer that they might like?

Miller: “I think the key thing is going to a place where you have a knowledgeable staff, go to your bottle shop or, depending on what state you’re in, a beer store, grocery store, whatever it may be; and talk to that knowledgeable person behind the counter. They could give you a lot of great insight about what just came in. They could make some suggestions on potential pairings. If you can get it from your local tap room or brewery, have a conversation with the people behind the counter. They’re a wealth of information and can help guide you through your beer journey.”

Sanders: “You know what you don’t like, and if you don’t like the food, you’re not going to like the pairing. If you know you don’t like bitter, it’s going to be hard to sell you on a super bitter IPA regardless. Be open to isolating what you don’t like and be open to saying, ‘I really like this thing. Help me find it.’ Again, knowledgeable staff is always key in that choice.”

Have you ever cooked with beer and what have you made?

Miller: “Yes, I’ve cooked with beer. If you look at countries like Belgium, they cook with beer on a regular basis. You go to a restaurant, and the chef is adding beer to the sauce, they’re braising with the beer. I think it also could be utilized if you have a little bit of barbecue sauce in a bottle – add a little beer in there just to shake it up and get the last little bit out. Then pour it into the pot. I use that sometimes.”

Sanders: “I always put beer in my pot roast. I generally use a dark beer. Any local stout I can find, I love in some pot roast. A good coffee porter is a great way to start braising off a pork loin. Sit it overnight in that coffee porter and then do a coffee rub. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Wille: “I agree with Ari on the stewing and braising. Those are fantastic culinary techniques where you do a combination of dry and moist cooking.

Ari and I were talking about battering and frying items. Beer is a really important component when you’re making a batter. When you dredge something like fish in flour and then you put it in a wet batter, that beer helps to aerate that batter and give it the light crispiness.”

What are your thoughts on a perfect beer to pair with heavy comfort food?

Wille: “I’m thinking about the malt flavor that’s going to be in those beers or maltiness, having that kind of sweetness that goes with heavy comfort food, so English-style brown ales or something along those lines.”

Miller: “I think it also depends on the weather, too. Being in Upstate New York in the winter, I’m thinking of something a little bit more robust, maybe a little bit higher alcohol, versus if you’re in Arizona where it’s still hot or Texas, maybe you are looking for something lighter like a pilsner or lager.”

What about food preparation? How might that impact pairing?

Wille: “I personally think it’s easier to craft the food to the beer. The beer has already been made, and it’s been put in the keg or the can or the bottle. When you have a taste of that beer, then you could start thinking about the notes that are in there or the alcohol content. Then you craft your food.”

What are the weirdest beers you’ve tried and were you pleasantly surprised?

Sanders: “It was a peated malt sour, and I was very surprised. It never occurred to me that the smokiness of scotch would even be nice soured.”

Wille: “The dill pickle sour, which I thought was a pretty cool, pretty weird beer. Professor Miller and I were talking about the possibilities with that, pairing it with a Reuben or a corned beef sandwich.”

Miller: “When I judged the New York State Brewers competition three years ago, the winner brewed a beer utilizing maple water. Not maple sap, but the maple water from the tree. It was absolutely delightful because it had a slight acidic note to it, almost like a sassafras note to it.”

What are your thoughts about new beer innovations?

Miller: “Beer is always reinventing. You’re now starting to look at new yeast drinks. There are students at Cornell that extracted yeast from an ancient Egyptian vessel and then brewed a beer with it just to see what would turn out. You’re starting to see innovation on lager styles. With the Craft Brewers Association, there are over 120 different beer styles recognized. Don’t get too deep in the weeds on the different variations of these beer styles. But that’s where the beer world is going. Beer is art right now.”

Final thoughts?

Wille: “When you’re pairing your food and your beer, taste both the food and the beer intermittently. Typically, you’ll have one of three outcomes: the food overpowers the beer, the beer overpowers the food, or the two products go so well together that they create more than the sum of their parts.”

Sanders: “The whole point of beer is community coming together, opening a glass, cheers-ing to friends and loved ones. If you like it, don’t be ashamed. Go out there, fly your flag about it. Enjoy the beer you enjoy.”

