Editor's Note: We love beer and food together, and always get excited about a particularly delicious pairing. Today, Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help us find the best dishes to eat with India Pale Ale.
Brash, brassy, and bitter, many consider India Pale Ale to be the signature style of American craft beer. So great is its popularity that even brewers who otherwise specialize in things like German lagers will make one just to satisfy demand. Originally imported to this country from England, it is now America's chief beer-style export. These days, you'll see hoppy American-style IPAs popping up in burgeoning craft beer scenes from Scandinavia to Scotland.
There are two types of India pale ale; English and American (I'm counting double IPA as a whole separate style to be dealt with on another day). Both are hop-forward beers of similar strength, from 5 to 8 percent alcohol. The English version is often more balanced, with sharp-edged but moderate bitterness filled in with by ample caramel malt. Hop flavors tend toward the herbal and earthy with overtones of citrus. American IPAs are a hop-head's delight, exuberantly unbalanced with aggressive bitterness and juicy, citrusy hop flavors. The malt profile is generally simple with just enough caramel sweetness to provide some modest support.
These beers turn up the volume on flavor, so they need dishes with similar intensity to stand up. When pairing IPA with food you have three basic flavor hooks at your disposal; bitterness, hop flavor (spicy, grassy, herbal, earthy, and citrus), and caramel. Hop flavors have a great affinity for spices and light fruits. Bitterness has a cooling affect. Paired with spicy dishes, IPA will fan the flames at first, but douse them in the end. Bitterness also amplifies salty and umami flavors. The caramel flavors in the beer will latch onto the sweeter side of a dish, tying into things like caramelized onion or the crispy skins of roast poultry. And the hop acids and carbonation make IPAs great palate cleansers to take on even the fattiest deep-fried delights.
Salty and Fried Food
IPAs that lean extra-heavily on bitterness can be a bit tricky to match with food, which can make the beer seem astringent. Super-bitter beers do work well with fried or salty foods though, as the salt and fat tone the bitterness down and call attention to the meager malt underneath. Stone Ruination IPA with a handful of Chex Mix or salted nuts is a beautiful thing. Fried chicken or a plate of Wisconsin cheese curds is delightful washed down with a pint of Rogue Brutal Bitter.
I like IPAs that emphasize hop flavor and aroma over bitterness, and I especially like these beers when served with Indian food. Hop flavor melds wonderfully with common Indian spices like tamarind, coriander, and cardamom. Hops and bubbles are more than a match for ghee, the clarified butter that makes this cuisine so irresistibly rich.
A balanced English IPA such as Meantime India Pale Ale or Brooklyn East India Pale Ale tackles a fiery Madras curry with cooling bitterness and some heat-moderating malt. The hops amplify the spice at first, but ultimately carry it away. The amped up hops in American-style IPAs like Bell's Two Hearted and Avery IPA make them perfect for cutting through creamy yogurt-based sauces in dishes like Chicken Korma.
Mexican food mixes light and dark flavors like cilantro and refried beans, lime and roasted chilies. Those combinations make great partners for IPA with its own caramel/citrus combo.
Stick with lighter-bodied beers here, since bigger brews can easily overwhelm. I'm not ashamed to admit that Taco Bell is my guilty pleasure. At less than 6 percent alcohol, Harpoon IPA is a nice and easy accompaniment with just enough citrusy hops to cut through a gloriously gooey Burrito Supreme.
Fajitas of any variety are great with IPA. So is a rich, deep-fried chimichanga. Fish tacos anyone? Other good light-bodied IPAs that go well with Mexican are Odell IPA and Sam Adams Latitude 48.
Fire Up the Grill
Fire up the grill and burn some burgers and steaks. IPA is fabulous with grilled meat. Caramelization is the key here. That caramelized crust on grilled meat pulls out the caramel malt in the beer, while hop flavor and bitterness provide umami-amping contrast.
Grilled goodies will stand up to bigger beers, so don't be afraid to go with full-bodied and full-flavored brews. Victory Hop Devil is a great choice. It has loads of citrus hop flavor and assertive bitterness, but a solid malt base to back it up.
Don't Forget Dessert
Most people wouldn't think of putting a bitter IPA with sweets, but sometimes the two can make magic together. Slightly sweeter IPAs work better, so pick an English version or a maltier American. Founders Centennial IPA is gorgeous with tamarind or ginger spiced chocolate truffles, with the malt heightening the caramel side of milk chocolate and the hops intensifying the spice. Try a Samuel Smith India Ale with carrot cake. It's spice meets spice, as the beer cuts right through that cream cheese frosting.
All right, hopheads, tell us. What are your favorite foods to eat with India Pale Ale?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint