You know what’s good? Barbecue. Now hang on, let me be clear: I’m not talking about the activity variously referred to as ‘barbecuing’, ‘grilling’, or ‘havin’ a cook out’. That’s all about cooking meat (or whatever) on a grill over an open, high heat source (usually gas or charcoal). I love grilling, and beer goes incredibly well with that activity as well (a likely subject for a future Conundrum), but today I’m talking about barbecue. Barbecue is what you get when you (generally speaking) cook meat for a long period of time over low, dry heat in some sort of smoker. Getting any more specific is difficult due to the huge number of regional styles which lay claim to being the best or most authentic barbecue around (Texas, Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, or even Hawaii).
As it’s so difficult to define barbecue, the task of pairing beer with barbecue also becomes incredibly difficult. Fortunately I have an entire stable of Aleheads to help me wrestle with this one. So tell us boys: What’s the best beer to drink with barbecue?
Also, this week’s Conundrum came to us from Cashmere Pulaski, a friend of Magnus. His original question (as well as his original solution) is below.
The other night my wife and I got some takeout from our favorite local barbecue place, and of course, I wanted to have a beer to drink with my dinner of wood-smoked pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw, and corn bread. So it was that I found myself wandering the aisles at Port Chester Beverage, wondering what the right beer is to complement barbecue food. Specifically, I found myself wondering what you guys would recommend. Do you want a relatively lightweight lager, which is what I usually drink when I’m eating spicy stuff like Mexican or Indian food? Or do you want something heartier that can match the down-home gravity of rich, fatty smoked pork?
I ended up going with Saranac’s Imperial IPA, which worked out OK. I thought it was tasty, and it’s 8.8% ABV, so I passed out on the couch shortly after finishing my dinner. (I know, I know, 8.8% isn’t a knockout blow, but I have two little kids. It’s been four years since the last time I slept past 6:00 in the morning.)
BROTHER BARLEY MCHOPS
I’m a New Englander and always will be.
But the sad truth is, I’ve lived South of the Mason-Dixon line for the better part of a decade. And for almost four years now, I’ve lived in the heart of Dixie: Alabama.
I complain a lot about my current home state. Though honestly, I would complain a lot even if I lived in a castle in the clouds with a bevy of angels granting my every whim (“These clouds are too squishy! Your halo is too bright!”). I like to complain. Again…I’m a New Englander.
But there’s one aspect of Southern living that I will NEVER disparage. And that is the quality and quantity of available smoked meats. When others mock my current living situation, I will heartily agree with them, but I will always point out that at least I’ve got lots of good barbecue* nearby. And, generally, they’ll nod their heads and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty sweet.”
*A quick note: As Beerford touched on in his intro, the word “barbecue” has different regional definitions. Using the word “barbecue” in its proper Southern context was a learning experience for me. Growing up, a “barbecue” was an event. “We’re having a barbecue…come on by and get some hamburgers!” When I moved South, my wife patiently explained to me that what I had referred to as a “barbecue” my whole life was actually a “cook-out”. Barbecue, she said with an “I can’t believe how dumb you are” shake of her head, is simply a type of food. It refers to slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone, smoked meats served with a regionally specific sauce. While I usually bristle at such learning experiences (I’m stubborn), in this case, I just went with it. Southerners do barbecue best, so I’ll go with their definition.
Unless you’re vegan (or a devout Jew or Muslim), you love barbecue. It’s just delicious…there’s really no other word to describe it. It’s also the source of violent debate in the Southeast since every state (particularly Texas, the Carolinas and Tennessee) lay claim to the “perfect” barbecue sauce. Alabama has no traditional sauce. We’ve claimed them all. You can find parts of the state that specialize in a sour, tangy mustard/vinegar sauce. Other areas predominantly use a thick, smoky-sweet sauce. Still others specialize in a very unique white sauce made from mayonnaise and vinegar which is absolutely delicious on smoked turkey and chicken (it’s an acquired taste that most people very quickly acquire). Whatever your particular sauce of choice, ‘Bama serves it. And whichever way you serve it, nothing washes barbecue down better than beer.
Barbecue and beer were built for each other. They’re both unpretentious…the food and drink of the working man. Debates rage on about the best types of barbecue and the best styles of beer. The mere thought of sitting down to barbecue WITHOUT a beer by your side is blasphemy. Are you drinking a glass of pinot with your pulled pork? A martini? What are you, a fucking idiot? Of course not, you’re drinking a goddamn beer!
