by Chef Joe LaVilla

There is an imbalance in dining today. It is perpetuated by advertising, by tradition and ultimately by the people who would benefit the most from breaking its stereotype. What is it, you ask?  It is simply the notion that you can only have a great dining experience pairing food with wine. 

The rationale is often that the cuisines of the world developed alongside their wine counterparts. We state, “Well, in Europe wine is just another food item, a condiment to the meal”. While true, historically wine was either relegated to those that had the space to store it for the year until the next harvest, or was a simple plonk made and shared by the village. One beverage, however, was available to everyone year round, was the ultimate in local sourcing, and also evolved with the cuisine – beer.

Beer is a beverage that actually is more versatile than wine with most cuisines. Wine is often paired with foods with a European “flavor”, but when it comes to Asian or Indian or even some South American cuisines, figuring out what wine to have may be a stretch. A good craft beer can create some unbelievable pairings with just a little understanding of the beverage.

Beer is really a general category that encompasses three main styles – ales, lagers and lambics. Each can be simply defined by its fermentation method.  Ales are fermented at room temperature creating a beverage that retains the fruity esters that develop when sugar turns to alcohol. It also has a soft carbonation – think about the more of the creamy head on a Guinness versus a fizzy Budweiser. Lagers, on the other hand, are fermented cold. This gives a clean, crisp taste, with a more aggressive carbonation. Finally, lambics are fermented with wild yeast and bacteria giving what seems like a cross between ale and lager but with a characteristic tang to the drink.

Basic food and beer pairings start by determining the type of beer to use. Ales can be thought of as the “red wine” of the group.  Lagers are more like “white wine”.  Why?  Well, the fruity esters and soft carbonation give a richer mouth feel, more like a red wine. Lagers, being clean and crisp, can be just as palate cleansing as a clean, crisp white wine.  But this is too general; there’s more to it than that.

Beer flavors depend on two things in the recipe – malt and hops.  Malt is the base which provides the sugar for the fermentation.  It is barley that has been sprouted, dried and toasted to some degree.  The extent of toast changes the flavors from sweet to cracker-like to caramelized sugar to coffee and chocolate.  Hops are the flowers of a vine which provides bitterness, tannin and aromatics to the brew.  Hops can have undertones of pine, herbs or citrus.

The principles of beer and food pairing are the same as they are for wine and food pairing.  Match the weights – lighter foods should be paired with lighter beers like golden lagers and pale ales.  Match the intensity – don’t overpower your food with a beer that’s too intense.  Just as a poached chicken breast would be overpowered by red wine, it would also be overpowered by a stout.

Pairing with beer does have its differences compared to pairing with wine.  Beer, for the most part, does not have acidity (lambics being the exception) like wine does. To cleanse the palate and cut through fat, take advantage of beer’s bitterness. Strong hops in the beer are the equivalent of acidity in wine.  Malt is the sweetness of a beer. Some fermentations leave residual sugars, giving the beer not only sweetness but greater weight on the palate.

One pairing I had recently reminded me that pairing with beer may provide as much of an OMG moment as wine can. The beer was a Firestone Walker Union jack India Pale Ale (IPA).  IPAs are notorious for their high hop content and bitterness. The hops in this beer are Cascade, known to have a citrus quality.  A delicious beer, on its own the bitterness was fairly astringent on the palate.  Enter rack of lamb. The fat and umami of the meat neutralized a lot of the bitterness of the IPA.  Then, the a-ha moment when the beer suddenly took on an intense orange peel flavor. The pairing of the malt, orange and lamb was absolutely delicious.

How about some other pairs? Chicken fried steak and bock beer.  Bock is a lager made with darker malts.  This gives it the body to handle battered and fried steak, but also because it is a lager, the crispness cuts through the fat. 

Next, try sausages, sauerkraut and a German Pilsner.  Pilsner is the classic lager we all think of- golden, crisp, effervescent and a little bit bitter.  Mix the pilsner with tangy sauerkraut and fatty sausage and the beer cleanses the palate while the tangy kraut tempers the bitterness and malt. 

Finally, let’s try dessert. Chocolate cake and Oatmeal stout is the pair. As the name suggests, Oatmeal stout utilizes some oatmeal in with the malt. That results in noticeable sweetness to the brew which balances the bitterness and coffee notes.  Match it to a chocolate cake, especially one with a fudgy frosting, and the combination brings out mocha, toast and caramel flavors in both items.

The next time you are thinking of what to pair with dinner, perhaps, skip the wine section and head to the craft beers.  For the price of a bottle of wine, you could experiment with 4 – 6 beers.  Who knows, your next OMG moment in pairing may happen with a pint glass in your hand instead of a stem.


About Joe LaVilla

Chef LaVilla is the Academic Director for the Culinary Arts programs at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Phoenix. Besides being a Certified Executive Chef, Chef LaVilla also holds a certification from the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) as a Certified Sommelier. In addition, Chef LaVilla is experienced in food styling, food and wine pairing, the hospitality industry, culinary arts management, and more.

Before joining The Art Institute of Phoenix, LaVilla had been Executive Chef for Tucchetti restaurant in Phoenix. He has worked for Mark Tarbell as well as Wolfgang Puck. His credits include, “Faculty of the Year” award at The Art Institute of Phoenix; finalist in the Arizona Pork Council Taste of Elegance Competition; and author of the textbook “The Handbook of Wine, Beer and Spirits: A Guide to Styles and Service”.

Chef LaVilla received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Rochester and his Bachelor of Arts degree, Cum Laude, in Chemistry from Cornell University. He also received an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated with honors.