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A Winter Beer Pairing Primer

By DCBeer Contributor Elizabeth Hartman

As the cold weather and long nights finally take hold of the DC area, our hibernating instincts start kicking in. We reach for those cozy clothes, that heavy blanket, a loved one, and the hearty food and drink able to warm us from the inside out. For most of us, that drink is beer. 

A little thought to how you pair your beer with food this winter can help keep the cold at bay. I reached out to a few knowledgeable DC beer personalities for insight on what makes a satisfying winter pairing. 

The balancing act

A successful pairing begins with understanding some basic principles about flavor, perception, and balancing. Although each person I spoke with had their own approach, they all followed similar guidelines - decide if flavors will complement or contrast, and then balance the intensity of both the beer and the food. In their own words:

Jacob Berg, Staff Writer, DC Beer: I feel like there are some "rules" out there. Acid cuts fat, which is why sour beers work well with fatty cheeses; hoppy beers make things seem spicier; darker, roastier beers with richer, heavier meals; stronger (higher gravity, more assertive) beers with foods that are also assertive.

Rachel Murray, Beer Director, Bourbon:  I usually consider the heaviness or boldness of flavors in the beer or food with which I’ll be working. It’s important to have balance and not let one overpower the other. But it’s good to remember that complementary flavors work well, like brown ales/darker ales with roasted flavors paired with food prepared on a grill with similar roasted or smoked flavors. Contrasting flavors also work really well. A nice IPA will help cleanse the palate and balance out a spicy dish or a nice sweet stout paired with grainy/salty oysters. Belgian beers with their bright effervescence or a classic tart Belgian gueuze also work well with many dishes. 

Matt Heffernan, Capital Area Sales Representative, Victory Brewing Co.: I like to start with the traditional as a basis and brainstorm from there. Another thing to focus on is what I call the "standout note." Maple is a good example. It's often slightly in the background, but it offers so much to explore on the malt side. The most important endeavor is to match intensity. One of the only ways a pairing can fail completely is if one overwhelms the other.  

Ideal Pairings

To illustrate these philosophies, and give you some ideas, I asked each of these individuals to describe their ideal winter pairing:

Murray: I’ve been on an Original Sin Cherry Tree kick, and I think it’ll add a nice sweet/tart balance to a delicious turkey or stuffing…And I’m sure it’ll pair nicely with any dessert brought to the table. 

Heffernan: I'm really a fan of big stouts with rich tomato dishes. I usually make [my spicy beef chili] with short rib and bourbon, but I'm going to work on a version that features dark beer, like Victory's Storm King.  

Berg: I like pairing in the fall and winter because I can use higher gravity, thicker beers. Adroit Theory's barrel-aged imperial stout, B/A/Y/S, goes great with baked chocolate desserts. Allagash Victoria is a huge hit with my family. It's a Belgian-style strong ale brewed with white wine grapes, so it's a good way to introduce beer to wine-lovers, and it goes with just about everything on the table. Stillwater Cellar Door is brewed with sage, a common ingredient in stuffing and turkey, so that works as well. Cooking with darker beers in stews is something else I enjoy.

Do It Yourself

Developing your palate requires experimenting, trying new things, and paying attention to why pairings do or don’t work. 

This winter, prepare to eat well, drink well, pair well and stay warm!

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