By Greg B. Beer and pizza is a natural combination. There are few comfort foods and relaxing evenings like coming home on a Friday, ordering a pizza grabbing some beer and just enjoying an evening, either by yourself after a long work week or with a few friends. But what beer goes best with pizza? I answer this question we have to take a moment and ponder what exactly is ‘Pizza’? (photo courtesy of www.sxc.hu) quick note: This post was going to be short, pick a good beer with pizza, but I rapidly learned I’m very opinionated on this topic, so it became rather long and more of a guide to picking a beer to pair with pizza than a simple ‘beer and pizza’ post. Enjoy at your leisure!
The Italians may have invented the precursor to what we consider pizza today. And sure, a small crusted Margharita pizza, with it’s randomly placed pieces of mozzarella and tangy sauce was the first (and some consider, the best) pizza. But in my humble and in no-way biased ex-New Yorker opinion, New York pizza is where pizza reached the pinnacle of it’s existence (and Chicago is where pizza went to die, and be reborn as something entirely different. Much like a zombie, bizarro version of it’s one delicious NY-style self). Cooked in extremely hot, coal-fired ovens, with an uber thin and crispy bottom crust but a slightly chewy outer crust, a tangy red sauce and covered in a flat expanse of mozzarella cheese (and your favorite topping, of course), cooked in the fire until the top is brown… that’s where it’s at. When you pick up a slice and fold it to eat it, you want to hear the ‘crunch’ of the crust on the bottom. And when you bite it, there should be a seamless texture from the soft cheese on top to the crisp bottom crust, where in the middle you have not a ton of sauce so it drips everywhere, but just enough sauce to keep the upper most part of the thin bottom crust moist. And each slice should be large, wide and long. Enough so that two slices and you’re full (though no one stops there). Not this thick weird combo of lasagna-meets-pizza you get in Chicago. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a calorie ingestion paradise and it’s a wonderful thing to eat if you’re hammered, but NY pizza has the perfect combo of speed, old world charm, New World improvements upon Old World ideas (that’s what the US is all about!) and a good price point.
OK, with that rant off my chest, we’ve identified some of the elements that make a pizza a good pizza.
- Crispy crust, and not too much of it.
- Tangy red sauce (not too much)
- Served hot, with melted and kind of stringy cheese (who wants it ridiculously stringy? That’s just not NY style efficiency)
Now, what beer do you want with this? There are those out there who would recommend that cheap stuff. ’there aint nuthin like an ice cold bud lite’. Or those apologists who try to step down off their beersnob pedestal to mingle with with common folk by admitting ‘well, sometimes you just want a miller lite to wash down your food, and with pizza, your choice of beer doesn’t matter’. Or even better (read as; more absurd) those who say ‘go for the cheap stuff, bud lite, miller lit or keystone lite. they wont fill you up like other imports or domestics so you can eat more pizza’ or even the ‘pick miller lite, the subtle hops wont overpower the pizza’.
Excuse me, but if you think pizza flavor is at risk of being overpowered by a beer, so you choose one of these corn sugar infused flavorless domestic varieties, you’re eating the wrong pizza my friend.
These folks are wrong. Beer preference may be a matter of taste and opinion, you may enjoy stouts versus a good pale ale, or a barley wine to a lambic, but when it comes to pairing beers with foods, you begin to enter the realm of science. And while I’m not an expert, I’m going to lay out for you some guidelines that will help you choose the best beer for your pizza, so you get the most out of your meal and relaxing time!
