If you’ve ever felt tempted by a hot wing challenge or are simply a sucker for punishment, spicy foods can be a dream—until you overdo it and that dream becomes a nightmare. Hot sauces and fiery foods can kick a dish’s enjoyment up to 11, but there are few things able to tone it back down.
Much like beer, spicy food comes in many styles and flavours, and from nearly every culture. Spicy in itself is not a flavour, but rather a mouthfeel, thanks to the chemical capsaicin. And while the flavours of different peppers differentiate spicy dishes, the underlying heat remains the same.
A beer’s carbonation is its secret weapon when it comes to holding up to the heat. The bubbles aid in lifting and scrubbing heat from the tongue, while it’s Rocky-Mountain-blue-certified (frigid) temperature helps quench the burn immediately.
IF YOUR MOUTH’S TOO HOT, THINK HOPS
IPAs are often lauded as a first line of defence against the heat of a dish, although in many cases, hops simply challenge the heat with equally aggressive bitterness. That bitterness balances the fiery-affront with a competing intensity and masks the perception of heat.
The weight and richness of a bigger IPA, especially one with oats in the grist, will tame and soften the building heat. Add the tropical fruit notes of certain hops (lookin’ at you New Zealand!), and you’re in for a flavoursome pairing—especially with South-East Asian dishes like papaya salad or Thai red curry.
“We normally pair something with spicy dishes that compliments well,” says Jamie MacAuley, chef and owner of ramen joint, Water and Bone. “Nothing too heavy, more like a wheat beer [or] something unfiltered with citrus notes, like Unfiltered’s Exile on North Street.” Exile, a West Coast IPA, softens the heat without overwhelming, a philosophy MacAuley uses when crafting his dishes too. “One of my goals was to have something that’s not insanely spicy but palpable; spicy but not [high] on the Scoville scale.”
Greg Nash, brewmaster at Halifax’s Unfiltered Brewing, views hops and heat, as you’d expect. “A fiery dish needs some pretty big balls to stand up to it, to meet the flavour and heat head-on, so it doesn’t get lost.”
Known for his hop-forward styles, Nash is quick to note it’s not as simple as IPA + spicy. “This sort of thing really needs to be taken on a case by case basis,” he says. “But, generally speaking, the modern-day East Coast or New England IPAs can be very mellow, soft, and pillowy.” Characteristics that certainly play down the heat component. Unfiltered’s three main flagships; Hoppy Fingers (APA), Exile on North Street (IPA), and Twelve Years to Zion (DIPA) are well-balanced and very hoppy, but each very different. Each one could pair with a different dish—highlighting or softening the characteristics of the flavours according to the match.
TONGUE FEELING FRISKY? GRAB SOMETHING CRISPY
While IPAs and hop-centric beers punch upwards, aiming to outmuscle the heat, lagers contrast the caliente. Lagers are crisp, clean, easy-drinking. In that straightforward approach comes it’s appeal: the flavours of a dish will shine through the subtle bitterness. And the higher carbonation scrubs your palate of overwhelming heat. The clean, unassuming profile of a lager makes for a more manageable experience without overwhelming the senses.
An uncomplicated beer (to drink, not brew), lagers pair well across the board; most dishes fare well with a beer, and this one keeps things simple. Josh Counsil of Good Robot suggests their Infinite Sunday, a highly carbonated Vienna Lager with bread-like maltiness, as ideal. With the backbone to resist being overpowered by spice and high carbonation to clear your palate (and allow focus), it’s a little more contrasting than complimentary. That contrast is what makes it a brilliant match: full flavoured, spicy food, and a simple, straightforward lager.
And they’re the most likely candidate to be found at most spice-forward restaurants. Keep it local when you can, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a Tsingtao and Szechuan or an ice-cold Sapporo with your spicy-as-hell ramen.
WHEN IN DOUBT, REACH FOR A STOUT
Dark beers have an excellent track record with spicy food. Typically the rich notes of chocolate and coffee play nicely with the roasted heat of an ancho spice or grilled meats with jerk seasoning by softening the heat. In fact, many warmer tropical climates known for their spicy food tend to prefer higher alcohol stouts when straying from lagers!
One of Good Robot’s brewers hails from the Bahamas, and through their sub-brand FlavaBot, they celebrate Bahamian culture through beer, food, and entertainment. A recently brewed coconut stout paired spectacularly with jerk beef. “We just did a Jerk cooking event with them,” says Counsil. “And had a bunch of beers on tap that worked with various foods—all Carribean inspired.”
KEEP YOU COOL; YOUR TONGUE’S THE TOOL!
Pairing guidelines only go so far; the ultimate pairing is what makes you happy. According to Counsil, the pairing method at Good Robot is less about pairing with food, more about pairing with people. “We’ll put the food pairings on the beer menu, but we also teach our staff, more importantly, how to pair with an emotion,” something important to keep in mind when brewing new beers on the regular.
But Rudi Brooks, of Rudi’s Hot Sauce, states it best: “When it comes to beer and spicy foods, there should be no rules. Both are amazing, both are versatile, and the more you drink, the more spice you think you can handle.”