Beer Department: Pairing Beer with Food: Hamburgers

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It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love food almost as much as beer and I carry the extra pounds to prove it. In fact, pairing food with beer is one of my favorite things about beer, so I thought I’d share a few pointers and then illustrate those tips with a real-world example: that most American of foods, the hamburger.

First, let’s establish why we would want to put any mental effort into pairing beer with food in the first place. Anything you drink has flavor, aroma, and structural elements, as do the ingredients in your food. Therefore, making a few simple considerations will help you find a complement to your food that increases your enjoyment of both. Just as care is given to which ingredients you add to a dish, care should be given that your drink similarly augments your dining experience. Great food and beer pairings should be better than the sum of their parts; they should elevate all the flavors and aromas in front of you to turn the utilitarian need to eat into a truly enjoyable experience.

So how do we achieve these truly enjoyable experiences? All we need to do is remember three simple points when pairing beer with food: Find flavors that complement one another (i.e. chocolate cake with a chocolate stout); find flavors that contrast one another (i.e. rich and creamy cheesecake with a tangy and tart raspberry lambic); and match the overall intensity of your food with the beer’s intensity (i.e. don’t put a really heavy, decadent food with a light, delicate beer or vice versa).

Contrary to what wine folks want you to believe, beer is really far more friendly and flexible when it comes to pairing with food. Beer has more raw ingredients than wine, so it stands to reason that their flavors would find greater harmony with food. Beer also has the added advantage of carbonation, which refreshes the palate between bites by lifting fatty and greasy elements off your tongue. Beer also usually carries at least some residual sugar and that sweetness is the perfect foil for bitter or spicy elements in your food.

To illustrate these principles in action, let’s examine a quintessential American foodstuff, the venerable hamburger. When done correctly, a great juicy hamburger will offer flavors of umami, char, and the characteristic flavors that the meat develops as it browns. Further, a great burger’s toppings will be a balance of sweet, salty, and acidic. That’s why ketchup and mustard are so good together – ketchup’s sweetness is balanced by mustard’s tang. The acidity of tomato is softened by the creaminess and fat of cheese. The toasty elements of the baked bun create additional points of harmony and contrast. In short, there are a lot of very well-founded scientific reasons why hamburgers are so delicious. Now we need only find a beer to pair with it.

I’ll always recommend either an amber ale, porter, or stout to pair with burgers. Both the bun and the burger meat itself have undergone a Maillard reaction (pronounced my-yard after the French chemist who first described it). Maillard reactions are extraordinarily common; any food that has been browned has undergone a Maillard reaction. Think of toasted marshmallows, creme brulee, steak, grilled meats, baked bread, etc. Malted barley, the principal grain in beer, has also undergone a Maillard reaction. Therefore, most any beer will complement a burger. I recommend ambers, porters, and stouts because they tend to be of a similar intensity to rich and hearty burger meat. If forced to choose, I tend to prefer a fairly roasty porter or stout because those roasted flavors will play better off the charred flavors of the burger. If your burger contains something sweeter like caramelized onions you might prefer an amber ale because the caramel malt flavors will match up to those sweet flavors better.

Since a burger itself is a fairly simple food that pairs well with ambers, porters, and stouts, tailor your exact beer choice to your toppings. If you’re using really intensely flavored toppings like blue cheese or onion jam, don’t be afraid to ratchet up the beer’s intensity and choose an imperial stout. If your burger uses a spicy condiment, try something sweeter like an amber ale. Enjoying a middle-of-the-road burger with classic toppings of tomato, onion, and lettuce? Then you really can’t go wrong with beer like a classic robust porter.

There you have it, some basic info on how to pair beer with food. The important thing is to not let it overwhelm you. As I said, beer is extremely flexible and food friendly so even a less than perfect match will still work fairly well. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as none of these guidelines are written in stone, and don’t be afraid to follow your nose and your tastebuds. If you ever feel lost, us friendly beer geeks and foodies here at Jungle Jim’s are happy to lend a helping hand. Cheers!

-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®

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