Miller: “Don’t get caught up in trying to make the perfect pairing. Just enjoy the company you’re with, enjoy the food, and enjoy the beer. Are there opportunities to get geeky on it? Absolutely. But don’t overthink it.”

Want more? Explore Doug Miller’s Beer Essentials certificate program delivered by eCornell.
This post has been edited for length and clarity. Experience the full keynote for “The Perfect Match: Pairing Beer with Food” on the eCornell website.

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Certificate program develops understanding of beer selection

The craft beer industry is exploding. Consider this: New breweries open at a rate of more than one a day, giving people access to a broader selection of ingredients and flavor profiles to taste and explore.

This presents a challenge for restaurants and bars, which must reevaluate their beer offerings in order to stay relevant to the expanding taste buds of their clientele.

In response, the School of Hotel Administration has launched a Beer Essentials certificate program to help hospitality industry professionals develop the end-to-end understanding of beer production, tasting and selection necessary for establishing an effective beer program.

Applicable to anyone with ties to craft brewing, this program will provide in-depth knowledge of the beer industry, including how to analyze and make informed decisions regarding beer selections.

“Customers expect more diverse choices now than what they’ve traditionally been given,” said Douglass Miller, faculty program author and lecturer at the Hotel School, who has more than 30 years of industry experience.

“This program will provide a comprehensive look at developing an effective beer program,” Miller said, “from ingredients and process to sensory analysis, to serving, training and sales.”

The Beer Essentials program consists of four two-week courses:

  • Beer Ingredients and Production
  • Beer Styles
  • Establishing a Beer Program
  • Beer Sales and Training

After completing the courses, participants will earn a certificate from the Hotel School and 40 professional development hours. Visit the eCornell website to learn more about this program.

Bailey Karfelt

7 expert tips for creating a great beer experience for your customers

Today there are over 15 million restaurants and bars in the world. Add in the booming winery and brewery industries, and the average consumer is over-saturated with choices when looking to grab a drink.

With so many options available, hospitality businesses are hard-pressed to elevate the experience they are providing guests. What’s the solution? Doug Miller, a lecturer at Cornell University’s Hotel School with over thirty years of experience in the industry, offers his best-practice tips for running a successful beverage program and enhancing the overall customer experience.

Consider your audience. Different people have different expectations. It’s important to understand who your customer base is, and where their interests lie. If you’re opening a new business, do some research. Visit successful businesses nearby, sit at the bar, and observe. Ask yourself, “What is the atmosphere? How are the customers responding to it? What’s on the food and beverage menus? What’s on tap? What are people ordering? What size pour is preferred?” If you’re an existing business looking to take it to the next level, do the research again. Study the differences between how your business operates versus the successful ones around you. Compare those to your ideal, and determine ways to bridge the gap.

Be strategic. Armed with information about your target customers, choices must be made. If you have a tap beer program, will you offer beer tastings? If you do offer tastings, you can work the cost of the tastings into your pricing model. Is your audience beer-centric? If so, maybe you don’t need to offer as many options for the wine lover. If not, you may need to consider alternative beverage offerings. Does your target audience enjoy craft, imported or domestic beer? Is there a popular beer being produced locally? A common mistake businesses make is putting thought into creating a local food menu, but then offering no locally sourced beer or other beverages to accompany it. If the local element is important, then it should be represented in all aspects of the menu and business.

Also consider how your beverage program complements your food offering (if you have one). If you’re serving seafood, are you offering a wheat beer or white wine to accompany it? If you’re serving red meat, do you have an ale or Cabernet Sauvignon on the menu? Some businesses may choose to forgo a food offering altogether. If you’re choosing to not serve food, consider your business hours and location. Do your hours of operation cater to an after-dinner crowd? Is the location near popular restaurants?

Cultivate an atmosphere. Atmosphere is one of the most essential components of any business. A beer program can be wildly impressive, but if the atmosphere doesn’t appeal to the clientele, the business will struggle.

