Beer 101

Find the best beers to pair with all your favorite foods! Pour a brew with dinner tonight.


Photo Courtesy of Meredith

Light, Lively Lagers and More

We might think of lagers as light, well carbonated, and thoroughly refreshing. But lagers actually come in a variety of styles–from light, hoppy Pilsners and malty blonde (helles) bocks to darker brews like dunkels and bocks.

Lager is a drink best served cold. Lagers not only ferment at a cold temperature, but age at 35 degrees F or less to ensure purity and clarity. Beer that is produced near freezing is best consumed near freezing.

Pilsner Pairings: Try a clean, elegant pilsner as an aperitif–the beer’s bitterness is good for stimulating the appetite. It’s also a tasty match with spicy Asian food and fried foods like fried chicken, french fries, and potato chips.

Dark Lager Pairings: A dark lager does wonders for sandwiches (ham, corned beef, pastrami, BLTs) and beef stew.

Bock Pairings: Malty bock beers go well with ham, venison, and German-style sausages. Try a Munich Dark lager with pecan pie!

Though a diverse group, each of the above lagers has something in common: each is fermented with lager yeast (Saccharomyces uvarum). This yeast likes to work within a range of about 35-50 degrees F and tends to yield a beer of clean, approachable flavor. Lager’s straightforward fermentation allows the ingredients to really shine through and flavors of malt, hops, and the native water’s character to excite the mouth.

In the Czech Republic, the country’s soft water and herbaceous saaz hops work with lager yeast to create a wonderful, delicate bitterness and pillowy mouth feel. In Munich, meanwhile, roasted malt adds complexity to an assertive sweetness and produce dark lagers with flavors of walnuts, caramel, and chocolate.

An Ales Tale

Ale is the older of the two kingdoms of beer by several centuries. Types of ale include the golden ales of Cologne, Germany (Kölsch), pale ales, brown ales, porters, stouts, wheat beers, Belgian styles, and many others.

A good ale is best consumed at cellar temperature: 55 degrees F or so. This allows great yeast-induced flavors and aroma to really step forward during the drinking experience.

Pale Ale Pairings: English pale ale and farmstead Cheddar are a match made in heaven. Try a hoppy pale ale with spicy foods and grilled salmon.

Amber Ale Pairings:
Try amber ale with something from the grill, with Indian, or Caribbean food.

Brown Ale Pairings: Enjoy full-bodied brown ales with burgers, steaks, and sausage.

Lambic Pairings: When cooking your favorite mussel recipe, substitute gueze (unfruited) lambic for white wine. The Belgians have been doing this for centuries.

The first “ales” were fermented by wild yeast, like a sourdough bread. Time and practice led brewers to control the introduction of yeast, which produces consistent, palatable ales. However, some spontaneously fermented beers are still made today in and around Brussels, Belgium and are known as Lambics.

Ales’ fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) works best in a warm environment, at a temperature range of around 68-72 degrees F. This warm fermentation produces fruity, floral, buttery flavors and tremendous complexity.

Ales usually take around 10 days to produce–compared to 30 or more days for lagers–but some stronger varieties of ale may be allowed to age for months.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Within the warm world of ales, we find two unique inhabitants: porter and stout. These brews are special in that an appreciable amount of heavily roasted (think charred) grain is used to color and flavor the offerings. As a result, wonderful, rich flavors emerge of smoke, chocolate, spice, wood, and molasses. Don’t be afraid of dark beers–they can be some of the most captivating in the world.

Porter and Stout Pairings: Porter and bittersweet chocolate are a brilliant match. On the savory side, dry stouts (such as Guinness, Beamish, Murphy’s, O’Hara’s) are a classic match with oysters on the half shell.

A Brief History of Brew

Beer is almost as old as civilization itself. The ancient Egyptians left beer in the tombs of Pharaohs to ensure a happy afterlife, and barley has been cultivated for thousands of years for the purpose of brewing beer.

The Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known system of written laws, contains statutes governing the sale and brewing of beer in Mesopotamia. Those ancient brews were murky, dark, heavily spiced concoctions few of us would recognize as beer today. Fortunately, considerable energy has been devoted over the past few millennia to refining and codifying the beer brewing process.