Matching beer and food like an expert: it's easier than you think

James Smith
03 September, 2014

Beer expert James Smith talks about awakening his palate and how to match the perfect beer with your dinner.

Back in the early days of my immersion in the world of Australian beer, I used to travel weekly to a shed in Boronia in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to join a bunch of homebrewers studying to become certified beer judges. It may seem an unlikely place to experience an awakening, but experience one I did.

Get your nose in

Although I had long enjoyed what people in the know would term “good beer”, innately choosing real ales when growing up in the UK then spending a few months enjoying lagers and wheat beers in Munich, it soon dawned on me that I had no palate for beer beyond: “Do I like this or not?”. As we sampled beers, those around the table would pick out nuances of aroma or flavour and describe them in detail while I sat there sniffing and swirling in earnest thinking: “I have no idea what they’re on about. Is there something wrong with me?”

A few weeks in, I put a glass to my nose and thought: “I reckon there’s some chocolate in this aroma.” Lo and behold, there was. My palate had been awakened.


Over the coming weeks and months, I found I was able to identify and appreciate the different characteristics it not just beer but coffee, food, cheese, relishes and so on. And, while my palate continues to develop and has a long way to go, those weeks spent unlocking the keys to the appropriate parts of my olfactory system and brain in that chilly barn continue to pay off in spades.

Experience has made me realise that once you have come to appreciate any form of food or beverage in a deeper way, you become able to enjoy all other food and beverage forms too. You may use a different palette of words to describe what you are experiencing – sit a winemaker and brewer down with their wines and beers and the chances are you will find them using very different descriptors to describe the same things – but experience them you will. 

Put it together

The next step in the immersion was exploring the pairing of beer and food. Again, it is something that requires some study and theoretical understanding but, far more fun, it also requires practical research and experimentation. The same basics that apply to any food and beverage pairing apply; brewers and chefs talk of the three c’s – complement, contrast and cut – but essentially it often comes down to assessing the weight and intensity of both the food and the beer and working out two that will work well together. Of course, any rules are there to be broken and many of the finest pairings I have experienced are those you would never think would work on paper.

Embrace variety

The wide range of beers available across Australia today give chefs (amateur and professional) a huge number of tools with which to play. There are flavours that range from the delicate, honeyed and floral through toffee, chocolate and roasted coffee flavours to tropical and citrus fruits and much more besides. There are beers with high carbonation suitable for cutting through fatty foods or firm bitterness that can act in the same way, and others with a soft, pillowy mouthfeel that can wrap themselves around food.

Match for transcendence

As with any food and beverage pairing, you can take simple, tried and tested steps that will work or you can chase the elusive, transcendental match. Here, the flavours and textures don’t just complement or change each other in a pleasant way, the dish and the beer meld together to create a new third entity.

The best example of this I've experienced was at this year’s Good Beer Week in Melbourne. Garrett Oliver, of the Brooklyn Brewery in New York City, who is the world’s foremost expert in beer and food pairing, was pitted against Martin Spedding, founder of Mornington Peninsula’s Ten Minutes by Tractor winery over five courses at Vue de Monde. Guests voted on which was the best match of each of the five courses, with three courses drawn and one narrowly going to beer.

There was one course, however, that featured a rare Brooklyn beer, a strong wheat ale featuring a special spice mix from spice blender to the (Michelin) stars La Boîte, with a dish of onions cooked three ways with bone marrow. Both were delicious in their own way but, to my mind at least, it felt that they may not pair well and one could overpower the other. Once both met in the mouth, however, they disappeared and a new flavour explosion appeared in their place. The score for the entire room was something like 90 to beer and six to wine – even though the wine chosen was exemplary.

Don't be intimidated

Of course, such experiences are rare and for the most part pairing beer and food will be about knowing which bottle to pull off the shelf at your local store or out of your fridge to pair with dinner or to offer your guests when they’re over for a barbecue. But it just shows how far beer, and indeed beer and food pairing, has come in Australia in just a few short years.

Mildura Brewery Stefano’s Pilsner

Brewer Rod Williams picks linguini with chilli prawns as a perfect match for this dry, refreshing drop with spicy lemony aromas. Try Michele Curtis’ Pasta with prawns and rocket or Philippa Sibley’s Spaghettini, prawns, charred corn, green chilli, black garlic. If you can’t take the heat, Antonio Carluccio has a chilli-free option with his Long pasta with fennel and prawn sauce, and for something more luxe, there’s always Gabriel Gaté’s Corsican crayfish with linguini.

Wicked Elf Pale Ale

The man behind the Little Brewing Company, Warwick Little, reckons that stronger flavours, like game, duck or spicy foods, pair best with this beefy American-inspired pale ale. Tick all the boxes with Billy Law's Five-spiced duck pancakes. Alternatively, lift your beer and barbecue game with Justin North’s Roast venison sausages or keep it quick and vegetarian with Anjum Anand’s Everyday lentil and vegetable curry.

La Sirene Saison

Fruity and spicy saisons often replace wine at Belgian dinner tables, so it should come as no surprise that this beer, with its citrus/orange-blossom aromas and spicy honey-malt palate, is a terrific candidate for food matching. La Sirene co-founder Costa Nikias elects fish, chicken and spicy Mexican dishes as fitting best with his saison, so you have plenty of options. You can’t go wrong with Louise Fulton Keats’ Chicken schnitzel with mushy peas and purple carrots or, if you fancy a beer-matched meal with a Mediterranean twist, try Katie Caldesi’s Fish in crazy water. On the Mexican front, Raph Rashid has you covered whether you’re vegetarian or carnivore: try his Beef short rib tacos or Bean tacos with sweet potatoes and cracked quinoa

Mornington Peninsula Brewery Brown Ale

Anything braised or roasted suits this beer, with its soft cocoa and Ovaltine aromas and a palate that spans caramel, chocolate, nuts and raisin. Rebecca Seal's Roast quail is a crowd pleaser, and Billy Law’s Buttermilk-brined roast chicken is easy to prepare but pays big dividends. Greg Malouf’s lahm bil khall, or slow-cooked sweet and sour lamb, allows you to kick back and open a pre-dinner Brown Ale while it slowly simmers. And for something sweet, there’s always Margaret Fulton’s Sticky date pudding.

Thirsty Crow Vanilla Milk Stout

In crème brûlée with chilli chocolate mousse, the folks at Thirsty Crow have (through plenty of trial and error, we assume) found the ideal accompaniment for this gloriously dark and decadent stout with creamy vanilla, chocolate and coffee characteristics. French dessert king Gabriel Gaté provides the base, with his classic Crème brulée recipe, and Fanny Zanotti’s chocolate mousse, spiced up with a pinch of cayenne pepper, delivers the perfect foil.

James Smith is the the creator of The Crafty Pint. His book 150 Great Australian Beers is out now.


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