By Fred Crudder, Foodable Industry Expert
Backyard barbecues never tasted so good. No, not because of the elevated culinary interests of Americans far and wide (thank you, Food Network), but because a once simple part of the menu — the beer — is finally gaining the attention it deserves.
It used to be perfectly alright to stock a cooler full of whatever 30-pack was on sale that day. Not anymore. You can’t just put out a big ol’ bucket of boring anymore. Nobody wants that. So how do you pair great beers with your summertime masterpieces? It’s easy…
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When you pair beer with food, you need to remember a few simple tips: match up your strengths, and look for flavors that either compliment or contrast. Have a hearty dish of food? Don’t pick a delicate beer, and vice versa. You want the two to match each others’ flavor intensity, never letting one overpower the other.
Complimentary flavors could be something like an earthy English Pale Ale paired with a dish full of fresh summer herbs. Contrast could come in the form of a dish of berries topped with a sweet dollop of whipped cream, served with a sour beer from Belgium.
Beer has another component to take into account when pairing with food: carbonation. It is beer’s secret weapon that makes it superior to wine in many circumstances where it is paired with food. The carbonation in beer helps “scrub” the palate, leaving your taste buds fresh for another bite and another sip.
Let’s Get Cookin’
What’s the number one thing on the grill? Burgers. Easy to pair with beer? You bet. Beef loves a sturdy beer, so despite what you might be force fed through advertising, leave the golden hued beers alone for now.
More important than the burger though is what’s on top. A burger with cheddar and bacon? A nice, slightly hoppy American Pale Ale will stand up to everything that burger can throw at it, even the zesty mustard. Blue cheese burgers with grilled onions are going to want a dark, roasty Porter to temper the pungent cheese and sweet onions.
Cue the Oompah Band
If you are grilling bratwurst, it’s no secret that beer is going to be the right call. If you have milder sausages, go for an effervescent, herbal and lemony German Hefeweizen. The seasonings in the sausage will get along well with the clove notes in the beer, while the citrus notes match up with the mustard. Finally, the vigorous carbonation will clear up the fatty juices.
If you are going with more heavily flavored sausages, go with slightly heavier beers. One of the most versatile beers out there is a Vienna Lager (also called Amer Lager), and it is the perfect choice here. Light enough to be refreshing, malty enough to stand up to bold flavors, yet hoppy enough to not get lost in them.
I said “saucy,” not “sauced.” No one likes a sauced host, so don’t be one. I am talking about barbecue sauce. Everybody loves it. Beer loves it.
Remember that you need to match strengths, so no wimpy beers will do. Sweet, tangy, peppery barbecue sauce is crying out for a nice IPA, full of herbal, resinous hops and acidic enough to cut through the sweetness. This pairing will linger pleasantly on the palate long after you’ve brought the two together.
So, do lighter flavored beers even have a place at the barbeque? Of course they do. Tomatoes and basil flourish in the summertime, and a caprese salad is a great way to enjoy them. Pair that with a full-bodied lager, and you are in business my friend. The elements of the salad — sweet, herbal, tart — plus the smooth, mellow cheese will all love the crisp flavor imparted by the beer’s delicate level of hops. Nothing in the beer will overpower the fresh flavors of the salad, and the bubbles will scrub the cheese from your palate.
Deviled eggs. Do not have a barbeque without them. Just don’t. Do have a hoppy Pilsner on hand for the deviled eggs. Another light bodied beer, this one’s elevated hop levels will match up well with the zesty mustard and herbs you’ll add to the egg yolks. Make a big batch. These will go quickly.
’Tis the Saison
One of the most food friendly beers out there is a Belgian style called Saison. These rustic, light bodied, complex wheat beers have so many elements that make them great with food. They have a moderate hop level, so expect to taste the herbal, slightly bitter notes. The malts are light and bready, the yeast flavors are earthy and firm, and the high carbonation level makes them remarkably refreshing. Pair this with a pasta salad full of herbs, red bell peppers, olives, onions, and shrimp or chicken in a vinaigrette, and you’ll know you picked the right beer. A dish full of vibrant, diverse flavors needs a beer that is also multidimensional, yet not overpowering, and Saison is it.
You could also drink a Saison with well-seasoned grilled fish. Any citrus in the preparation will play well with the beer’s hoppy and wheaty elements. And the beer is light enough (even at around 7% ABV) to not overpower the fish.
Life Is Sweet
Desserts in the summer are typically fresh fruit or cold treats. Who’s baking a cake in the middle of August? Not this guy. If your dessert is fruity, my recommendation is a Belgian Triple. Light bodied yet strong, sweet but effervescent, with a clean, not cloying, finish. You have a beer that is not only going to match your dish’s intensity level, but the interplay between the food and the beer is sublime.
If you are going with ice cream, then we need to step over to the dark side for a minute. The rich, creamy flavors here are not interested in any hop character whatsoever. You don’t want those delicious hops, which go so well with savory foods, to clash with the ice cream. Go for a Brown Ale or possibly an Oatmeal Stout. Let the richness of the two combine into an irresistible force of deliciousness that is beyond decadent. Live a little. You’re worth it.
Yes, We Can
In case you haven’t noticed, good beer is all over the place in cans these days. Cans are actually a great, high quality package for beer. Unfortunately, only bad beer came in cans, so over time canned beer got a bad rap. Take everything you thought you knew about canned beer and throw it away. Buy some real beer in cans, open ’em up and see for yourself. You can now take real beer with you to the lake, the pool, the tailgate, and the beach. Real beer loves summertime and summer eats as much as you do.
Do yourself and your guests a favor and ditch that boring stuff. Summer — and life — is too short to drink bad beer.