At your next dinner party leave the wine in the cellar, and break out the beer (Image: Getty Images)

How to match beer and food: practical tips from people who know their stuff

The Spinoff asks the experts for tips on what food to match with your beer. 

For millennia beer was the second-class cousin of wine. Whenever people were invited over for dinner, wine would be rolled out from the rack. A fruity Spanish something to accompany the chicken marbella, a Chianti to go with the spag bol, a Marlborough sav to accompany snapper. Beer was banished to the backyard barbecue (or a spicy Indian BYO), an accompaniment for little more than a sausage.

But beer has progressively become so much more than a low-brow substitute to wine at dinner. The expansion of acceptance of more varieties and the growing understanding of the depth of beer flavours make it a wonderful companion to an array of foods, sweet and savoury. But it’s not simple either. Matching food and beer has become a bit of a dark art.

“Every beer is different. It used to be said that you could generalise beverage matching to white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat. While it does help to have some generalisation, even in the beer realm where you could say a good crisp lager goes with seafood or something like that, there are so many variations in lagers these days and so many variations in seafood that it’s hard to sit comfortably with that,” says Dariush Lolaiy, the head chef and owner at Auckland restaurant Cazador, who has matched a number of intricate degustations with beer.   

So, as the sun comes out and the fridge fills up with beers, we’ve sought guidance from chefs, brewers, sommeliers, and beer drinkers from around the country, to help you choose the right brew to pair with the right food this summer.

Read on to learn what goes best with seafood, what beer to serve with dessert, and why it’s worth thinking long and hard about what drink you serve with the meal you’ve invested so much thought in.

Art imitating life. (Photo by National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images; Artist: Isaac John Williams)

Dariush Lolaiy – head chef and co-owner of Cazador, Auckland

Dariush Lolaiy has grown up in Cazador, which his parents opened on Auckland’s Dominion Road in 1987 when he was five years old. He met his wife Rebecca Smidt there when they were kids, and they’ve been in charge for almost seven years now.

“Basically, we’re just trying to walk the fine line between tradition and doing what we’re interested in. That includes finding new and interesting foods, new and interesting ways of cooking, and of course matching that with new and interesting beverages. We lean heavily on things that are out of left field, so we’re comfortably uncool – we match sherry, and we were a pretty early adopter of craft beer in restaurants and also wines that you can’t easily find.

“We like to think about each beverage as its own thing and think about the style of the beer and the dominant flavours or aromas and pick out one or two of those – don’t over complicate things – and then either find a complementary or a contrasting flavour to work with that. For example, if the beer is quite citrusy and lemony then we either want to work with that flavour by finding something citrusy or lemony or acidic in a dish. Or we contrast it with something fatty or creamy to allow that beer to shine. We approach every beer as its own thing and without getting too pretentious about it. For example, the yeast characters of a pilsner can work with the bubbles to make it a little bit acidic. So maybe you might go with a food that has a nice citrus component. A nice piece of fish benefits from a bit of citrus.

“We pour a red ale at the restaurant and the colour itself is striking enough then it follows on to the palate, it’s pretty smooth and has toffee-like caramel notes. We’re recommending that currently with roasted hare saddle. We take the loin of the hare and cook it on the bone and we serve that with beetroot and tarragon and a little vermouth vinegar.

“What we’re finding is that the caramel, biscuity, orange notes in the beer work really well with the beetroot first and foremost, the beetroot being earthy with an irony note. The red ale mellows that out a little bit and gives it a little bit of sweetness. Then the sweetness from the malts works nicely with the beetroot, and then beetroot goes fantastic with the hare which we serve rare.

“The colour alone matches beautifully but also the flavour. Hare has a mild gameyness and a beautiful dense texture, so if you’re comparing textures, the beer is very smooth and it’s almost slick on the tongue.”

Richard Emerson – founder of Emerson’s Brewery, Dunedin

Often referred to as the godfather of craft beer brewing in New Zealand, Richard Emerson pioneered the way for premium boutique beers in New Zealand. As an 18-year-old on a family trip to Edinburgh he discovered paradise when he was let loose among the Edinburgh pubs (especially when New Zealand’s drinking age was 20 at the time).  

He quickly developed an appreciation for a vast array of British ales and it had a profound effect on him when he returned to New Zealand. He was suddenly deeply disappointed by the beer and the pubs. Then he went from frustrated to inspired; while watching his mate attempting to bottle his home-brew, breaking the bottles, he thought “I can do better…”

Starting in his mother’s kitchen, then opening the brewery in 1992, Emerson wanted to provide premium fine ales and porter.