Sit down at the bar and imagine the ideal experience of your clientele. Ask yourself questions. Is the bar and glassware clean? Is the lighting soft and inviting? Does the decor fit the vibe? What music is playing, and at what volume? Is it easy to carry on conversation? Should there be a television, and how often should it be on? If it’s not on, can it be covered or moved out of sight? Is there adequate seating for singles, couples and groups? Are there smells coming from the kitchen? Is there a draft from the front door? Is there space for bartenders to move behind the bar, and servers to move around the tables? Are the seats comfortable? Is there a place to hang a jacket or purse? Is a server readily available? Considering the customer experience from start to finish is an opportunity to spot aspects that may not be up to par.

Be efficient. Establish a strategy for success. Perhaps most vital to this is equipping your service team with the knowledge they need to serve any customer. Take time to ensure they understand the customer experience they should cultivate. Consider creating cards on each beverage so that your servers can access detailed information on the history of a specific beer, including alcohol content, IBUs, OGs or FGs as needed. Encourage them to be proactive in offering a second drink to guests — a best practice is to ask “What would you like to select next?”, not “Do you want another?”

Engage your audience. The most critical element of a successful business is the customer experience. And while menu options and atmosphere can be major players in creating a good experience, the make-it-or-break-it factor is service.

The service industry can be challenging; you are serving a diverse clientele, with different needs and differing expectations. Some beer enthusiasts may expect a comprehensive history of their beverage from their server, while others may want no engagement while they enjoy a drink. Some guests may lack enthusiasm or interest in beer altogether, and be present out of necessity for a friend or group. Regardless, it is important to create an exceptional experience for each customer, and recognize their individual needs. Service is a delicate balance of managing expectations and trying to meet the needs of the guest. An establishment should consider how they can improve the experience for their clientele and make their visit memorable.

The best possible experience can make many forms; for some, it will be engaging with the server over the intricacies of their beverage, while for others, it may be minimal yet efficient communication. Asking simple questions such as “Why did you choose this beer?” or “What brings you out today?” can offer insight into the guest’s beer knowledge and expectations. The answer may have to do with the brand, hops, alcohol content or simply the name sounding good. Any information can help servers to determine the level at which to engage the customer.

Pro tip — don’t leave the engagement to just the bartenders and servers! A manager’s place is also engaging with guests. Don’t waste time retroactively trying to handle online perception in an office during open hours. The best time to manage perception is on the floor as it’s developing.

Don’t make assumptions. The biggest mistake a service team can make is to assume anything about a customer. A guest may not be there for beer or wine. Men don’t always prefer beer, and women aren’t always wine. Neither beverage should be considered classier than the other; the same descriptors are used for both pallets, and the tongue has a similar experience – bitter, sweet, salty, sour or umami. A glass should be provided for either beverage; similar to wine, the full experience of beer comes from pouring it into a glass (not frozen; even chilled is not usually worth the fridge space) and allowing the guest to enjoy the aroma of the beer. Don’t expect every guest to be familiar with beer or wine, and don’t insult their understanding, either. Make every attempt to engage the customer on their preferred level, and avoid creating any sense of chagrin or discomfort.

Be decisive. With so many considerations available, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and struggle with decision-making. The same atmosphere doesn’t appeal to everyone. You can only have so many items on a menu to appeal to your clientele, and an over-saturated beer selection will not accomplish any goals. To be successful, you must determine your business strategy, research your target audience, and then make decisions that align accordingly. A beer menu doesn’t need to be huge; it can offer only 6-7 beers, given they are chosen with the clientele in mind. Purchasing too much beer runs the risk of it going out of date in the storeroom — the average shelf life of an IPA is around 60-90 days. Some beer styles can have a longer shelf life, but for most beers styles, fresher is better. Tap lines should be cleaned every other week, and no business wants to waste money on a keg that won’t sell. It’s impossible to carry every type of beer, so don’t complicate your business by trying to establish a menu for all (but do offer that level of service).

At the end of the day, an enjoyable customer experience comes down to three themes: the environment, the service, and the engagement. Devoting time to regularly developing and re-evaluating your business plan, menu, atmosphere and service team is essential to creating the optimal experience that will bring your customers back over and over again.

To learn more about creating the optimal beer program, check out the Beer Essentials certificate program authored by Doug Miller.

Douglass Miller
Douglass Miller, lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration (SHA).