Plain or ‘regular’ style Pizza
With this pizza, you have the bare elements of the food. The wheaty crust, the tangy sauce and the fatty melted cheese (as well as basil and oregano lurking in the background). But what beer would you drink with this? I’d recommend a beer with some hops. You want some bitterness to cut through all those carbs, which are going to be rapidly converted into sugars in your mouth and you’re going to need something to cut through the residue left behind in the mouth by the fatty and greasy cheese. In my opinion, pale ales shine through as the better beers in this case. While not usually as hoppy as an IPA or a double IPA, they normally pack a good amount of bitterness. And rather than pour out an IPA which will obliterate the fats and the flavors of the beer, an pale ale will actually help you refresh and cleanse the palate while lifting up the flavors of the pizza with the flavors of the hops. No hop bomb is needed here, just a nice tango of flavors, on complimenting the other while refreshing the mouth. Notable pale ales to eat with a slice of regular pizza would be, of course, Sierra Nevada Pale ale which is possibly the king of American pale ales. Or Dale’s pale ale, which might be slightly heavy on the fruitier hops but will still command a good presence for the beer. Or even Brooklyn Brewery’s pennant ale, if you’re in the neighborhood.
The other option with a regular style slice of pizza is to shy away from the American style pale ales and go Old World. Grab a lager. But not just any lager, we don’t want the macro-brewed, corn-sugar based flavorless carbonated yellow stuff. Get a lager that’s real. Many of the German or Polish style lagers use Noble varieties of hops, and these tend to smell a little ‘skunky’, but they have a nice bite to them. If you’re looking less to match flavors and refreshment in your beer/pizza encounter, check out a pilsener or a lager. Pilsener Urquel is a classic, but if you’re eating NY style pizza, there actually happens to be a great brewery in town that’ll do the job. Brooklyn brewery makes some great beers, and their Pilsener go nicely with the pizza. More pure, clean beer flavors finishing with some hop bite and a high level of carbonation make these beers the go-to for mouth-cleansing action.
Alternatively, you have yet another option. Given how vast the field of beers are, there are seemingly infinite amounts of beers from which to pick. In the first paragraph here, I mentioned how an American pale ale will do nicely to cut the fat and grease but pair well with the spices and flavors of the pizza. In the second, I mentioned how a light lager will really be refreshing, but will do less to enhance flavors, and more to let you enjoy the singular taste of the beer. But there is another option. If you want to enhance the flavor and leave minimal ‘cutting’ power, beer will do the trick. More malty, full bodied and very flavorful beers will really help you enjoy the bread, thick and hearty nature of pizza. And if you pick one that is highly carbonated, you can create a pairing that will be a flavor explosion but also help cut the grease and be refreshing. In this category, Belgian beers come to mind, though German darker lagers stand out also. A stein full of an Marzen or Oktoberfest style beer and an entire pizza may seem like a daunting meal (and possibly an immediate heart attack) but I assure you it’ll be a great pairing for a final dinner. For Belgian beers, I think the natural spiciness of their abbey ales work nicely to enhance the spices and zesty flavors in the pizza’s sauces. Plus they’re heavily carbonated, and this will help refresh your mouth between bites (or slices… however fast you eat!). I’d recommend something like a Chimay red for the ultimate Belgian, spicy beer with pizza, but a Duvel goes nicely as well.
Meat Toppings on the Pizza
We Americans like to get all our calories in one sitting. And when we dine on pizza, we tend to pile on the foods. Meats, spices, cheeses, grease, etc. And there are few classic style NY pizzas like Pepperoni. When it comes time to pick a pie to order with friends, the usual standby options are plain or pepperoni. And who could blame people? Tiny delicious slices of spicy preserved meat, cooked among a bed of cheese… it’s basically the perfect food (or, perfect for immediate caloric intake, like our brains evolved to search for). But what beer would go best with this style?
We’ve already talked about the basics above. Hops to cut fat, American hops to pair with the herbs on the pizza, European hops in clean lagers to cleanse palate, and more malty, spicy beers to do less cleansing and more flavor enhancing. But meats tend to do interesting things to pizza. While they make them more greasy, you would naturally lean towards the rules above. But I should caution you. A pizza with some spicy pepperoni or sausage (and maybe a little red pepper added… fine, quite a few dashes of red pepper) is great with a clean, crisp pale lager of some sort, but with an American pale ale, the hops tend to accentuate the spices available. So this becomes a matter of opinion. Do you add 10 dashes of red pepper to your slice, and pour our a pale ale or IPA, cleaning your palate but increasing the level of spice to the equivalent of 20 dashes, or do you add 5 and hope for the flavor equivalent of 10? The choice is yours, but proceed with caution (or enthusiasm, if spice is your thing!). But in general, I’d recommend a nice clean lager, something in the pilsener variety. These hops will add a bite at the end to help erase the fat but wont interact much with the flavors in the pizza, letting you savor each bite of meaty, cheese, doughy goodness.
