Beer, Not Bordeaux: The New Trend in Food and Drink Pairings

Beer, the next big thing in fine dining (photo by Getty)Put a cork in that Malbec, because the biggest trend in food and beverage pairings is beer. And we're not talking about a Michelob with hot wings. There are more than 2,300 craft breweries in the United States today, each creating innovative and unique styles and blends. In fact, these artisanal brews now account for 30 percent of the suds sold by Costco. Restaurants, breweries, and pubs across the country are pairing gourmet dishes with esoteric beers redolent of caramel, pine, figs and other funky flavors. Even the upscale resort chain Four Seasons has launched Beerfest, a worldwide campaign to promote craft beers by serving dishes like Peruvian ceviche and sweet potatoes paired with a citrusy pale ale.

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This may all sound a tad snobby, but the exciting thing is that beer, true to its blue-collar roots, is accessible and democratic. It's also a bargain: trying an unfamiliar wine in a restaurant could set you back 50 bucks, while ordering a mug of locally produced Pumpkin Ale might cost $5.

For those in need of a crash course, beer—made from malted grains—comes in two types: ale and lager. There are hundreds of different varieties of each, so there's a brew for every palate. Joshua M. Bernstein, author of a new book, The Complete Beer Course, says it's a far more forgiving drink than wine and urges people to experiment. "The carbonation and bitterness excel when paired with food," he tells Yahoo Shine.

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While the flavor of wine can be easily overpowered by an uncomplementary food, beer is sturdier and more flexible. Bernstein says it comes down to one's individual preferences and a little common sense. You wouldn't accompany a fresh-seafood appetizer or spring-vegetable salad with a heavy stout, for example, but many dishes will work with a variety of beers.

Cory Cuff, the manager of Cielo Restaurant and Bar at the Four Seasons in St. Louis, who recently hosted a popular Facebook chat, Sommelier on Call, and swapped beer for wine advice, suggests looking at the color of the beer to get started. In general, lighter food goes with lighter-colored, crisper beers. "Try a beer that mimics the intensity of the dish," he tells Yahoo Shine. "Let's say we are having some roast chicken, which has crunchy skin, succulent proteins, and salty seasoning, I like Extra Special Bitter," a medium-bodied, copper-colored beer with fruity flavors. For a rich, braised dish like lamb shanks, he'd select a more complex, darker-colored brew.

Bernstein adds that the next step in exploring food-and-beer pairings is playing around with what he calls the "three C's:" cut, compare, and contrast. An acidic beer can cut through heavy dishes to cleanse the palate. "Compare" refers to choosing a beer and food with similar tasting notes, such as a deeply flavored Imperial Stout with flourless chocolate cake. Contrasting flavors can work too, such as a briny oyster accompanied by Irish Dry Stout, which has a lighter body and creamy flavor.

Both experts advocate asking questions at beer-centric bars or restaurants, particularly since most people find this far less intimidating than displaying their lack of knowledge about wine. And if there is draft beer on tap, don't be shy about requesting a taste before plunking your dollars on the bar. "The whole culture of beer is 100 percent about tasting and educating people and getting them behind it as a pairing liquid with food," says Cuff.

Drinking beer has always been a communal experience that cuts across class lines and is more important than any particular brew, says Bernstein. "I go to a bar to talk to the bartender and with friends … and just enjoy the moment," he says. While he speaks with passion about tiny American breweries that are winning awards and influencing tastes around the world, he adds, "If you love your Budweiser, great." Cheers to that!

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