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How to pair beer with spicy foods

A tall, frothy amber beer in a classic pint glass stands next to a wooden serving board topped with a pile of mouth-watering spicy chicken wings. A wedge of lemon and a dish of hot sauce stand by, ready for garnishing.

Taste buds in the mood for a delicious adventure? Here’s how to match your favourite spicy dishes with the right beers to boost or beat the heat

The world of spicy foods is as vast as the world of beer. Maybe you’re into the usual-suspects list, like black pepper, jalapeños and habaneros. Or perhaps you like the kicky rubs, sauces and dips that make wings, curries and jerk chicken sing. Either way, there’s a spicy dish with your name on it.

Pairing these with the right brew can create explosively delicious combinations. But which suds are your best bet? Will a pilsner ratchet up the flames on that mouth-watering curry or douse them? Is an IPA bold enough to take on a plate of double-dog-dare ghost pepper wings? Here’s how to match your beer to your favourite spicy foods.

Know which pepper(s) you’re working with

Every pepper has a unique flavour profile that can guide your beer pairing. Let’s look at a few of the common ones you’ll be slicing and dicing and see which glorious brews are good with them.

  • Black pepper. This spice is everywhere, so it’s easy to forget when you’re thinking about food pairings. But it can be a dominant flavour in some dishes (think cacio e pepe pasta). Black pepper isn’t exactly hot (unless you eat a ton of it), but it is sharp and has pleasant woody and piney notes. Perfect pairing: Light-bodied, not-too-bitter cream ale lets this spice’s mild heat shine through.
  • Poblano peppers. These peppers, called “anchos” when dried, are mellow and have an earthy quality. They’re delicious stuffed and often appear in meaty chilies, chowders and Mexican-style dishes. Perfect pairing: Grassy, pleasantly bitter pilsner and bready, slightly sweet golden ale (a.k.a. pale ale) are both slam dunks with dishes that feature this pepper.
  • Jalapeño and serrano peppers. These bad boys are everywhere. Look for them in your local supermarket’s produce section and on restaurant menus. (Hello, poppers!) They have a grassy, bell-pepper-like flavour and a delicious zing of heat that will get the sweat going on your upper lip. Perfect pairing: Wheat ale has a fragrant sweetness and pillowy soft texture. It adds the perfect level of brightness to dishes featuring jalapeño and serrano peppers.
  • Carolina reaper and other super-fiery peppers. Working with a fierce pepper that really brings the heat? Good luck to you! JK — we love these for their mind-boggling Scoville units and the rush that only their fire can bring. Perfect pairing: Bold, bitter India pale ale (IPA) can go toe-to-toe with face-melting spiciness and carry you through to the end of the meal.

Choose the right beer for the spice level you want

Okay, you know the type of pepper, rub or sauce you’re working with. Now it’s time to ponder what sort of experience you want to have.

Beers can fan the flames in your food, balance them or chill them out. Let’s look at some examples so you know how to create that perfect match.

  • Spice boosters: Light lagers and golden ales let spice shine through. These brews are refreshing and light-bodied and have delicious bready notes. They won’t overpower your meal in any way and will even make spicy dishes seem spicier.
  • Spice balancers: Looking for a beer that will be an equal partner to the heat on your plate? Grab an amber ale or brown ale. Both are slightly sweet and have a touch of hop bitterness that lets spice linger in a good way.
  • Spice coolers: Maybe you’re into fiery peppers or simply don’t want to sweat it out at the dinner table, in which case a New England IPA, a stout or a malty dark ale will help you keep your cool. These styles offer bold flavours that tamp down the spiciness in your favourite dishes.

How to perfect your beer and spicy food pairings

To match beers with spicy foods, follow the same rules that apply to any food-and-beer pairing. A quick review:

  • Pair like with like. Once you understand the flavours and aromas of the pepper you’re choosing, you can find a beer with similar ones. For example, try pairing mild sweet peppers with a beer that offers sweetness, like a malty amber ale. If you’re using a smoky chili, like a chipotle or ancho pepper, a chocolatey stout can be an excellent companion. After all, chocolate and chilies are dynamite together.
  • Match up the intensity. A light-bodied brew, like a light lager, a pilsner or a cream ale, is a great partner to a mellow pepper burn. When you’re eating more intense chilies, flip the script and choose a bolder beer, such as a bitter IPA or a rich, dark ale with caramel notes.
  • Play with bitter, sweet and spice. The most important thing is to experiment and have fun. Sure, you want to find balance, match intensity and choose the right beer to enhance your spicy dishes. But taking a chance and trying something different might yield some delicious contrasts. Maybe try a dry porter with a lightly spiced dish or a bubbly kolsch with something on the fiery end of the spectrum. It could be your new favourite matchup.

Spicy food and beer pairings to try tonight

Now it’s time to put all this delicious knowledge to the test. Here are a few examples of pairings we love, featuring some of our beer-infused recipes. Think of them as a jumping-off point for creating your own signature matches.

Kung Pao Tofu + light lager. This combination lets the heat of the dish shine through. Sriracha or chili paste brings heat to the table, but it’s not overpowering. The refreshing, herbaceous notes of a light lager will complement (not drown out) the chili flavour. Dark lager is another tasty option, thanks to a bit of extra-toasty malt.

Jerk Chicken with Peach Salsa + IPA. The bold, fruity hops in this brew align well with the Scotch bonnet peppers in jerk seasoning. This is a great example of matching intensities: strong, spicy peppers meet piney, citrusy hops to create a delicious marriage.

Another classic pairing with jerk chicken is…wait for it…stout! The roasty notes of this dark, delicious brew ease some of the jerk’s Scotch bonnet spiciness. It goes to show how a different (surprising!) beer pairing can create a different but still appetizing experience.

Thai Chicken Curry + amber ale. This dish can work for anyone: Increase the red curry paste to intensify the heat or dial it back to keep it mellow. Amber ale works so well as a pairing here because it has a touch of sweetness and bready notes. They balance the dish, no matter where it falls on the spice spectrum.

Now you’re ready to create your own pairings. What style of beer would you pair with your favourite dishes? Let us know on Instagram (@thebeerstoreon), Facebook (@TheBeerStoreON) or Twitter (@TheBeerStoreON).

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