Here's how to complement, or tame, the spice with a perfect pint.

By Stephanie Lovelle
August 25, 2020
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Credit: Marcus Nilsson

There's a whole world of spicy food to explore. From American game-day classics like buffalo wings and jalapeño poppers to Thai curries, Jamaican jerk chicken, and Korean soups and stews, there's something along the Scoville scale for everyone. But what should you drink with your favorite spicy dishes? Sure, you have a few go-to beers you enjoy drinking, but do those brews work well with spicy heat? And what's the best way to pair beer and spicy food in general? Jamie Bogner, cofounder and editorial director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine, shares all the expert tips, including advice on what to look for and what to avoid when pairing beer with spicy foods.

Rules to Follow

When considering pairings, Bogner's recommends going with a style you enjoy. "There's no food and beer pairing so powerful that it will overcome a dislike of a style of beer, so focus on styles you like." He adds that next you should consider the "various elements of beer and food flavor—where the dish and the beer lie on the spectrum between dry and sweet, bitter and not bitter, full and lean, fruity and crisp. Then think about the goal of the pairing and the context—do you want to amplify the spice of the dish or cut it? Is this a singular tasting (one course of a multi-course pairing dinner), or a pairing that needs to work over several beers (a few IPAs with friends while eating hot wings)?"

Know the Pepper

If you love spicy food, you've likely been all over the Scoville scale. If you're seeking the ultimate experience of mouth-melting heat from foods made with habaneros, Bogner suggests "reveling in the assault on your flavor receptors by finding the most dry and high-IBU (International Bitterness Unit) San Diego IPA you can."

Poblanos, which are more mellow and earthy, will be best complemented by a floral and herbal German-style pilsner with classic noble hops. "For smoked peppers, such as chipotle peppers, a black ale (or porter or lighter stout) with a touch of caramel malt sweetness really helps the spice and smoke sing," Bogner explains.

Enhancing Versus Muting the Spiciness

Depending on what you're eating, you might be looking for a beer that'll give you a fuller experience of heat or one that'll turn it down when, despite being adventurous, something's a little past your threshold. If you're looking to complement spicy foods, Bogner suggests beers that fall into the light and crisp category, "like helles and pilsner, or saison—beers at a lower ABV, with character and a light malt presence, but not so much richness and sweetness that it masks the spice." To mitigate the spice, he opts for "big sweet stouts or barley wines, or New England-style IPAs."

IPA: Do They or Don't They Work with Spicy Dishes?

There's an ongoing debate about whether IPAs actually pair well with spicy food. While some say yes and others no, Bogner notes that the range of IPAs available today is so broad, it's difficult to come to a definitive answer. "Speaking of 'IPA' as a meaningful category of beer is nearly impossible these days. Dry and more bitter American or West Coast-style IPAs can certainly amplify the perception of spice, which can be good or bad depending on your intention. Sweet and fruity New England-style IPAs will mute it," he says.

Likewise, with new ideas forming from experimentation within the craft beer industry, it's hard to come to a verdict. "Emerging trends like fruited milkshake IPAs will absolutely decimate it. Unfortunately, there just isn't a catch-all answer for all IPAs," he says.

Beers to Avoid

Bogner loves a mixed fermentation farmhouse ale with light acidity (a beer some might call "sour") with spicy food because the woody notes and tight dryness of Brettanomyces yeast creates a supportive, neutral palate. He adds, "As a general rule, I don't select sweet beers to pair with spicy foods, so those extra-fruity and sweet quick sour beers, or super-sweet dessert stouts, don't make the cut." Avoiding beers with their own spice component is also key as they generally muddle impressions without definition.

The Milk Trick

It's well-known that a glass of milk can help tame heat that hits you too hard but does this tip apply to milk stouts? "While it may seem to make sense, milk stouts and milkshake IPAs contain lactose—milk sugar that brewers' yeast cannot ferment—but they don't contain the protein casein that breaks down capsaicin," says Bogner. In short: These won't help cool the heat a way a glass of milk should.

Lagers Are Winners, But Don't Limit Yourself

According to Bogner, pale lagers are best when it comes to pairing with food (spicy or not) since they're generally designed to be consumed in quantity and aren't intended to be the star of the show but there are other beers that fit the same bill. "From cream ale to saison to English mild and more, there's no reason to only focus on lagers with spicy food. Go ahead and pair that ESB with a madras or vindaloo curry, or a milk stout with jerk chicken. This year, when travel isn't a safe option, pairings like this can provide a bit of mental escape," he recommends.

Our Expert's Top Choices

If you're still unsure about how to navigate pairings, Bogner has some advice. "No matter where you are, there is generally well-made craft beer available to you." For those on the west coast that like hoppy IPAs and how they bring out spice, he recommends Russian River Pliny the Elder (from $7.95, drizly.com), Breakside Stay West or Societe The Pupil (from $12.99 for 6, drizly.com).

"For hopheads not on the west coast, plenty of generally-available options are there for seeking out," says Bogner. Sip of Sunshine from Lawson's Finest, Cigar City Jai Alai (from $11.57 for 6, drizly.com), and New Belgium Voodoo Ranger (from $11.39, drizly.com) are all worth seeking out.

On the lager side, Weihenstephaner Pilsner (from $11.99 for 6, drizly.com), Oskar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils (from $9.99 for 6, drizly.com), and Firestone Lager (from $9.99 for 6, drizly.com), are excellent for pairing and widely available. Saison is a bit harder to find in wide circulation, but depending on where you are, Saison Dupont (from $11.99 for 750ml bottle, drizly.com), Funkwerks Saison (from $11.99 for 750ml bottle, drizly.com), and Two Roads Workers Comp (from $10.99 for 6, drizly.com), are all ideal with food."

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