One of the things that frustrates me when I’m reading a bottle of beer is when there are food pairing suggestions that don’t tell you anything. “Try this with spicy foods,” the label proudly exclaims, as though that conveys any useful information.
Usually, when the bottle says something like that you can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re looking at a hoppy beer. Wouldn’t it be better for you if you knew why you were supposed to drink something with some kind of food?
Here’s the thing: Hops create a significant amount of flavour in beer, but the level of bitterness in the particular beer you’re looking at tells you comparatively little. IBUs have ramped up steadily since I started writing about beer, but where a beer ranks in terms of IBUs on a scale of 1-100 doesn’t really convey useful sensory information except “hope you didn’t like your tooth enamel, Skeezix.”
There are all these different varieties of hops. If you’re a music fan, you could think of them as guitarists. All of the hop varieties impart different flavours and nuances to a beer, so it’s a little like the pantheon of guitar players. You might have something like Robert Johnson with his soulful playing. It might be like Bo Diddley, thrumming away. It might be a picker like Chet Atkins or Mark Knopfler. If might be some kind of technically virtuousic thing like Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen. All of these players have their own distinctive sounds.
What the focus on IBUs has done is to distract us from the character of the hops being used in various kinds of beer. Focusing on IBUs is a little like focusing on the size of the amplifier. It’s like asking someone whether the concert was any good and being told that the Marshall Stack was the size of a house. All you can deduce from that is that the concert was loud and that someone’s probably going to develop tinnitus.
If you’re thinking about beer and food, the hop variety is almost certainly more important than whether something is a 25 or a 45 or a 70 on the IBU scale. You need to think about what makes that hop distinctive.
If you look at the hop profile listed on a grower’s website, it tends to impart information like Alpha Acids and Beta Acids. Alpha Acids are what make a beer bitter. If you read a little further down the list, you get into essential oil content, and that’s the really important thing to consider in terms of food.
For the most part, these are called terpenes. Wikipedia is telling me that they’re primary constituents of a number of plants and flowers and that they’re responsible in large part for why organic things smell the way they do. This means that these are in hops, certainly, but they’re also in just about all the other plants you’d eat. This includes vegetables and fruits and spices (and grapes. To be fair, there’s some writing about why monoterpenes are important in wine, but comparatively little about why they’re important in beer.)
Rather than come up with some comprehensive list, let’s take a look at three hop varieties and how the essential oils from those hops create flavours. You don’t need to remember their names, but I want you to understand that if you notice a commonality in flavour between your beer and something you’re eating, it’s not by chance: The number of permutations of flavour in nature is finite. You’re not imagining similarity. Everything is made of the same stuff.
Using this link as a guide, we can see that the hop oils in Fuggles is dominated by humulene, followed by myrcene, caryophyllene and farnesene. If you’ve smelled Fuggle hops, you probably know them to have a woody, herbal, practically minty kind of aroma. That’s because the humulene dominates the list of essential oils. Humulene is a sesquiterpene and it tends not to break down during the boil. Myrcene, on the other hand, is pretty volatile. What myrcene there is contained in a Fuggle is going to dissipate during the boil and you’re going to be left with other aromatic compounds including menthol, citral, linalool, nerol, geraniol and limonene.
In terms of pairing with food, what does this tell us? Well, it’s going to be woody and slighty herbal with some spice notes dominating. You might, if they’re used as an aroma hop, get mint or citrus or floral notes. They’re usually used as an aroma hop because of the low alpha acid content.
The important thing to remember is that just about all the plants in the world smell and taste the way they do because of the terpenes. You might want a beer dry-hopped with Fuggles if you’re having lamb with mint sauce since the commonality is menthol. Or maybe you want to try it with a light thai dish containing lemongrass since the common elements are citral and nerol. The important thing to remember is that these are accents over top of the underlying woody character.
Saaz is similarly used primarily as an aroma hop because of its low alpha acid. If you’ve ever had a Czech Pilsner, you’re probably pretty familiar with the variety. It’s herbal and spicy and I would usually use peppery as a descriptor for the aroma. Saaz hops usually contain about equal amounts of myrcene and humulene. What it contains in larger proportion than just about everything else is farnesene, which is giving it that herbal, vegetation, spice character. Typically, farnesene is much higher in noble hops than in the new world varieties.
You might think of Saaz as being sort of gentle because of the varieties of beers that it usually finds itself in. Think a bit about what it can do for food. The possibility of interplay of spices is pretty impressive, with black or white pepper complimenting a dish. With something like a jagerschnitzel, you’re suddenly playing the farnesene in the aroma of the pilsner off the earthiness of the mushrooms in the sauce. The great thing is that you didn’t know you were doing that, but that’s one of the reasons that pairing works.
I’m using Cascade here to make a point about new world hops. It’s a great deal higher in myrcene than noble hop varieties, as are the majority of new world hops. You’re not going to get much woody character from the humulene because there’s very little of it. It can be used for bittering or aroma because of the alpha acid content. The reason you get citrus and grapefruit out of it in a dominant way is because the myrcene breaks down into other compounds that commonly occur in citrus like citral and citronellol and citronellal.
I think that the preference for big citrusy American hops has a lot to do with California and the cuisine that grew up there. If you have the ability to grow citrus in quantity (try doing that in England or Germany) you’re going to want to mirror that flavour in whatever you’re drinking. Picture a fish taco without that bright spritz of lemon acidity. It’s just not the same.
WHAT DID WE LEARN
If you’re going to think about pairing hops with food, you probably want to think of them not as a main component of your pairing but as an accent. Rather than bitterness the thing to focus on is the aroma and flavour that they’re imparting to the gustatory experience. Since the terpenes that make up the flavours that hops impart occur naturally in spices and vegetables, that’s where you should be looking for commonality or contrast in your pairing.
For instance, if you’re thinking about a steak, the hops really aren’t going to have any interplay with the meat. However, if you’ve seasoned the steak with pepper or you’ve got a chimichurri or mole sauce or you’ve marinated in citrus, you’ve got an element to play with. If you know a little bit about the hops that went into the beers in your fridge, you’ve suddenly got a playground to explore.