There is a general question that occurs to us when we entertain regarding beverages. It is "What beverage(s) are best for this event given the foods that will be served?" There can be no single answer as guests may or may not want to consume alcohol, some of the guests may be children, some guests may like beer and others wine. The home chef wants the selection of beverages to complement the specific food(s) being served whether any individual guest wants or does not want a beverage containing alcohol. This means a brief look at the types of food and the corresponding complementary beverages can be useful.
I am not attempting to provide an exhaustive list of beverage types. What I am doing in this discussion is to suggest types of beverages that are often favored with certain types of food. To complicate matters, the enjoyment of sweeter beverages is related to age, in which, for instance, young adults will tend to favor light sweet wines while some older folks will favor drier wines with more intense flavor. This latter truth has nothing to do with the food being served. Similarly, other than water children tend to drink only two basic types of beverages Ö milk in any form or fruit drinks, carbonated as in sodas or non-carbonated as in fruit juices and punches. Young adults too young to be offered alcoholic beverages often favor stronger tasting carbonated beverages like colas or root beer.
With the above caveats I will now attempt to provide some useful generalities. To experienced chefs these will be "no-brainers." Here is one quick piece of advice: Enjoy mixed alcoholic drinks as you will, but in general they are not suitable for serving at meals as they get you drunk if consumed in quantities necessary to quench thirst. Thus, this discussion does not cover mixed alcoholic drinks in any context. I enjoy mixed drinks as much as anyone but they do not belong at the table for maximum enjoyment of the food. The exception is at cocktail parties where horís douvres are served.
The taste intensity of a beverage should match the taste intensity of the most highly seasoned or naturally strongly flavored food. Thus, a beer with strong flavor (like Heineken™) goes well with intense flavor foods like chili con carne, while lemonade and iced tea or even white wine spritzers (wine and Sprite™ or 7-UP™) are perfect for light salads and delicately flavored soups like seafood bisques. Lighter tasting beers like Corona™ are perfect with tortilla chips and salsa. Hot freshly made coffee complements sweet pastry or pudding or pie desserts.
A beverage basically has two purposes at a meal. The first is to quench thirst, either with something neutral like ice water or with something flavorful that also contrasts with the flavor of the food while still being complementary. The second is to clear the palate so that the next bite or bites of food will provide the most intense taste and comparative texture. In other words, if we consume a whole steak or bowl of chili without taking sips of a suitable beverage after every few bites we will actually miss out on a lot of the flavor and aroma available from the food due to overwhelmed taste buds and olfactory (nose) overload. A spoonful of a creamy soup or bisque is appreciated more after a sip of a light neutral white wine, like a French white burgundy or a Pinot Grigio.
Note that breads work well in combination with beverages to provide contrasts in texture and taste and to reset your taste buds and your nose. Thus it is wise to provide breads, crackers and the like that also complement the beverages as well as the food entrees and side dishes. If a cracker has an intense flavor then it should be served with a light tasting cheese and/or meat and vice versa, and the beverage should not compete with the intense flavor. This does not mean the beverage has to be mild, but it must live in its own flavor world. The perfect example is the dessert of Port wine, Stilton cheese and fresh fruit like pears and white grapes. The wine has intense and sweet flavor, while the cheese has intense and comparatively dry bleu/cheddar flavor and texture. The light moist fruit clears the palate for the next sips of wine and bites of cheese, making this sequence of eating very enjoyable. A neutral tasting cracker is a nice addition with that dessert.
Most of us have heard about using red wines with red meats and white wines with fowl, white meats like veal and pork, and seafood. That is good advice and beyond the basic advice is the selection of the red or white wine that addresses the age of the guests but more importantly the intensity of the taste of the entrée. This means a Cabernet Sauvignon that works well with an intensely flavored grilled steak is less appropriate for a lightly seasoned lamb chop. There a lighter red wine like a Merlot or a Pinot Noir or a Malbec is more appropriate so as not to overpower the taste of the lamb chop. The seasoning used with fowl or pork or seafood should help determine the selection of white wine. More tart Chardonnay is right for creamy dishes, while buttery Chardonnay is best for more highly seasoned dishes. White Burgundy, Fume Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are excellent choices also as they are more neutral in taste and will clear the palate without in any way competing with delicately or strongly flavored fowl, veal, pork or seafood. They leave a clean and neutral aftertaste.