 “The past 10 years has seen an explosion in the number of breweries and a wider range of beer styles as well as the development of ramped-up/hopped-up variations on existing beer styles. The crowded market has seen some breweries change their operating modus towards establishing a beer bar or tasting room on the site. This rise of bars stocking craft beers has greatly opened opportunities for craft brewers, like myself, to offer beer and food matching as a means of bonding the customers with the brand.

“As Kiwis we are surrounded by the ocean, so it would be purely natural that we would match the New Zealand pilsner style with seafood. Think of buttered pan-fried sole drizzled with lemon juice and the wonderful fruity hoppy flavours of clean malt cutting through the sinful butter – the beer picking up on the lemon tang. Wonder delight!

“How about this one: a raw fish ceviche, marinated with coconut cream, chilli, lime and coriander and matched with a fresh New Zealand pilsner. It just begs you for more.

“The vast array of flavours on offer in the beer market today means there’s so much more matching that can be done and fun to be had. We’re taking things to the next level at Emerson’s and even matching our beers with premium whiskies, gins and craft cheese.”

The magical match of beer, cheese and whisky, featuring Richard Emerson – New Zealand’s godfather of craft brewing (Image: supplied)

Rob Marshall – head brewer at Monteith’s, Greymouth

For nearly 30 years Rob Marshall has been working in the beer industry. He started with DB back in February 1989; now he’s the head brewer for Monteith’s in Greymouth. From Monteith’s spiritual home on the West Coast, Marshall has crafted exciting new flavours for the historic beer company – and taken a real focus on matching them with food.

“I get asked a lot ‘what’s your favourite beer’, and my cliched response is always that my favourite beer is the one I have right now. But when it comes to recommendations, it’s not my preference that counts, it’s the customer. And so, I ask questions: what do you normally drink? What style of beer do you like? Even, what brands do you like? Then I can lean on my knowledge and try to match that.

“Matching that beer to food depends on what you’re eating. I’ve always tried to pair like with like if I can. In the early days when we started doing beer and food matching, eight or 10 years ago, I started drawing the comparisons with what people would do with wines – red wine, red meat – because people were more familiar with that. Let’s say you’ve got a venison dish or a relatively gamey poultry like ostrich or duck, pair that with a relatively dry Irish-style red beer.

“If you’re eating spicy food, you should go with what could be described as a spicy beer, which is usually relatively hoppy and relatively bitter. If I’m eating a spicy Asian dish I’ll tend to go relatively hoppy, but not necessarily super bitter beer to match with it. Equally, when you look at a lot of Asian beers, they’re not particularly hoppy, they’re clean and refreshing. So, there’s no hard and fast rules.”

Rob Marshall, venison sliders (with caramelised onions and cheddar cheese) and a Monteith’s red IPA (Image: supplied).

“There are the cliche matches like a dark beer with some bittersweet chocolate or a stout with oysters, but the whole notion of stout and oysters only makes sense if you’ve got a nice, dry Irish stout. A milk stout will be a dreadful match.

“Then thinking in terms of cheeses, something like blue vein is often paired with figs. So you could pop that with a nice rich porter, or if you wanted to complement the pungency of the cheese, maybe a wheat beer with banana and orange characters that highlights the sweetness of the figs.

“For dessert, some of the Belgian krieks would work with a berry fruit coulis because the cherry character of the kriek highlights the fruit that you’re using. People still associate beer with being bitter and not sweet, but I think somewhere down the line that might change. The challenge there is finding a nice kriek.”

Ginny Grant – senior food writer at Cuisine magazine

“There are fewer things better than a melted cheddar toastie, especially if the cheddar is aged and sharp, has some thinly sliced onion and a dash of hot sauce to boot. To my mind an English IPA style is perfect here. The hops match the sharpness of the cheddar and the beer’s bitter notes help cut through the richness of the cheese, providing a palate cleanser between bites. If you are using wholegrain toast then you’re already winning – the nutty caramelisation of the bread will echo the malts in the beer and the fruity bitter flavours should go some way towards countering the spice of the hot sauce. Simple, but so very effective.”

Is the cheese toastie beer’s best friend? (Photo: Christoher Del Rosario/Getty Images)

Ismo “Mo” Koski – owner and drinks specialist at Apero, Auckland

For the last ten years Mo Koski has been working in top-end fine-dining restaurants focused on degustation and food and wine matching. Now he’s in charge of the front of house at Apero on Auckland’s K Road, where he oversees an innovative and exciting wine list, with three handpicked beers.  

