Pairing Beer and Food: A Crash Course
The fine art of matching food and wine has spawned thousands of books, newspaper columns and blog posts, but until a few years ago, the idea of doing the same for beer seemed quixotic at best. It’s an especially new idea in Korea, where craft beer is growing rapidly and beer and food pairing is starting to become a more practical possibility.
It’s no wonder that beer pairing is starting to catch up to wine. Top-quality beer is nearly always cheaper than a bottle of wine, giving the adventurous diner more scope for experimentation; if your quirky pairing of Leffe and Korean style “hamburg steak” didn’t go so well, at least you’re not saddled with a 30,000 won bottle of disappointment.
Moreover, many people find beer a lot more approachable than wine. Even if you don’t know your porters from your pilsners, beer is more democratic, more demotic. A lot of wines seem to beg for admiration; beer just wants you to get a move on and drink it.
It follows from this that the first rule of matching food with beer is: if you like any given combination, go with it. There’s no “don’t drink red wine with fish” snobbery here. The best beer for any given food is whatever works for you. No one will judge you. If you’re looking for a good place to start, however, some guidelines can be applied.
Very broadly speaking, beers fall into three basic categories; light beers like lagers and pilsners; medium-bodied ales, IPAs and British-style bitters; and dark, heavy stouts and porters. You can’t generally go too far wrong matching lighter beers with lighter foods, and heavier foods with darker beers. Subtly flavored dishes may be drowned out by more exuberant beers, so try more restrained pale ales with lower alcohol contents — this is why lager goes so well with sushi, or a pilsner with leftover chicken from the fridge.
Conversely, a bold beer like stout goes with a heartier offering like barbecued beef or a meat stew; it’s no coincidence that restaurants like Linus’ BBQ in Itaewon carry big hitters like Heretic Brewing’s Shallow Grave Porter (7.0% ABV), the better to stand up to a tray of smoky, sweet and sticky ribs.
Another principle to bear in mind is that beers can either complement foods or contrast with them. If you must eat a salad, a great accompaniment is the sweet, citrusy taste of Hoegaarden, a beer that’s been available in Korea for years. A delicate Thai curry, meanwhile, matches with an aromatic, hoppy IPA or the clove notes in a German hefeweizen.
In the case of a spicy curry, however, tart beers can intensify the chili and lead to a sensory overload. This is where the idea of contrasting flavors kicks in; something light, cold and fizzy may do a better job of cutting the spice. Similarly, the classic Irish pairing of oysters and stout works well; the sweet shellfish seem to love a silky pint of Guinness. But once again, don’t overdo it — a richer, fuller-bodied American stout may overwhelm the delicate flavor of the seafood. The only way you’ll know for sure is to open a bottle and see for yourself.
Korean food presents its own challenges for any beer enthusiast, especially more fiery and unsubtle dishes like dakdoritang or galbijjim. Some people try matching these foods up with IPAs to complement the chili, particularly if it’s a more potent and high-ABV “double” IPA. Others prefer a good pilsner or bock, ice-cold from the fridge. Or then again, if you’re like me, maybe you’ll just give in and chug a soju, straight from the bottle. It’s like we said; no-one will judge you.
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