When it comes to anchovies, the same rules apply. Check out a crisp, cold lager. You’re going to need it’s fat cutting power to get through the delicious grease that little fish somehow packs into its little self!
But this is the time when a full fledged, malty full-bodied beer really shines. A solid brown ale or nut brown ale will do nicely. Newcastle nut brown? A good choice. RJ Rocker’s Brown ale? A good choice. Corsendonk Brown ale? A good choice. All these beers carry with them a similar mindset. They are not hoppy, they are not particularly clean and refreshing, but they are malty. This malt will cool the heat and mingle extremely well with the dough nature of pizza. Brown ales tend to have great toasted malt flavors, and this will go extremely well with the oven roasted dough and cooked meats with caramelized flavors in the pizza.
Vegetable Toppings on the Pizza
We cant all eat meat pizza every day (well, we could, but we probably shouldn’t!) and sometimes when you feel like you want to be particularly ‘healthy’ (right, you’re adding veggies to your carb/fat dinner. Healthy? ) you’ll pick some toppings. The vegetable toppings I mostly get tend to be peppers and onions, though the occasional mushroom or eggplant, diced tomatoes, jalapeno (consider this more spicy/less vegetable, see the meat pizza section for how to deal with this) or olives (I guess these are fruit… but whatever) also have found their way onto my pizza. How should one proceed in this situation, with regard to finding a suitable beer?
Vegetables can be tricky, a lot of the time they get overpowered by the flavor pizza itself, which in turn means in this context they might very well be overpowered by the flavor of the beer you choose. But with these vegetables cooking, roasting in a hot coal fired oven, you have the same rules that tend to apply above. With the caramelized flavors of the vegetables, you’ll want a nice toasty beer. A brown ale, a light porter or even the ubiquitous, catch-all category of American beer, the Amber ale. These beers all tend to feature a toasted or roasted and caramelized malt profile, which is exactly the flavor that these vegetables bring to the table. If you’re mixing meats and veggies, the Amber ale may be the best style, since it is well carbonated, tends to be medium hopped and also features the roasted malt characteristics that go so well with roasted foods. As a more ‘out there’ choice for beer style, I even enjoy some, but not all types of dunkelweisse beer. These beers can be more sweet than you’d want for a pizza beer, but a lot of the time they’ll really have a great toasty flavor to them. They’re also extremely filling, so you can make a solid meal from a pint of dunkelweisse, like the one made by Clipper City, and two slices of pizza.
Fruit Toppings on Pizza
Seriously. Who does this? Go back to California for ‘California style’ pizza or your Hawaiian “pizza”. Whatever that is.
And this about wraps up the beer and pizza lesson! There’s a lot more thought that can go into combining the best beverage with one of the best foods. To sum it up, if it’s spicy, pick an Old world light lager or a nice malty ale. If it’s got vegetable toppings, a beer with caramelized flavors like a brown ale. If it’s a regular slice, a good American pale ale will really do the trick. I encourage you all to experiment to find what kind of beer you personally prefer with pizza, but the basics of pairing beer and pizza are explained above. You can begin to apply these rules to other foods as well, just think about the flavors you want in the meal and those in the beer. Do you want to contrast? Do you want to combine? Do you want to refresh? Or have a flavor explosion? One of the best assets of beer is that it is much cheaper than wine in price, so you can purchase several bottles and enjoy different profiles of the same food, even in the same pizza. Happy eating! (and drinking!)