Find out which foods pair nicely with pilsner, IPA, wheat ale, Trappist ale, and stout.

By Sarah Tracey
June 11, 2020
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caramelized mustard marmalade chicken
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

Brewed from just four ingredients—water, malted barley, yeast, and hops—beer is, in essence, simple. But just as a cook can transform the same ingredients into an array of different recipes, so can a brewmaster. She can also use different types of grain (wheat, oats, rice, corn) to replace some of the malted barley, and she can add add fruit, spices, and ingredients like chocolate, coffee, even oysters.

There are many beer styles, but all fall into one of two categories: lagers or ales. Lagers are a product of bottom-fermenting yeasts that clump together at the bottom of the brewing vessel, resulting in a delicate, clean beer. Ales are made using a top-fermenting yeast, which sits on the top of the brew, resulting in full-bodied, richly flavored, or fruity beers. Here are five common beer styles and pairing recommendations for the foods to enjoy with each.

Light and Crisp: Pilsner

Pilsner is a crisp, light, lager beer that originated in the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s. Today there are three main styles of Pilsner: German pilsners are a light straw color with bitter and earthy aromas, Czech-style pilsners are more golden in color but lighter tasting and foamy, and European-style pilsners (like Stella Artois) are a bit sweeter.

In terms of food pairing, a pilsner, with its clean, delicate tones, pairs well with crispy and crunchy textures. Try dipping pretzel rods and celery sticks into Aged-Cheddar and Beer Dip, or fry up a crunchy Grilled Cheese with Grainy Mustard or Extra-Crisp Vegetable Tempura.

Sweet and Creamy: White Ale

White, also known as wheat, ales (called witbier in Belgium and weissbier in Germany) are made by adding a high proportion of wheat to the malted barley (at least 50 percent) and then brewing with fruit like orange peels and spices like cloves and coriander. This age-old practice started in Belgium when hops weren't widely available as a preservative. Light, citrusy, creamy, and sweet, white ales are luscious with aromas of coriander, orange peel, clove, banana, and vanilla.

The most traditional food pairing for white ales is Steamed Mussels (you can even steam them in the beer!) with French fries. Rich cheeses are also harmonious with white ales—try Caramelized Sweet Potato Focaccia with Gouda cheese and rosemary. Finally, you may not think of beer as a brunch drink, but white ale pairs incredibly with eggs: Try it with Smoked Salmon Croque Madames.

Refreshing, Bitter, and Aromatic: IPA

Bracing and refreshing, IPA—short for India Pale Ale—bursts with tart grapefruit-like flavors and sharp phenolic aromas like pine with a dry and somewhat bitter finish. IPA originated in England in the 1700s. Legend has it that a brewmaster preserved his bitter ale with more hops and more alcohol to prepare it for shipping to homesick colonists in India. Whether this is just a myth or not, today's IPAs will always exhibit the high alcohol and heavy hopping of the original.

For pairing, a snack like Cheddar and Pickle Skewers is a home run with the bright acidity of IPA. Grilled meats are another good choice for pairing; the caramelization on the outside of the meat pulls out any malt flavors of the beer while its umami is an excellent contrast to bitterness; try Cheddar-Horseradish Burgers. And when in doubt, pair IPA with anything deep-fried, like Fried Macaroni-and-Cheese Bites.

Rich and Fruity: Belgian Trappist Ale

If you're looking for a fruity, hearty, and rich beer, try a Trappist ale. This style came from Cistercian monks in Belgium, who brewed and sold beer to support their monastery. Monks have always lived under strict dietary rules, so they began brewing heavier beers to take in the necessary calories needed for survival without violating their religious vows. Eight Trappist monasteries in the world still brew beer today, and other breweries making beers in this style call them abbey ales. The term "dubbel" on a bottle of Trappist ale means it contains up to nine percent ABV (alcohol by volume), while "tripel" contains over nine percent.

With its sweet richness, ham is a classic pairing for Trappist ales: Ham with Whole-Grain Mustard and Apricot Glaze adds the stone fruit element, which is delicious with sweeter beer styles. Similarly, the caramelized fruit flavors of the glaze on Caramelized Mustard-Marmalade Wings, pictured here, are a great flavor match for sweeter Trappist ales. For dessert, Blood Orange Cheesecake compliments citrus tones perfectly.

Dark and Robust: Stout

If you like dark, decadent flavors, try a stout. With a creamy smooth texture and rich flavors of dark chocolate, coffee, figs, molasses, and spicy fruitcake, stouts are deep and intense beers. The most famous stout is Guinness, an Irish stout. Other common styles include imperial stout, milk stout, coffee stout, chocolate stout, oatmeal or "breakfast" stout, and oyster stout (yes, brewed with real oysters!). In the late 19th century, stouts were thought to be restorative for invalids and nursing mothers.

Different types of stout pair with different types of dishes. Generally stout goes well with rich gravy and red meat, it even goes into the lovely gravy for Irish Beef and Stout Stew and Braised Short Rib, Stout, and Potato Potpies. Chocolate or espresso stouts are fantastic with chocolate desserts like One-Bowl Chocolate Cake.

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