The art of the beer dinner

Pairing beer and food in an upscale setting

By Kevin J. Gray

Photo: Pairing a Belgian-style ale with steamed mussels would be an excellent combination at your own beer dinner

You’ve been to the various beer festivals around town. You’ve started frequenting the breweries and beer bars around town. Maybe you are picking up mixed sixers at your favorite retailer, or have taken up homebrewing. You are starting to get the hang of this craft beer thing. But are you ready to take your craft beer education to the next level? If so, it’s time to host a beer dinner.

Beer dinners are a great way to explore craft beer’s myriad flavors. Beer and food have long gone hand-in-hand, as Steve Barnhart, owner and head brewer at Centerville’s Lock 27, explained: “The relationship between beer and food goes back for as long as beer existed. From the first Mesopotamian whose ‘happy accident’ led to spontaneous fermentation in his grain bag, through to the Middle Ages when beer sold alongside food because it was safer to drink than water, beer and food have naturally been joined together as people gathered at the end of the day.”

Beer is, after all, liquid bread. Pairing beer and food allows the flavors of the beverages and the dishes to blend together, offering comparing or contrasting experiences that highlight the individual components of the dishes and the beers. Often, with successful pairings, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Scan the web for advice on creating a beer dinner and you will find hordes of advice – lots of tips and tricks from various experts. It’s all generally good advice, but it can be a little overwhelming. We’re here to simplify things and offer a few hints to get you started hosting your first beer dinner.

Start simple

For a beer dinner, think five course meal: soup, appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. Pick a single beer for each course, or, for a few of the courses, offer no more than two beer choices. Limit the beer selection to five to seven beers, tops. Beer dinners differ from beer tastings in that the goal of a beer tasting is often to try a lot of different types of beers. The goal of a beer dinner is to create the perfect pairings and move your guests through the culinary experience.

Think holistically 

What theme will tie your beer dinner together? Will you use beers from a single brewery or region and tie the courses to those beers? Will you chose a culinary genre and pair beers to match? Either approach is perfectly acceptable, but strive for continuity between courses and beers. Avoid cobbling together a handful of courses that wouldn’t normally be served together (i.e., a meal of gazpacho, cocktail weenies, Caesar salad, tacos and chocolate pudding). Likewise, avoid grabbing a cartful of beers that are great on their own but lack a common thread.

Go fresh

You are serving premium beer; be sure to use premium ingredients to highlight that beer. Barnhart, whose gastropub focuses on the beer and food experience, noted, “Since we wanted to make the best beer possible, it seemed only natural to extend that philosophy to the kitchen as well. If it’s a plate from our kitchen, we take extra steps to serve the best ingredients and preparations in a very casual, no pressure environment.” Take the same approach in your home kitchen.

Learn to pair

While beer pairings can be subjective, there are some general guidelines to creating flavorful combinations. Unlike with wine, where pairings rely on contrasts, beer pairings often rely on complimentary flavors. Garret Oliver, author of “The Brewmaster’s Table” (an indispensible resource for any food pairings with a terrific appendix that provides great pairing advice), recommends considering the following variables: weight, dominant flavors and carbonation level.

Pair lighter beers with lighter dishes, and darker, more robust beers with courses that can stand up to their weight. Think about the ingredients in the dish and the way it is cooked. Pair grilled or roasted meats, which tend to be caramelized and slightly charred, with roasty beer. Use cilantro in a dish? Think hoppy or wit beers that compliment the citrusy bite of the herb. Cooking something with thyme, sage or other savory herbs? Think saisons, bières de garde or lighter Belgian styles. Use highly carbonated beers to cut through fatty meals – Belgians make great pairings at Thanksgiving for this very reason.

Cook with beer

The best way to ensure that a dish pairs with beer may be to use beer as an ingredient. From beer soup to Belgian ale-marinated pork chops to imperial stout brownies, there are hundreds of ways to incorporate beers into dishes. Search the web for “cooking with beer” and find excellent tried-and-true recipes.

Get creative

Yes, imperial stouts pair well with chocolate, but resist the urge to go solely with conventional pairings. Maybe try a lambic with the chocolate dessert instead? Or a vanilla porter? Have some fun trying out recipes before the big dinner and don’t be afraid to get weird. Sometimes they flop, but other times they are brilliant. (Do, however, try the pairings before the big event, so you have time to revamp a flop before you serve your guests).

Have fun

Remember, this is about beer and food, two of life’s simple pleasures. Relax, have a beer and get cooking.


Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at


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