Sweeter wines like Riesling also have a place, for some of our foods accentuate sweetness and sometimes also tartness, thus the complementary aspect is best realized with a Riesling wine. For example, wiener schnitzel with hot German potato salad and hot pickled red cabbage provide a neutral and sweet and tart environment that calls for a white wine that will not contrast too strongly with the food. Thus, Riesling is perfect. The cheaper white wines like Reunite Bianco™ that are relatively sweet and favored by younger adults with unsophisticated taste are better used just for drinking, so do not even attempt to match them with foods.
Blush wines like rosé or Zinfandel are true neutral territory and they can be used without much concern regardless of the entrée being served. This is true because those wines do not have intense flavor or character and they cannot truly be called reds or whites. They are simply there in a kind of non-participation sort of way other than to cleanse the palate and/or quench thirst. That does not mean they arenít good in their own right in terms of beverage taste. Rosé díAnjou is a light French rosé wine with only 10.5 percent alcohol that has excellent clean taste and is perfect with poultry or creamy seafood dishes.
Sangria is the perfect beverage to provide fruity flavor, quench thirst and also provide some alcohol for a whole host of different foods. While sangria is based on red wine, the wine used is typically a mild, low alcohol content table wine, with light taste compared to other red wines. And sangria has a large component of fruit and fruit juice. Because sangria is best served chilled for taste it is best with highly seasoned food and hot foods. It is suitable for all guests regardless of age.
Chianti is a strongly flavored red wine produced and favored in Italy for pasta dishes that use intensely flavored red sauces of any type. In this instance, any wine with a milder or lighter flavor would simply be lost in terms of being able to taste it and thus appreciate the taste. Chianti is most inappropriate with Italian or French cooking that features white sauces or delicate seafood, like linguine carbonara or veal piccata or veal Marsala or linguine with white clam sauce or mussels in white wine and butter and garlic. Use light white wines like Pinot Grigio for those dishes.
Now we take a brief look at beers and ales. Basically they come in four types in terms of flavor and carbonation and alcohol content. Light beers like Coors Light™ are low in alcohol, carbohydrates and taste. Carbonation is also typically light. They quench thirst best and they compete with nothing so they are suitable if not very exciting for almost any dish that is not sweet. In general, almost all beers are bad choices for sweet foods, with a few like Bock beer or stout excepted for certain foods. Musty strong beers like Heineken™ and most stout beers are best used with intensely flavored foods. Lagers like Corona™ are suitable for most any use except sweet foods, as lagers have some character without intense flavor. Utility beers like Budweiser™ are harsh with carbonation and medium in flavor and best used with foods like salty French fries and hamburgers. The very finest beers are made in Europe, like Budvar™, and those beers are for true beer aficionados who simply want to taste the beer. Top quality European beers should seldom be used while eating any food other than light salty snacks as it is a waste of great beer. Ales come in many varieties, like beers, and you drink those simply to get more alcohol, and sometimes more intense taste. Ales are not suitable for delicately flavored foods.
Non-alcoholic beverages are usually best for desserts with the possible exception of after dinner liqueurs. The earlier remarks about complementing the tartness or sweetness or neutrality of any given food with a corresponding beverage apply to non-alcoholic beverages in the same way. In general the more intense the character of the beverage the more intense the flavor of the food should be and vice versa. This means mild drinks like iced tea can be adapted in strength, sweetness and tartness (using lemon) to fit almost any food selection. Lemonade is very refreshing and it also can be a good fit with most foods provided tartness and sweetness are controlled to match the food being served. In short, there is no "right" recipe for iced tea or lemonade as both can be adapted to the event. They are versatile. Other non-alcoholic beverages are very much food dependent, like eggnog. Dairy products are typically neutral or sweet and they do not mingle well with tart foods. Sodas vary in taste intensity from utterly neutral like Sprite Zero™ to richly flavored colas and root beers and some orange sodas. Picking the right soda to go with any given food is primarily a matter of choice but if you have learned anything while reading this section you know to match light with light and strong with strong.
This concludes my general comments on beverages. Experience is the best way to learn about all beverages, so try drinking all types in the company of a lot of friends at a party you hold, with no food being served other than possibly some neutral crackers, simply to develop your knowledge of what people like, including yourself. Take time to discuss what foods might go best with the beverage you and your friends taste, and by all means write the conclusions for each beverage as it is discussed around the room. Keep the portions small lest you gain a house full of drunks! Minimize your cost by holding the event as a tasting party in which you assign each person or couple to bring a few specific beverages in quantities sufficient only for tasting by the group. Start with the lightest tasting beverages and conclude with the strongest tasting beverages, and use plain water between tastings to clear the palate.