As summer draws near, it brings with it two unshakable constants of warm weather: beer and grilling. This is not surprising as they are some of the oldest traditions in human history, however, I think our ancestors would be jealous of the diverse options for both categories we enjoy today! So, how do you know which beer to pair with that sweet baby back rib?
Let’s be honest, ANY beer with ANY barbeque is going to be better than the sad, cold sandwich you had for lunch, but to truly leverage the flavors of the beer and the grill is to unlock a symphony of taste that makes both components even more mouthwatering. There are generally two directions you can go to pair beer with grilled foods; using comparative flavors or contrasting flavors.
Comparative flavor pairing highlights flavors that are similar in both the beer and the food, like matching a sour vinaigrette with a sour beer, and builds depth and complexity to the strongest flavors of both. Contrasting flavor pairing highlights flavors that are opposite, like matching the highly roasted dark malt of a stout with the earthiness of root vegetables, and brings out new, subtle or hidden flavors of each. In this article, we will be focusing on the latter, the contrasting flavor pairings.
Let’s start with a ubiquitous grill resident, the humble hamburger. Traditionally, a light lager or pale ale is the usual pairing, although neither do much to highlight the flavors of the burger or even the beer itself. Now, what if we paired the burger with a highly hopped American Double IPA? The intense bitterness of the beer will cut through the fats of the burger and accentuate its meaty, salty flavor. In turn, the bread and fat of the burger will undercut the bitterness of the beer revealing more of the citrusy or piney hop aromas and flavors. Each component, the burger and the beer, have a distinct flavor and experience on their own, but together, they create a totally new and exciting flavor experience, which is the beauty of contrasting pairings.
Now let’s consider another staple of the summer grill, grilled chicken. Since there are so many ways to prepare grilled chicken, the beer pairing options are nearly endless. Like your chicken spicy? Try a Helles. The lighter flavor of the beer will help to reduce the burn of the heat and showcase more of the gentle herb and subtle spice flavors of the chicken. How about sweet? Try a dry, fruity Saison or dry Belgian. The dry alcohol of the beer will cut the sweetness of the chicken and in turn, the sweetness of the chicken will bring out the peppery, spicy flavors of the beer. Pro tip: avoid assertive beers like IPAs or sours as they will overpower the mild taste of the chicken.
Seafood, one of my favorites for grilling. Shellfish are wonderful on the grill and the char on the skin of a perfectly grilled salmon is one of the true joys in this world. Because seafood is generally mild and delicate in flavor, Pilsners and pale lagers, which are also mild, are usually the prefered pairing. However, why not try a tart Berliner-Weiss or Gose? This is the ‘beer equivalent’ to using lemon juice to cut the fat of the seafood and reveal the true flavor of the fish. You’ll get the same effect and bonus, drink more beer!
Now to the ‘meat’ of BBQ (if you will)... Pork. This undersung hero is possibly the greatest (in my humble opinion), meat for grilling. There are so many delicious ways to cook it, smoke it, spice it, and/or sauce it, I could spend hours describing (and drooling over) all of the great regional BBQ styles. To avoid brawls over which sauce or preparation is best, let’s just stick to the basics (smoked, spicy, vinegar and sweet) and set up some guidelines for pairing.
For slow-cooked, smoked pork, try a nice dry stout or porter. The intense roast of the dark malts of the beer will intensify the smoke flavor of the pork and the dry alcohol bite will help to cut the fats. Avoid too much beer-based sweetness though, as this will cover up some of the smokey goodness you have spent hours achieving and no one wants tears on their pork.
A good, spicy, dry rub is a thing of true beauty. This is another style that will pair well with a lighter lager like a Helles. The beer will cool the burn and show off that coveted family spice blend recipe.
Vinegar based sauces are a staple of eastern BBQ and can be tricky to pair. I would recommend trying a sweeter beer with these. A rich, malty porter or amber will contrast the bite of the vinegar and the sweeter malts will add depth to the sauce.
Sweet, tomato based sauces are perfect for your IPAs and American pales. The intense bitterness and dryness of the beer will not only cut through the sugar of the sauce, but the hops will also add an amazing new depth to it. Not into IPAs? A dry Saison is also a great choice. The alcohol will lessen the sweetness of the sauce and the fruity esters play wonderfully with the spice and fat from the pork.
Now that you know a thing or two about using contrasting flavors to enhance your total meal experience. Don’t be afraid to try different pairings... who knows, maybe you’ll discover a combination that makes it into the annals of time. So go forth, be adventurous, and, most importantly, use that grill!