Three basic principles should be considered; these are listed below. Each one is important, but there is no 1-2-3 order for the pairing process. Start with either a specific beer or food, then seek a suitable partner according to the following guidelines:
FIND HARMONIES. Combinations often work best when they share some common flavor or aroma elements. The nutty flavors of an English-style brown ale and a handmade cheddar cheese; the deep, roasted flavors of imperial stout and chocolate truffles; the clean caramelly flavors of an Oktoberfest lager and roasted pork are all examples of this.
CONSIDER SWEETNESS, BITTERNESS, CARBONATION, HEAT (SPICE) AND RICHNESS. Certain qualities of food and beer interact with each other in specific, predictable ways. Taking advantage of these interactions ensures that the food and beer will balance each other, with one partner not throwing the match out of whack. These are specific interactions, different from the intensity-matching mentioned above. One sort of has to parse these out one-by-one as the situation demands, and find flavors that will enhance one another. The chart below lays out the specifics. Foods that have a lot of sweetness or fatty richness (or both) can be matched by a various elements in beer: hop bitterness, sweetness, roasted/toasted malt or alcohol. Carbonation is also effective at cutting richness. Malty sweetness cools the heat, so if you’re leaning to a hoppy beer with spicy food, make sure it has plenty of malt as well.
WHAT ABOUT COMPLEMENT AND/OR CONTRAST? The complement aspect is covered by step 2, Find Harmonies. Contrast is always present to some degree, and may dominate the relationship or not. It’s usually the case that contrasting and complimentary relationships exist, as they are not mutually exclusive. Most of the major players in contrast are covered by the interacting elements noted in step 3, above. Be aware, however, that having some degree of contrast doesn’t remove the need to match intensities as described in step 1.
Some additional thoughts about enjoying beer and food together:
LOOK TO CLASSIC CUISINES. The cuisines of beer-drinking countries offer many traditional beer and food combinations. Schnitzel with pale l ager may be obvious, but who would have thought to put stout together with oysters? Classic matches like this can be found if you seek them out, and offer a great start to further exploration.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. Not every pairing works as expected—this can be fun if you learn to appreciate the unexpected. Build on the things that work and keep seeking those magic combinations.
CONSIDER SEASONALITY. The warm summer months favor light foods and beers while heartier fare works best in winter. The beers and foods of a given season pair naturally together and suit the mood as well.
CONTRAST AND COMPLEMENT. All beer and food combinations should involve both of these principles. Some pairings will be more dependent on contrast, others on complementary flavors. All should strive for some kind of balance.