Food and beer pairing: an art, a science, or neither?

Today is National Cheeseburger Day. What does that mean for beer? Consult the Brewer’s Association of America beer and food pairing guide and a hungry consumer would be directed towards a pale ale, with a cheese suggestion of cheddar, or derby with sage. Epicurious also recommends a pale ale to complement any burger endeavor. Other experts suggest a light lager as the perfect accompaniment for burgers. For epicureans, merging taste appropriate food with beer has lagged behind the wine and food pairing craze that evolved decades ago. Perhaps it has. In addition, many would say beer drinkers got it wrong, and often.

Not too long ago the recommendation to pair spicy foods with an IPA was standard operating procedure. More recently, it has been made known that pairing a hoppy IPA (with an often high ABV) with spicy food only enhances the heat instead of complimenting it. For most, not all, dousing, instead of fanning the flames is the desired result. To accomplish balance, one must consume a beer with a higher malt characteristic than usually found in IPAs to accentuate, but not increase the spice. Lobster, a personal favorite, if only an occasional luxury, is even more intriguing. Recommended pairings range from a clean crisp lager, which makes perfect sense, to high alcohol Belgian tripels, porters, or even sours. Well, to make heads or tails out of this might ruin a perfectly good lobster!

What is the answer? Science? Dr. Nicole Garneau seems to think she has the answers. Well, at least some of them. Garneau, along with Lindsey Barr created the new beer flavor map that has standardized flavor descriptors for the craft beer industry, the first update since 1979. Taste is an ongoing scientific experiment. Garneau delves deeply into the taste ‘sense’, and even started a sensory program for breweries called the Draught Lab. She also directs the Genetics of Taste lab in Denver. Garneau argues that there are six, not five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory), the sixth being fat. Fat! Well perhaps that is what is so tasty about lobster? Well all this science should most certainly guide craft beer consumers to the correct food and beer pairings. Or should it?

I appreciate science greatly. It reveals deeply held secrets, and guides us through a host of things we had no prior comprehension of. Science helps cure diseases, repair injuries, and sends us to the moon. I am just as curious as the next person as to why that delicious IPA pairs so well with blue cheese. The science behind it is absolutely fascinating. Will it however guide my food and beer decisions? Sometimes. I have always said, “Every palate is different.” What tastes mind numbingly rank to one person, may come across as a cornucopia of floral and vegetal wonder to another. That should truly be our guiding force, our individual palate. Do not dismiss the science however, as that is a useful and important advantage to help council us (at the very least) in the direction of what most likely will pair with that cheeseburger.


Author: brewedinmaryland

Historian, author, craft beer lover.

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