Originally Posted: August 1st, 2017
There’s nothing quite like drinking a cold one by a hot grill or smoker. Forget mac ‘n’ cheese or potato salad, a beer is truly the summer barbecue’s best side item. Still, for far too long people have assumed that the beer option most fit for the backyard cookout is one generally described as “ice cold.” Hardly. In fact, many more complex and esoteric craft beer styles work beautifully with barbecued meats and their accompanying sides.
Barbecues are often about simple ingredients prepared simply. Burgers and steaks thrown on a hot grill. Big slabs of chicken, beef, or pork set above a fire and left to cook. These entrees are often seasoned with nothing more than salt, pepper, and maybe, eventually, a little sauce. These bold, basic flavors make pairing beers easy, with ample flexibility for everybody’s tastes. Before looking at pairings, though, we should first consider the flavors that are most prominent in barbecue.
Smoking vs. Grilling
In many parts of the country, “barbecuing” or “having a barbecue” is a catchall term for simply cooking outside. In the south, though, barbecue is a distinct style of food. Basically, it involves any type of meat (though, typically, beef brisket, ribs, pork shoulder or butt, and chicken) slowly cooked over low (180–300 degrees) and indirect heat. “Grilling” is cooking meat (typically burgers, steaks, sausages, or smaller pieces of pork and chicken) over a direct and hot (400 degrees or more) flame. Thus, if you’re taking ten minutes to make a few burgers, you are not “barbecuing,” you are “grilling.” (We won’t get into certain regions that use the term “cookout.”)
This isn’t just a pedantic point, though. Because barbecuing (also known as “smoking”) and grilling impart radically different flavor profiles and textures, they call for radically different beers to match. Grilled meat often has a nice brown or black crust on the outside and will typically need crisper beers to cut through that rich, caramelized profile, while slowly–smoked meat (obviously smoky), may have intense flavors imparted by charcoal or, even better, by any one of a variety of woods (apple, hickory, cherry, etc.) employed to create the fire, calling for sweeter, more flavorful beers.
Slow–cooking also leads to meat that is succulent and tender. Traditionally larger and lower–quality (fatty) cuts are used and slow–cooking is able to break down remaining tough muscle tissue. After hours of smoking, these cuts become moist and began to almost fall apart. We’ll need beers that texturally work with these meats.