“The most exciting aspect of wine I believe is matching it with food and having that killer match. To find it, the first thing you do is throw the rule book out the window. ‘Red meat must go with red wine and white meat with white wine’ – I don’t follow that.

“I like to try a dish, see where that goes, look at the flavours and the textures. If something is going to be rich and heavy and dense, then we might be looking for something leaner and drier to cut through that. It’s probably not the same the other way around, however – if it’s a light, fresh dish you want to stick with a lighter wine.

“If you look at a really strong, hoppy beer, that’s something that you don’t confront with wine. Ultimately, even if a wine is rich and dense, it’s still fruit at the end of it. So if you’ve got lots of hops you want to be looking at robust foods, not gentle, cleaner dishes.

“I think the hop movement here is a bit over the top: I like to taste yummy things, and hoppy beers in my opinion aren’t that yummy. Sour beers I find more interesting because you can get more flavour profiles going on.

“With a sour beer, given that you can get all sorts of flavour profiles come through. You have to take each beer on its merits, but I find a super clean sour would go beautifully with something fatty like good fish and chips. You want something to cut through that batter, and that acidity comes into play. It works against it. I like looking at opposites.  

“Fish and chips are a staple, a lot of people grow up with that, so you get exposed pretty quick if your fish and chips are shit. If you can see the ocean, you’ve got no excuses. It’s nice that people haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel. As a base point fish and chips are good: you can make them awesome, they should never be crap. Pair that with a good sour and you’re away.”

Good fish and chips the perfect partner for a sharp sour beer (Photo: Getty Images)

Meg Abbott-Walker – wine consultant and sommelier at La Fuente, Auckland

Meg Abbott-Walker is a wine expert who’s a huge fan of putting beer and food together. You can find her at new mezcal and wine bar La Fuente in downtown Auckland.

“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so sometimes I find pairing a sweet wine with dessert to be a bit overwhelming, so some of the best dessert matches I’ve had have been with beer.

“I’ve enjoyed lagers that have tropical fruit notes paired with delicate Japanese-influenced banana/green tea desserts, but my absolute go-to is imperial stout (or similar rich, dark, malty, chocolatey, coffee-flavoured beer) with any intense chocolate dessert. The beer has all the intensity and concentration of flavour to stand up to the bittersweet flavours of the food plus the sweet roasted malt notes that give you a sensation of sweetness without all the actual sugar. Somehow it is both decadent and refreshing and leaves you feeling satisfied but not palate fatigued.”

Don’t be afraid to serve beer with dessert (Photo: Getty Images)

Fiona Smith – award-winning food stylist and writer

“In summer, I love the crisp, tart, thirst-quenching character of a saison. It is an extremely versatile beer for food matching but I can’t think of anything better to pair with it than freshly foraged NZ shellfish such as tuatua. I steam them open with a little splash of the beer then top them off with melting herb-packed butter. (On that thought, here’s a chef’s tip: always throw a splash of what you’re serving with the meal into the food as you cook). Saison not only complements the shellfish but helps cut through the richness of the butter.”

Shaun Clouston – head chef at Logan Brown, Wellington

When the craft movement started in New Zealand, Wellington chef Shaun Clouston made some great friends in the breweries. He could see things were on the move and the passion these brewers had for beer, and the mood the country had for thinking about our favourite beverage with more enlightenment. He also saw the potential for food and beer matching.  

“There are some great beers around and matching food is a great way to introduce them to people. With those big hoppy beers you fight fire with fire. I like something that’s quite large and hoppy to be matched with food with a bit of punch and spice behind it.

“Although, some of those different hops have strong citrus flavours and aromas. I’ve been doing a bit of work with strong citrus hops and one of the matches I’m liking with a powerful hop beer is a dessert. All those grapefruit flavours and everything that were coming through, they really work well with a creamy dessert with caramel. Normally you’d serve strong citrus with it, and so you can use that beer as the citrus component. It just takes a bit of experimentation.

“I still cop it from some beer writers for some of my matching, some of them are a little bit out there. It’s not too difficult to work it out. You’ve gotta try all these different things. But really it’s about what people enjoy. I would never write off the provincial beers.”

This content was created in paid partnership with the Brewers Association. Learn more about our partnerships here


This content was created in partnership with the Brewers Association of New Zealand. Find nutritional facts on New Zealand’s favourite beers here.*

* Average carb and calorie content of leading beers (by sales volume).

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