The Parlance of Pairing

Much has been said lately about pairing beer with food. The principles include:

• Intensity – stronger flavored beers go with stronger flavored foods.
• Complementarity (or Harmony)– pairing items with similar flavors.
• Contrast – using opposing flavors to create interest.

But the real jewel of beer-food pairing, according to my outlook, is the less predicable creation of flavor synergy. Synergy is the cooperation of agents that produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

Synergies can occur regardless of whether you’re focusing on intensity, harmony, or contrast. These are flavors that only reveal themselves when the comestibles are brought together. By my reckoning, synergies fall into three modes of expression: mutation, rebirth, and reduction.


In mutation, the combination evokes altogether new flavors that seem unrelated to the flavors of either the beer or the food. It seems to me that these new flavors are not hidden in either product, but are a collective sensory reaction to sense organ stimuli interpreted by the brain.

My earliest memory of this experience occurred in high school. A student I didn’t know gregariously foisted upon me a piece of sourdough bread, a slice of lemon, and some salt. She made a little sandwich and fed it to me and said “See, doesn’t it taste like plums?!” Oddly, it did.

I admit to only retrying the experiment once and I was unable to reproduce the effect, but my ingredients were from different sources. I remember thinking about the various ingredients and being unable to reconcile the new flavor. Yes, she was cute. Could it have been the power of suggestion?

I tasted an example of this effect more recently when I enjoyed a cold peanut and shrimp soup with a hoppy Belgian ale. Neither had saffron in it, but the flavor of saffron was evident in the combination.


A second sense of synergy is rebirth. In rebirth we experience the primal ingredients in the beer and/or food. We might detect hops that are unusually bright and green. Or maybe field-fresh grainy or grassy flavors derived from the malt.

Barrel-aged beers with sherry and old wood notes might taste suddenly of pristine, new oak. Or an aged cider might explode with freshly pressed apples. This last example happened to me last week with Farnum Hill Semidry Cider and French cornichons. The acidity, mustard and tarragon of the pickles remained, but the cider went back in time, like biting into a freshly picked apple.


Reduction occurs when complementary flavors in both the food and drink cancel each other out. After this neutralization, what is left is an expression of some of the unique ingredients or underlying flavors.

In one event I paired smoked almonds with a smoked porter. I was going for matching intensity and complementary flavors. I thought it would be an easy pairing. In fact, as huge as the smoke flavors were in the nuts and the beer, the smoke almost completely vacated when the two were tasted together. This left a fresh almond flavor from the nuts and a chocolatey-caramelly-nutty malt base from the porter. Those flavors were always there but they were hidden behind the intense smoke.

Another time I was asked to pair a beer with a challenging dessert course: grapefruit meringue pie. I chose Great Divide’s Titan IPA, a beer with an overdose of those hops and high enough alcohol to balance the intensity of the pie. Here again I was shooting for harmony with the grapefruit.

I really was taking a chance, because my audience was more accustomed to wine. I was fearful of the strong bitterness of this beer. But the grapefruit flavors diminished and the graham cracker piecrust came to the fore, nicely matching the sweet malty backbone of the beer.

Synergies do not occur with every pairing. But do be on the lookout. When they do happen you will be left with a lasting impression of your meal. TPJ.


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