Fact: Beer and barbecue were meant to be together. Sure, you could pair a malbec with your brisket or could show up to your buddy’s backyard with a six-pack of hard-kombucha (it’s better than it sounds), if that’s your jam. But for most of us, the idea of meat sizzling over smoldering briquets and cracking open a cold one are inseparable. Even very fancy chefs in charge of very fancy beverage programs will tell you when they fire up the grill, there’s nothing they’d rather have by their side than an icy lager.
“I always looked at beer as kind of like the pickled ginger in sushi. It helps reset your palate” says Adam Perry Lang, author of BBQ 25 and Serious Barbecue: Smoke, Char, Baste, and Brush. “It kind of mellows out a lot of those powerful, intensely smoky flavors.”
When it comes to finding the perfect foil to a well-marbled slab of meat, however, Lang says there’s no need to splurge. Finance bros flaunt the cases of Other Half they hauled to their Hamptons barbecues, but the best grilling accompaniments tend to be crisp, refreshing, low-ABV session beer that won’t leave you too woozy to man the coals.
“I really tend to like wheat beers and beers that are more refreshing and less complex. Real barebone, basic stuff—I don’t need to get fancy,” Lang says. “If I’m going to have something like pork shoulder that is glazed, I really do enjoy the bitterness and hoppiness of an IPA with it, even though I’m not typically a huge fan of IPAs.”
While Lang prefers to drink his beer, Rob Levitt, head butcher at Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats, and a number of other pitmasters are taking things up a notch and incorporating it right into their recipes. We’re not talking about a splash of pilsner here or a nip of stout there. No, these chefs are channeling all that malty, caramel-y complexity into the finished dish. Best of all, you don’t need a professional-grade smoker to steal some of their techniques.
I always looked at beer as kind of like the pickled ginger in sushi. It helps reset your palate after all those powerful, intensely smoky flavors.”
“My customers often ask how to make ribs at home if they don’t have a smoker. My go-to method is to season the ribs with salt and pepper, put them in a pan with half barbecue sauce and half beer, then put them in a pan in the oven for a couple hours until they’re tender,” Levitt says. “Take them out of the pan to let them cool, then when your guests come over, char them on the grill and use that beer-infused barbecue sauce to brush on them.”
Ribs may be the classic choice for this technique, it will work wonders on all sorts of other fatty, collagen-laced cuts suited to slow-braising. The best part (aside from the beer-infused barbecue sauce) is that all the real work can be done in advance, making it ideal for entertaining. Letting the meat rest overnight in the fridge will make it extra tender and allow you to skim off the extra grease. When the hungry masses show up, you’ll be able to serve up a seriously impressive dish without breaking a sweat.
For beer-braised meat with an even smokier flavor, Levitt often turns to a Midwestern classic. Pile a bunch of bratwurst and onions in a sturdy pan, pour in the beer, and place the whole thing on the cool side of the grill to simmer. As with the ribs, you can get an extra boost of flavor by briefly searing the sausages over the flames right before serving them.
“If it’s a hot day and you’re drinking High Life or PBR, throw some in a pan with the brats,” Levitt says. With both this recipe and the ribs, he sticks to lighter-flavored beers. “Something like a porter might be okay, but with stouts, the bitterness tends to concentrate. A red ale or a brown ale will give you some of that maltiness. I stay away from IPAs and the like because that bitterness will get really intense.”
Beer can chicken, arguably the most hyped method of incorporating beer into barbecue, gets a solid shrug from Levitt. The setup may look cool, but the beer doesn’t contribute much in terms of flavor. A better way to get that malty goodness into your bird is to brine it in a saline solution of half water and half beer. Alternatively, he suggests adding a beery twist to a classic barbecue technique.
“A lot of them use vinegar, but I think it would be really fun to take something like a red ale or a lighter style beer with some acidity,” Levitt says. “A sour or a gose or even a fruit beer would be good. New Glarus does a really, really nice cherry beer. Something like that beefed up with some brown sugar and spices would make for a really nice mop on a pork roast.”
When it comes to picking a beer to drink while tending the flames, Levitt sticks to Lang’s approach. He’s happy to support local Chicago producers like Marz Community Brewing Company, but for the most part, prefers to keep it simple. Part of the magic of barbecue lies in the paper napkins, plastic forks, and unpretentious trappings that accompany it. A good barbecue beer should accentuate the experience, without trying to upstage the meat or take away from the laid-back vibes.
“I’m good with cheap and easy beers. I tend to go High Life in a bottle, a Tecate or Corona,” Levitt says. “If it’s cold and it’s put in front of me, I’ll drink it.”