One of the most peculiar aspects of the Philadelphia culinary scene — and one of the most celebrated — is its abundance restaurants allowing diners to bring their own bottles. Hundreds of BYOB spots are located around the city, with plenty in the suburbs too.
BYOB’s have plenty of upsides; there’s no markup on alcohol, and the kitchen staff is focused solely on food, so it can be a better dining experience. The catch is that the diners who want more than a soft drink have to put in the work of selecting the right match for their meal. And that’s a lot of pressure.
Yes, we know to drink red wine with red meat, and white wine with fish, but with craft beer increasingly popular and plentiful, I got to wondering how to choose the best beer for your BYOB.
So, I spoke to two beer experts. Jonathan Oldt is the regional sales manager for Philadelphia Brewers and Bottlers, which includes Philadelphia Brewing Company, Commonwealth Ciders, and some smaller breweries. And Gabriel Vazquez is the director of operations for Philadelphia Brewers and Bottlers. Between them, they have nearly 30 years in the beverage industry.
Though they were game to advise on pairings, Vazquez offered a disclaimer. “I always tell people there’s no rules,” he said. “You like what you like. Nothing really matters. If you want to drink a pilsner with everything you eat, that’s perfect.”
Vazquez and Oldt have refined their palates through years of experimentation, and they don’t want to rob others of that experience. “That’s the fun part, the trial-and-error aspect,” Oldt says. “You get to find what works best for you.”
But if you’re trying to find the perfect pairing for your next night out and don’t have a decade and a half to play around, they have some recommendations.
For traditional Italian, Vazquez and Oldt recommend an American-style pale ale with a malt backbone to it. “You want something big and bold that’s going to stand out with all that big, bold flavored food,” says Vazquez. “The high ABV [alcohol by volume] is going to cut through a lot of the fat.” Oldt says anything in the range of 6-9 percent alcohol by volume would be best. The caramel malt and the citrus and pine notes from the hops should also complement the typical Italian flavor profile — sharp cheeses, creamy pasta, and acidic tomato.
If you’re eating something spicy, you probably want something you can drink a lot of, something light and easy to drink … a pilsner or a light lager. With a more complex dish, though, you might want a beer with a little more going on.
“Some breweries have started making a style called Mexican stout, with chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, maybe add a little heat with some poblano peppers,” Oldt says.
It’s a combination of flavors reminiscent of mole, a traditional Mexican sauce made with peppers, fruit, spices, and sometimes chocolate. “Some moles are curing for months,” says Vazquez. “They get all those deep flavors, so get something rich with spices in it too.”
All of these categories cover a fairly broad range of flavors, but Chinese food is perhaps the most diverse. To that end, your pairings can be a little more varied as well. “If I was getting dim sum in Chinatown, I’d drink across the board,” Vazquez says. “Try this, try that.”
Oldt concurs. “Go for something like a specialty ale, something that’s brewed with ginger or more of an herbal factor to it,” he says. “Or you can go with a nice hearty lager. It kind of runs the gamut.”
Modern American and vegan
If you’re eating something heavy like a burger and fries, you probably want a beer that will cut through the grease. “You want something a little higher acid,” Vazquez says. “Something with a little more hop to it, a little more bite.”
If not, you can find something to complement that heaviness. “Maybe like a thick German-style lager, an Oktoberfest, or a porter,” Oldt suggests. “Get all those flavors, the nuttiness out of it.”
Same goes if, in place of beef, you’re eating a veggie or soy burger.
For Greek and other Mediterranean cuisine with a similar flavor profile — think good olive oil, lemon, yogurt, and fresh greens and tomatoes — they recommend a Czech-style pilsner or a Belgian white. “Belgian whites usually have a lot more citrus character to them,” Oldt says. “A little bit more balanced from the yeast, which you’ll get a lot of banana and clove out of.”
Because this sort of cuisine tends to be clean and bright, it’s wise to avoid anything too powerful. “You want those flavors to be unencumbered,” Vazquez says. “Those wheats almost act like an accent to it, like a squeeze of lemon might be.”
For the vivid, piquant flavors of Indian cuisine, something with a creamier taste can be the ideal pairing. “It’s the reason why they give you yogurt with a lot of those dishes,” Vazquez says. “To smooth out a lot of those flavors.”
A nitro British-style pale ale is the sort of beer that could work well. Oldt recommends “something that’s going to be less malt-forward, very heavy on the hop side, with lots of citrus and pine notes and lots of fruity flavors depending on the style.”
Whether it’s fried clams or a wood-grilled catch of the day, salt is seafood’s best friend. A salty gose is a safe bet. “Some breweries make specialty beers with like, Old Bay added to it,” Oldt says, though he concedes that seasoning might be a bit of overkill.
Either way, something on the drier side is the way to go. “A flavored cider would add to it with that fermented little splash to it, without taking away any of the flavor from the delicate seafood,” Vazquez says.
“I would never think sushi and beer,” Vazquez says. “But if I did, I’d want something as clean as possible.” That makes sense given the simplicity and subtlety common to sushi. When Oldt eats sushi, he typically pairs it with a Japanese rice lager, which has a softer palette. An herbal or ginger brew could also work well.
Vietnamese cuisine, which tends to favor lemongrass, ginger, mint, and other herbs, offers a lot of options for pairings. Oldt recommends something with a strong herbal component or something more fruit-forward, perhaps a one-off specialty ale.
A strong Belgian golden ale could also work well. “It’s going to have some different notes in there, some spiciness,” Oldt says. Sometimes those notes complement the flavors of the dish, and sometimes they overlap. “Vietnamese food uses a lot of papaya,” Vazquez says. “You get a lot of those notes from a lot of Belgian ales.”