Warning! This article contains gratuitous food descriptions. Do not read if hungry.
You like food, and you like IPAs.
So why not enhance both by pairing them harmoniously together?
Here’s my five-minute guide to IPA Food pairing. Master it, and there’s no IPA drinker you won’t be able to impress.
Not All IPAs Work Well for Food Pairing
One of the most fundamental principles of beer and food pairing is matching “intensity.”
In short, the food can’t be more powerful than the beer and vice versa. If you don’t nail this then nothing else in this guide matters.
That being said, you’ll generally find the most success with session- and regular-strength IPAs.
I find that double, triple, and quadruple IPAs have far too much flavor (whether that be bitterness, juiciness, sweetness, etc.) and ABV to play nicely with most dishes. They tend to completely dominate, and are best enjoyed outside the context of intentional pairing.
Compliment the Hop Flavors
Given we’re talking about IPAs, the hop flavor is the most obvious place to start.
From a food pairing perspective, the principle of “finding compliments” works well here. Your goal is to highlight similar flavors that exist in both the food and beer.
And fortunately modern American IPAs have such distinctly fruit-driven profiles that there’s plenty to work with.
For example, one of the coolest combinations I’ve tried to date was Reuben’s Brews Hazealicious® — a New England IPA — paired with Ceviche. The big citrus and mango of that beer resonated with the cured citrus of the fish and bed of mango cubes.
Or one of my personal favorites — a Citra session IPA with delicate, white fish tacos and a squeeze of lemon.
When you drive with this concept alone, the pairings are near endless.
Use the Carbonation and Brightness to Cut Fat
Generally, IPAs are fairly carbonated and carbonation is your friend when you’re dealing with fattier, creamier, and richer dishes.
The carbonation “cuts” through, helping to reset the palate between bites.
A classic American IPA like Dogfish Head 60 Minute has the perfect amount of carbonation and character to enhance Fish and Chips. Pick Tartar as your dipping sauce, and suddenly you’re also working complimentary flavors into the mix.
Embrace IPAs and Spicy Foods
Maybe the most surprising quality of an IPA is how well it pairs with spicy foods.
I’m not sure I would’ve ever naturally made this connection if it weren’t for Garret Oliver’s “The Brewmaster’s Table.”
In it, he recommends pairing IPAs with — wait for it — Thai and Indian cuisine. It may sound crazy, but I’m telling you, if you’ve never tried it you need to. It’s a game-changer.
The fortitude of a good IPA holds its own beside the rich flavors and intense spices. The carbonation cuts through any fat, helping to keep your dining experience at peak levels. There are even opportunities to create resonance between the hop profile and ingredients and seasonings typically utilized.
And beyond Thai and Indian, the fun with spice continues. For me, a solid IPA is my companion when I’m chowing down a dozen spicy, greasy wings at a bar at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday.
Lean into the Malt for An Extra Dimension
Another element that can come into play for pairing, especially for other beer styles, is the malt profile. By necessity, an IPA may have a larger grain bill than you may realize.
Some malts will come across biscuity. Others bready. Others caramel. And for some IPAs, all of the above.
This is where you need to analyze your beer and your food, and experiment. If you succeed you’ll reach another dimension.
For example, a spicy sausage calzone is taken to eleven with the right IPA. The bready malt resonates with the baked dough and the carbonation cuts through the greasiness to keep your palate receptive. Just don’t get too fruity with the hop profile.
To get more sophisticated, and to take a page out of Oliver’s book, an IPA is great with a traditional French Cassoulet. Cassoulet is basically the most over the top baked stew casserole available on earth. And that doesn’t quite do it justice.
It has beans, pork shoulder, duck confit, vegetables, and more. Not to mention it’s topped with a baked breadcrumb crust. There’s just so much that can happen — the breadcrumbs can play with the malt, and so can the roasted pork if it develops a little caramel-ness in process. Herbal hop qualities can interact with the seasonings. The carbonation cuts through the fat and richness.
My Cheatsheet of IPA Food Pairings
60 Minute IPA
Dogfish Head Brewery — Milton, DE
Pair with fish and chips. Don’t go easy on the tartar sauce.
Commodore Perry® IPA
Great Lakes Brewing Co. — Cleveland, OH
Pair with Chicken Tikka Masala.
What Your Frame of Mind Has Chosen
Trophy Brewing Co. — Raleigh, NC
Pair with Thai Street Basil Sauce with chicken. Get a side of vegetable spring rolls.
Hobo Life Session IPA
Lord Hobo Brewing Co. — Woburn, MA
Pair with white-fish fish tacos.
Reuben’s Brews — Seattle, WA
Pair with Ceviche.
Head Hunter IPA
Fat Heads Brewery — Middleburg Heights, OH
Pair with French cassoulet or a greasy, spicy calzone.