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Taming Fire: A Nashville Hot Chicken and Beer Experiment with Chef Josh Habiger

May 15, 2018

By Sarah Freeman, May 15, 2018

I arrive in Nashville on one of the first warm days of an unseasonably cool spring. I know it’s nice out because—despite the fact that it’s a Wednesday—bachelorette party-filled pedal pubs nearly outnumber cars on the street. However, I am not in Tennessee to practice my ability to yell “woo-hoo” while propelling a mobile bar down Broadway. I’m here to drink beer at the annual Craft Brewers Conference.

This year’s Craft Brewers Conference welcomes 14,000 of the country’s best brewers. Like the bachelorettes, they travel in packs, wearing matching shirts and are constantly searching for their next beverage. In the case of the bearded brewers, the beverage of choice is fresh pilsners and cans of IPA. The ways to consume that beverage are endless—from sours and street art-filled rooftop parties to the bar at Gray & Dudley with a side of oozing cheeseburger. I opt for lesser-known door number three: Eating hot chicken and drinking beer with a beloved chef Josh Habiger, who knows a thing or two about eating and drinking.

“I want to cook the way a bartender bartends,” says Habiger, whose career has taken him from the opening team of Chicago’s Alinea to opening Nashville’s first-ever tasting menu restaurant, the Catbird Seat. There, he helped create an elevated version of the city’s most famous dish, hot chicken. “We make crispy chicken skins, brush them with sorghum molasses, sprinkle them with hot pepper spice, add a dollop of white bread puree and dill pickle salt.”

Today, his food is less highbrow, but just as intriguing. As the chef of the Wedgewood-Houston restaurant and bar Bastion, he serves up oysters topped with grapefruit granita, green almond-covered grouper and rabbit gnocchi alongside cans of dressed Tecate. These elegant, composed plates are offered in a glorified warehouse filled with mismatched art and sour beers.

Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

I leave it up to local expert Habiger to take me to his hot chicken spot of choice. We arrive at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken as the lunch rush is starting to die down—which means there is still a line of a dozen people spilling out the door—and are quickly presented with a lunch tray filled with beer. The restaurant has been briefed on our mission—to uncover the perfect beer to pair with hot chicken—and is eager to help facilitate research.

Before we dig into the bright red bird, Habiger has a few words of wisdom about pairing food and beer: “It’s all about balance, that’s just my opinion. If you’re going to have something that’s super bold, then you can get bold with your beverage pairing. We’re having hot chicken, the only thing I’m really hesitant about is the hoppiness of certain beers and the bitterness of hops. Spicy and bitter aren’t going to play well together. Those sort of sweet and spicy flavors go well together. Sour and spicy can go well together. Salty food and beer is a good combo always.”

Stiegl Radler

We’re presented with two different types of chicken—medium and hot—and six different beers, ranging from local favorite Bearded Iris’ IPA to classic PBR. Stiegl’s grapefruit radler is an early favorite to win the “most likely to pair well with hot chicken” award. It’s fruit juice base makes it just the thing you want to grab when your mouth is on fire. Surprisingly, the subtle sweet and tart qualities aren’t enough to combat this particular heat. “It didn’t cut through it, but it was refreshing,” Habiger says. “It was nice to take a sip of that after a spicy bite.”

Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

Bearded Iris Brewing’s Homestyle IPA

“This is the Homestyle, I don’t think it’s going to work out,” Habiger predicts, and he’s right. If there’s one major misconception when it comes to pairing beer with food, it’s that a crisp IPA goes well with spice. Actually, hop compounds have been known to make chilies burn hotter. In this particular IPA, the bite from the hops amplifies the spice on the chicken. Meanwhile, the beer’s herbal quality fight with the chicken’s spices, creating a sort of cage match in your mouth. Not tasty.

Jackalope Brewing Company’s Bearwalker Maple Brown

What if I told you that you can replicate the experience of eating chicken and waffles by taking a sip of maple-laced brown ale after a bite of medium-hot chicken? You’d probably believe me, because that’s a very specific thing to say. Yes, Jackalope’s Bearwalker maple brown ale was an unexpected winner with its roasty notes and residual sugars. “Generally, I steer clear of sweeter beers, because it’s not really my thing, but, for this combo, I think it will help,” Habiger says before sampling the pairing. “I think that works really well; I think it’s the best one. What’s cool about it is you take a bite of the chicken and you want to drink the beer. Then you drink the beer and you want more chicken.”

Wild Heaven Beer’s Emergency Drinking Beer

Things continue to get interesting with a beer that should have been a no-brainer for pairing with hot chicken. “It doesn’t do much, it’s just kinda there,” Habiger says to describe this German pilsner’s inability to stand up to the hot chicken. Typically, Pilsners go well with heat. Think about Asian food—the spicy kind loaded with Szechwan and spice—while the restaurants that serve this type of cuisine might not have an extensive beer list, what they do have are light, crushable pilsners and lagers such as Tiger Beer, Sapporo and Asahi Super Dry. “The Emergency Drinking Beer,” however, Habiger says. “Well, I guess this wasn’t an emergency.”

Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

Wiseacre Brewing’s Tiny Bomb

With its delicate floral notes and subtle grassy character, Wiseacre’s Czech pilsner might not be the most obvious counterpart to bold hot chicken, but surprisingly the beer spiked with local wildflower honey is an elegant match. “Super floral,” Habiger says. “I didn’t expect that one to work as well. On its own it’s a good beer, I thought the chicken would knock over the interestingness—the chicken was going to be a bully.” That isn't the case, with the beer acting like a light, refreshing ying to the chicken’s punch-packing yang.

Pabst Blue Ribbon

“Bananas. Taste it, it tastes like banana beer,” Habiger says after one sip from the familiar can, effectively ruining PBR for everyone else at the table forever. Strange fruit notes aside, this beer did what it is supposed to do: Combat some of the heat and act as a nice, cold thing to hold in one hand while licking hot chicken remnants off the other. “Ultimately, you should drink what you like with what you’re eating. If you do like beer—just talk to whoever’s in charge of the beverage program and they’ll steer you in the right direction.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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