Column: The basic art of a beer dinner

Body: 

Attending or hosting a beer-themed dinner at a restaurant or at home always makes me excited. The prospect of a special meal prepared with food courses that complement beers which are individually paired with each plate is a truly awesome gastronomic experience.

Beer has many components that complement food. It's made with barley, which adds sweetness; hops that provide bitterness to balance the malt sweetness; and yeast that provides bready and fruity flavors.

I am often asked how to execute a beer dinner. The most common questions are:

• How do I pick the food courses?

• How do I match beers to my courses?

• Should I cook with beer and incorporate the beer as an ingredient in each course?

• Can a dessert be paired with beer?

• What size glasses should I use?

First off, when thinking about how to pair beers with your meals, I have a few guidelines to consider:

Flavors: complimentary or contrasting.

Pairing a spicy or strongly flavored meal with an IPA that boasts lots of aromatic hop flavors is an example of flavors complimenting each other.

Pairing a Belgian White, which typically has orange and spice flavors, with a simple grilled chicken dinner is an example using very different flavors that can make the meal interesting.

Using the basic principles that many folks know from the wine world, red wine goes with meat and white is paired with fish and poultry. This is a good general rule of thumb to start with in the beer world, as well. I will put some beer styles into this example.

Light bodied beers such as Lagers, Pilsners, Wheats and Golden or Blonde Ales pair well with cheese, fish, grilled pork or chicken, lighter pasta dishes and Asian food.

Medium bodied beers like Pale Ales, Amber Ales, Marzens and Brown Ales pair well with burgers, wings, pizza, steak, Mexican food and other moderately spicy selections.

Heavy bodied beers such as IPAs, Stouts, Porters and barleywines go well with strongly flavored choices like smoked foods, barbecue, stew, chili, salty foods, spicier dishes, oysters and even chocolate desserts.

On to the questions.

How do I match beers to my courses?

I always choose my beer courses before the food courses. I like to use five choices as my standard and have done dinners with as few as three beers and as many as 12. As for the order of service, I usually go light in flavor and body to strong in the order. An example would be:

1. German Helles

2. Wheat beer

3. Pale Ale

4. Amber or Brown Ale

5. Imperial Stout

How do I pick the food courses?

When I've picked the five beers, I use some of the rules of thumb pairing ideas I mentioned earlier. For example, with the beers I listed above, I might do:

1. Light fruit and mild cheese

2. Caesar salad

3. Grilled fish or pork chop with veggies

4. Palate-cleansing course of mussels

5. Chocolate cake

This would be a fun meal. Each course would be served with a sensory and technical explanation of both the beer and its accompanying food selection.

Should I cook with beer and incorporate the beer as ingredient in each course?

This is up to the chef, and I think it adds a fun angle. I especially like to use beer in soups, chili or stew.

Can a dessert be paired with beer?

The short answer: absolutely! Beer is great with dessert. Often a heavier style with some sweetness is a great pairing. Some of my favorite dessert beers are wheat wine, Dunkelweizen, Dry or Imperial Stouts or even a tart, sour Gose.

What size glassware should I use?

I use 10-ounce glasses — the classic English half-pint size — for the first four beers. This keeps the intake at a reasonable 40 ounces. For the stronger, dessert pairing, I generally use a smaller 5- to 6-ounce glass.

This simple guideline should really help with your next beer dinner. Remember, there are really no wrong pairings. Just have fun with it and enjoy. Happy cooking and cheers.