If you’re new to the world of food pairing, and most men are, you may be negatively associating the term with the last charity gala your wife or girlfriend dragged you to. You remember, it was the one where you dropped $100 just to walk in the door, and stood around with a tiny plate of cheese in one hand and a half empty glass of wine in the other, thinking to yourself ‘I wish I had a steak and a beer!’
But food pairing doesn’t have to be that un-manly, should NEVER be that expensive, and doesn’t even have to include wine. In fact, food and beer pairing events are fast becoming the norm at rib shacks, steak houses and backyard barbeques across the nation.
So the next time you and the guys get together to enjoy some savory grilled meats and knock back some cold brew, remind yourself that you’re not just wasting your weekend (or your brain cells) away. Instead you’ll be engaging in the highly refined, cultural art of learning how to pair beer with you BBQ! Here’s a beginner’s guide to help get you started:
Ask some key questions. As you may have learned in college, beer isn’t cheap. And after your first trip down the meat aisle, you’ll quickly realize that neither are ribs and brisket. With this in mind, there are always three main questions to consider when pairing beer and BBQ: What do you want to eat? What do you want to drink? And, how much do you want to spend? The answers of course will depend on your mood, appetite and budget. But there is literally no end to the types of food and beer pairings that can be enjoyed with BBQ. Just don’t get too carried away!
Start slow. Limiting yourself to trying ONLY a couple of different types of beers each time out is essential. Having too many different tastes competing with your BBQ can cloud your senses and cause you to miss out on an otherwise delightful pairing experience. Besides, gourmet beer can be expensive (it’s usually not served in aluminum cans or 40 oz. bottles) and you don’t want to end up overwhelming both your senses and your budget!
Prioritize. Hardcore partying and food pairing are never a good mix. Especially when it comes to consuming BBQ. While you’ll definitely be feeling the effects of the alcohol, food and beer pairing is more about getting gourmet, not getting drunk. So pick one over the other, and decide if you want to savor the time spent behind the grill, or drink your dinner and go to bed. If your plan is to party rather than pair, no one will think any less of you. But do yourself a favor and save the fancy pairing beer for a meal you’ll actually remember.
Go with what you know! When first starting on your beer and BBQ pairing adventure, it’s always best to go with what you know. Chances are this will include your common variety burgers, sausages, steaks and ribs, served with a cooler full of beer. When serving typical BBQ fare, any basic American pale lager (Budweiser, Michelob, Miller, Coors etc.) will provide a nice buzz and be popular with guests. Even popular foreign lagers (Heineken, Foster’s, Moosehead, Dos Equis etc.) will mix well with most heavy BBQ dishes (ribs, tri-tip, steak, brisket, carne asada etc.). You won’t be doing much to enhance your palate with these types of lagers, but you also won’t upset it. However, instead of going with the more calorie conscious, and often cheaper, mass-produced beer selections, reach for the top shelf lagers which aren’t yet household names. Start buying your beer at Trader Joe’s and BevMo instead of 7-11 and CVS, and you’ll quickly taste the difference.
Make your menu. Many food and beer pairing experts will suggest letting the beer dictate your food menu. The idea being that only after taking the first few sips of that special ale, stout or porter will you truly get a sense of what it will pair with. But for beginners this can be completed, especially if you’re still exploring your palate. Instead, pick your dish, buy your meat (in this case beef or pork), and then visit the beer aisle.
Pairing beer with BBQ beef. There are two basic things to take into consideration whenever pairing beer and BBQ. The first is your meat’s fat content. The second, is the sweetness of the sauce and side dishes you will be serving. Decide to go with a menu of tri-tip dinner and sweet potatoes? Then you might try a sweeter pale ale, which will allow the beer’s maltiness to balance with the hops and pair well with the tanginess of the sauce. Some of these beers can even be used to form a tri-tip marinade, that when applied correctly, will leave you begging for more. Want to start slow and grill some T-bone steaks? Then you’ll want to be sure and pick a beer that will pair with the marinades and spices you plan on using. Medium bodied, and slightly sweet Vienna lagers are one choice to consider, as are the more common variety of Samuel Adams amber ales. Of course you could also just find a good stout beer, which traditionally pairs well with roasted, smoked and grilled meats.
Pairing beer with BBQ pork. If you “dig on swine”—and what BBQ connoisseur doesn’t—then knowing some basics about pairing beer with BBQ pork is essential! Again, with the large variety of BBQ pork dishes and available beers the possibilities are endless. But at the very least you should be prepared to pair with pulled pork, sausages and everybody’s favorite, ribs. When serving pulled pork (hopefully in a sandwich form) take into consideration the quality of the meat, bread and sauce you’ll be using. A fattier meat will tend to mix well with a beer containing a nice mix of malt, while strong hops (think pale ales) will mix with the tangy spices in the sauce. Sierra Nevada is one popular choice that will be easy to find, but don’t be afraid to venture into the world of top shelf brown ales with this dish. When it comes to sausages, there is perhaps no better culinary compliment than beer.
Many will say that the beer should be applied in the preparation process (think beer-soaked sausages over a charcoal grill). But why not do both? Just be sure to serve the same type of beer you use in the marinade with the meal. Again darker beers seem to work well with BBQ sausage, but if you’re not a fan of those, try serving a lighter lager or ale. Just don’t make the mistake or serving lighter sausage with darker beer. When it comes to ribs, you never want to fill up too much on beer and not be able to take down your full slab! With this in mind going with a pilsner, which are typically lighter with less alcohol content, will allow you to savor your meal more. Plus, the tartness of most pilsners will pair nicely with your sauce for a delicious after taste.
Always seize you opportunities. Remember, anytime barbecued meats and beer are being served together, you have an opportunity to refine your palate. You aren’t going to master the art of food and beer pairing overnight. It will take time and experimentation, so make a point to try a new type of ale, lager, pilsner or stout each time you light up the grill. Eventually you’ll find a combination you enjoy.