Malt, yeast and hops create food-friendly drinks.

Malt, yeast and hops create food-friendly drinks.

In the heat of summer, most of my evenings are spent tending the grill, cold beer in hand. It's the perfect time to explore craft-brewed beers; those produced by independently-owned breweries making less than 2 million barrels annually. With endless flavors, aromas and textures, you can find a beer to pair with practically any food.

Recently I drove down to one of my favorite local breweries, Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury, Vermont (they also make Wolaver's Certified Organic Ales) to talk to their president/owner Morgan Wolaver and brewmaster Steve Parkes about pairing beer with food. "The main thing to remember is synergy rather than conflict," Steve says.

The three main ingredients in beer-malt, hops and yeast-are the elements to consider when pairing.

* Malt is sweet; it's often roasted, which caramelizes its natural sugars. "Beers like stouts and porters have coffee and chocolate notes from the malt, which pair beautifully with chocolate desserts," says Steve. And if you thought those beers are too dark for summer, their robust character also goes well with barbecued meats.

* The wide variety of hops used to flavor beer are either spicy, bitter or floral and frequently fruity. "If you're eating spicy food, there should be an element of spice in the beer you're drinking, think Mexican food with a hoppy India Pale Ale," Morgan suggests. Pale ales, less bitter than India Pale Ales (which were historically brewed with more hops to preserve them on long ocean voyages), are quite balanced and food-friendly.

* Then there's yeast, which is, well, yeasty. (Maybe that's why beer and pizza go so well together.) American wheat beers, Belgian witbiers and German hefeweizens generally have stronger yeast flavors and are great with lighter foods, like salads and seafood.

With more than 2 billion bottles of craft-brewed beer produced each year in the U.S., it can be overwhelming to know where to start. If you've only been drinking mass-produced beers and are looking to take a baby step, try a lighter beer, like a kölsch, lager or pilsner with a Chicken & Fruit Salad. Or go to the opposite extreme: "When someone new to craft beers says they like coffee, I immediately reach for a stout or porter," Morgan says. The rich flavors of both styles will be familiar to a coffee lover. Trying adding a scoop of homemade chocolate ice cream to a glass for an adult float.