Hi Kate, I love spicy food of all types but I struggle to know what kind of beer to drink with it. If I’m home and cooking dinner for myself and my partner, I could choose any style my liquor store has. So what’s the best one to look for?
A couple caveats before I get some expert answers to your question. The first is that beer pairings, like wine pairings, are subjective. If you drink something alongside your food and enjoy it, then that’s a good beer pairing. That said, there are some general guidelines to pairing beer and food that, if followed, make your chances of success even higher. The second caveat is that because you didn’t specify what type of spicy food you’re talking about—curry spice versus Szechuan pepper spice versus Cajun spice—so we’ll try to address a broad swath of spices here.
What to look for
The most important consideration when devising a beer pairing is to match the beer’s intensity to the food’s intensity. You don’t want to overwhelm a delicate dish with a super-strong or massively flavorful beer; likewise, you won’t taste many of the flavors in a more subtle beer style if the food is overwhelming your palate with spice, smoke, and acidity.
From there, start to think in terms of complementary flavors. Claire Bullen, author of The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes And Modern Beer Pairings, tells me it can be as easy as finding beers and foods that share flavors and even ingredients, like a chocolate cake with chocolate stout, or a slightly tart, saline gose with fresh seafood. At Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tennessee, chef Maneet Chauhan makes it easy for guests to pair her food with housemade beers, as many are brewed with spices that are also a part of her menu. For example, she tells me she especially likes pairing Mantra, a saffron-cardamom IPA, with a brothy coconut and garam masala seafood dish that includes some of the same ingredients.
Once you understand the concept of complementary flavors, start thinking about what specific flavors are present in the dish you want to pair beer with. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, and author of the seminal beer-pairing book The Brewmaster’s Table, has a few examples to get you started.
“The first thing to remember is that you’ll want a beer with some genuine palate impact, not just something that washes the dish down like seltzer water,” he tells me.
He gives the example of Thai dishes, which often contain lime juice and cilantro, picking up the citrusy aromatics found in American hop varieties like Citra. For Oaxacan moles, on the other hand, you might go with a milk stout so the beer’s chocolate- and coffee-like flavors play into the chocolate and charred chili notes in the mole while a little residual sweetness counters the heat. Sichuan dishes with their signature numbing peppercorn do much better with very dry, herbal-leaning beers, especially saisons.
“These are among the few drinks that can actually excel when the full Sichuan peppercorn effect hits the palate,” Oliver says. “Our saison, Sorachi Ace, featuring the lemony dill-like hop of the same name, always does well at Sichuan restaurants. [Saisons such as] Saison Dupont and Boulevard Tank 7 also can do a nice job here.”
What to avoid
A few things to be cautious of, though: Alcohol amplifies chili heat, so imperial IPAs or other boozy styles won’t taste as refreshing or palate-cleansing. Plus, Oliver notes, spicy foods make us thirsty, so keeping beers below roughly 7% ABV is also a prudent move.
Hops also increase our palate’s perception of chili heat. And that’s especially true of bittering hops with high levels of alpha acids. So that age-old advice to pair IPAs with spicy food? “Guys, that’s maybe not the best option,” Bullen says. Of course, there’s a caveat to that. Traditional IPAs—with their bitterness and high carbonation—are very different from the less bitter, more fruity and soft character of so-called New England or hazy IPAs. This newer style of IPA is actually a nice match for Thai food and South Asian curries. (You’ll find a recipe for South Indian-style shrimp and mango coconut curry paired with a New England IPA in The Beer Lover’s Table, for example.)
Lastly, Bullen says, be wary that carbonation can also play up chilis’ heat. A highly effervescent, bubbly pilsner might taste refreshing, but it’s also delicate in flavor and has high carbonation that probably won’t stand up to a truly spicy dish. Softer, smooth beers will coat the tongue a bit, making it easier to handle another bite.
So, what styles are best?
We’ve mentioned lots of specific pairings above, but if you’re not sure exactly what dish your friends will order or what flavors will be most prominent, malt-focused beers like brown ales, amber ales, and dark lagers should be your default.
Bullen says a dry, roasty stout will almost always be a match for spicy foods, and amber ales, not-too-hoppy brown ales, schwarzbiers, and Czech dark lagers are all great contenders too. So if it’s brown, not too hoppy, and not too boozy, you’re probably in the clear.
All that said, these are just guidelines. Beer pairing is less an exact science than a learned art, one that requires us to smell, taste, and analyze flavors—results of which can vary from person to person. If a pairing seems successful to you, then there’s no need to overthink it.
“When you think of wine pairings, a lot of times you see people take a bite of the food and sip of the wine, and try to make sense of it. To me, beer is such an approachable liquid that to me I think a successful beer pairing is when you’re sitting on a table, having a conversation, eating, drinking a beer without having to overly think about the process,” Chauhan says. “It needs to just flow.”
Once you get more comfortable pairing beer and food, you can start to take risks and experiment with complements, contrasts, and textures. When the whole of the beer and the food is greater than the sum of the parts, you’ll know you’ve nailed it.
“A really good pairing shows up on your palate as a delightful surprise. … The beer makes the dish taste better and the dish makes the beer taste better,” Oliver says. ‘When you say to yourself ‘I’m going to remember this for next time,’ you know you’ve really hit the jackpot.”