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Heady delights

It's not only wine that you match to your food - finding the right ale, lager or bitter for your meal can make all the difference. Drinks expert Robin Young explains.

Shakespeare had Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night consider the awful thought that virtue might mean 'no more cakes and ale'. The coupling may seem curious now, when more attention is paid to drinking wine with food, rather than partnerships between food and beer. Yet beers are just as varied as wines, and many foods are actually more enjoyable with beer than with wine.

Obvious examples are recipes that originate in countries where beer, not wine, is the staple drink - such as right here in the UK. If you wanted to, you could drink wine with everything from boiled beef and shepherd's pie to Cornish pasties and hard British cheeses, but there is no good reason why you should. All are just as well, if not better, accompanied by traditional British ales. Drink Adnams Broadside for smooth, clean maltiness and big flavour with a good steak, and Marston's more lightly malted, dry but fruity Pedigree with steak and kidney pie or robust sausages and casseroles. Hogs Back Traditional English Ale (TEA), a very hoppy bottle-conditioned beer with a flowery aroma, matches the most flavoursome British dishes, including pasties, pies and hotpot stews. Similarly, Irish stew, Irish hotpot and Irish oysters are all perfectly complemented by the dark, suave richness of that famous drink, Guinness.

Beer makes a good match with northern and central European speciality foods, such as gravlax, raw or pickled herrings, smoked fish (mackerel and haddock, for example), Swedish meatballs, German frankfurters, and sausages from central and eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland. These foods go well with Grolsch, Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell or Beck's.

Some food and drink pairings teeter on a geographic borderline between wine country and beer country. Sauerkraut, or choucroute, is a speciality of Alsace, France. It can be enjoyed with the region's wines, but as Alsace is also a major centre of French brewing, Kronenbourg 1664 Lager is an equally suitable choice. Similarly, Italy produces lagers that are designed to go with those Italian staples, pizza and pasta. Try Waitrose Italian Lager or Nastro Azzurro with these for a perfect match that is as authentic as Chianti.

Dishes from countries that are not well known for their wine are more easily paired with beers, which should be of local origin where possible, because they are a natural complement to the cuisine. Waitrose has Cobra, brewed to an Indian recipe, Chinese Tsingtao, Singha from Thailand, and Tiger from Singapore, so matching the right beer to the cuisine is easy.

Turn up the heat

It is notoriously difficult to find wines to accompany some foods. Among them are egg dishes, thick soups, and anything that is served with vinegary condiments such as pickles, chutneys, ketchup, gherkins or pickled onions. For these foods, beer is always a more forgiving companion - likewise, fiery or spicy dishes, wherever their origination. As a general rule, the hotter the dish, the colder the beer required. Newcastle Brown at room temperature is fine with a mild Indian biryani, but if you are venturing to a vindaloo, an ice-cold Cobra is better.

Finally, if a dish is cooked with beer, then beer is the best drink to go with it - and the same holds true for wine. Beer batter is an enhancement to fish and chips, so beer is plainly a natural partner to our national dish. Sausages or braised dishes enriched with beer are best accompanied by beer, such as Badger Poacher's Choice.

Then, of course, there is cider, which is neither beer nor wine, but a traditional British drink. Its appley flavour makes it particularly appropriate for drinking with pork dishes and British or Normandy cheeses - try Waitrose Vintage English Cider, for example.

Perfect pairings

To get the balance right, follow this general rule: the lighter the dish, the lighter the lager should be. For delicate fish, such as sole, plaice and poached salmon, choose pale dry lager or pilsner. Fuller-flavoured chunky fish, mild cheeses, poultry and ham go well with British bitter (which is, after all, not very bitter at all).

Full-bodied, hoppy bitter, such as Fuller's London Pride or Old Speckled Hen, goes best with traditional British pub dishes, for instance, toad-in-the-hole or a ploughman's lunch. Mild ales, low in alcohol, are good with robust or savoury starters such as thick soups or tasty pâtés.

Fruity, spicy beers - Fuller's bottle-conditioned 1845 is a good example - are excellent with roasts, while Timothy Taylor's Landlord or Black Sheep, brewed in Masham, is a well-known match for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Stout (Guinness) classically accompanies seafood (though a friend of mine at college also used its creamy head on his morning cornflakes). Waitrose India Pale Ale is the hoppy drink to accompany curries - which is what this style of beer was designed for during the Raj.

Sweet nectar

So what about cakes and ale? Strange as it may seem, beers can taste excellent with desserts. Try a malty ale such as Theakston's Old Peculier with treacle pudding, or Wychwood's Hobgoblin with chocolate desserts. Refreshing, finely balanced Hoegaarden is good for poaching - and drinking with - lightly spiced apples or pears. Dry but fruity and spicy Leffe Blonde is delicious with chocolate brownies or apple and raisin pie; and brandy-like barley wine such as Fuller's Golden Pride tastes wonderful with a slice of fruit cake or a helping of plum pudding. Try these combinations, and you will see that Sir Toby had good cause indeed to be such a cheery and self-indulgent gent.

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This article was first published on waitrose.com in January 2003.