A Brewer’s Guide to Beer Pairings

TSG Tip 245: Beer Pairing

When most people think about food and beverage pairings, images of red and white wines alongside various courses are often what come to mind. However, thanks to burgeoning craft beer scenes taking root in many regions across the country, we’re considering swapping grapes for grains when it comes to our pairings. To give us a better sense of beer flavor profiles and their ideal food partners, we reached out to Matthew Barbee, owner and brewer at Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster, Ohio, for guidance. A picturesque destination that produces Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales, Rockmill brews in the Belgian tradition, which involves allowing fermenters to free rise, leading to a complex depth of flavor in beers that makes them particularly well-suited to food pairings. But while sticking to Belgian-style beers (particularly Rockmill’s, if you’re near a retailer) is perfectly fine, these profiles and pairings should work across the board, so feel free to branch out with your selections.

Style #1: Saison. The profile: “Saison is in the farmhouse ale category. They think the yeast strain came from the red wine yeast strain at one point, so it has a lot of character to it. It’s really dynamic and has depth; I usually describe it as being rustic and kind of earthy,” Barbee says of the beer. The pairings: “Depending on who’s brewing it and what their angle is, you can kind of go in a couple different directions,” Barbee notes. “Generally speaking, I think it typically goes with rich, fattier foods—beer and cheese is one of my favorite things. Saison’s pretty versatile, but some of my favorite pairings are mussels and Saison, and Saison and burrata cheese.”

Style #2: Dubbel. The profile: “Dubbel is a darker beer, so you have caramelized barley happening. I get a lot of dark fruit out of our Dubbel, specifically Luxardo cherry notes. There are also raisin and forest floor-type components.” The pairings: Because of the beer’s mushroom aromatics, Barbee likes pairing Dubbel with rich mushroom dishes. He also recommends pairing the somewhat strong beer with meat. “Lamb and Dubbel is spectacular. Charcuterie is really exciting with it as well.” And if you’re looking for a dessert-beer pairing, you’re in luck: “I love pairing dark chocolate with Dubbel,” Barbee says.

Style #3: Tripel. The profile: “Tripels can have a dried apricot fruit element with some floral notes in the bouquet,” Barbee says of the strong brew. The pairings: For this complex beer, Barbee recommends pork and blue cheese as ideal partners.

Style #4: Stout. The profile: “Stout is a darker beer, and when you’re working with roasted barley, the toast level of the malt is what dictates the color level of the beer. So when you work with roasted barleys that have dark toasts, that’s what imparts that darker color, and it also impacts the flavor component. The types of flavor it puts in the solution might be caramel, tobacco, oftentimes smoke, and sometimes bacon,” Barbee says. The pairings: Barbee recommends keeping those smoky notes in mind when considering foods to enjoy with this beer, so we’d lean toward stews and opportunities to bring out bacon notes. Currently on the menu at Rockmill Tavern is a beef cheek pot pie that Barbee says is splendid with their Belgian stout.

Style #5: Pilsner. The profile. “I’m a really big Pilsner fan. We brew a Belgian Pilsner, which is probably the beer I drink most of in the summertime,” Barbee says of the light, crisp, and refreshing brew. The pairings: “It’s hard to think of a food that wouldn’t pair well with a Pilsner,” Barbee says. He recommends pouring a glass to accompany food with a significant spice level, as the beer’s refreshing qualities can help quench the heat. Another exciting option would be pairing Pilsner with oysters.

Style #6: IPA. The profile: “Typically with the IPA category, people will sort of lead with a specific hop character and brew more for IBUs [Editor’s note: that’s the International Bitterness Units scale, which measures a beer’s bite]. So it’s going to be more bitter.” The pairings: While some recommend pairing this bitter beer with salty, fatty, or spicy flavors, due to its challenging flavor profile Barbee generally skips trying to come up with food pairings for this type in favor of enjoying it as a standalone beverage from time to time.

TSG Tip 245 from Matthew Barbee, owner and brewer at Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster, Ohio. Rockmill Brewery is featured in The Scout Guide Columbus.