Hence Cashmere Pulaski’s intriguing question…what’s the best style of beer to drink with smoked meats? In my “humble” opinion…there are two approaches:
- Contrasting Flavors: If the goal is to provide a counterpoint to the robust smoky-sweetness (and, let’s face it, “heaviness”) of barbecue, then your best bet is an Imperial IPA. The bitterness from hops and burn from the high alcohol content will cut a swath through those big, smoked flavors. Nothing scours your palette and quenches your thirst like a big, ol’ bitter hop-bomb. The contrasting flavors will keep your taste buds from being overwhelmed…it’s like a battle between barbecue sauce and hops. Who wins that battle? Everyone! My personal choice would be the Bell’s HopSlam…a bitter, delicious beauty with just a hint of honey to complement the sweetness of ‘Cue. Mmm….
- If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!: The second approach is to accentuate the taste of barbecue by drinking a beer that mimics the flavor of the food. In other words, find a beer that tastes like barbecue and let yourself be drowned in the tasty goodness of smoke and sugar. The best style for this approach is a smoked porter. Most smoked beers take their cue from ‘Cue by roasting malts over open-flames to imbue them with that smoky flavor. The best smoked porters have a hint of acridity balanced by a nice, sweet, easy-drinking malt backbone. If you find yourself in or around Durham, North Carolina, I would recommend Hogwash by the Fullsteam Brewery. The brewery intentionally constructed the beer to be paired with Carolina barbecue. It’s a smoked, dark brown porter that is solid enough on its own but absolutely incredible when paired up with pulled pork or ribs.
Now if you’ll excuse me…I’m hungry.
If brevity is the soul of wit, dear Brother Barley’s own wit is a ruthless demon sent from the bowels of hell to feed on helpless Conundra. Never one to provide an answer when two will do, he suggests both of the more obvious schools of thought on this topic and subjugates them for his own ends, leaving the remaining Aleheads to pick through the bones and scraps of his gluttonous feast.* Blogging with Barley is like playing small forward for the ‘62 Philadelphia Warriors- sure you’re gonna win some games, but don’t expect to get a lot of looks at the top of the key from Wilt when he’s going for 100. And yes, he did famously lead the league in assists once, but that was just to show everyone he could do it, and because he was an egomaniac, and also frankly kind of a dick. I can assuage myself knowing Barley didn’t sleep with nearly as many women.
*Beerford’s Note: Barley actually submitted his answer to this Conundrum to me before I’d even shared it with the group. Guess he really wanted his firsties on this one.
I think his “Contrasting Flavors” argument holds more sauce in this case- particularly when we’re talking about the the sticky-sweet maroon goo lightly seasoned with high fructose corn syrup that passes for BBQ sauce in 99% of these United States of Aleheads (I’m looking at you Sweet Baby Ray). If your pork was slapped with an esoteric fusion-style Habenero rub then maybe a Smoked Porter is in play, but knowing our readership I’m assuming this is a straight up blue-collar backyard barbecue, henceforth known as the “Cookout”.
Of course you can’t go wrong with an Indian Pale Ale at an event like this, but I think Barley strays too far afield with the Bell’s HopSlam. While beyond any doubt an amazing beer, and one right for virtually any occasion – from brunch at the Vatican to a last meal aperitif on Death Row at Raiford, a 10% ABV hop bomb is surely not the optimal beverage of choice for a cookout. Barbecue is slow, Aleheads are not slow drinkers, most of us do not have personal chefs, so it is assumed that we will be cooking the meat as well as eating it – and giving most Aleheads some high ABV Imperial IPA’s with several hours of outside smoke time, then potentially throwing activities such as lawn darts or horseshoes into the mix is a recipe for disaster.
A more sessionable brew is in order, and with the rise of newly-hip water-lined aluminum packaging 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the can. The working class ethos this evokes as well as the practicality of a cooler filled with iced and frosty Pale Ales is the path we must tread; thus the only answer to this conundrum is our old standby Dale’s Pale Ale, is it not?
And yet this somehow leaves me slightly unsatisfied. Sure, Dale’s is perfect for everything from session drinking to raft building, but it has received far too much Alehead love in the previous Conundra. Cookouts and barbecue are social events- so scrap the bottle and can plan, ring up your friends and neighbors, reduce your carbon footprint, man up, and order a keg from a local ale factory! In my case this would be a half-barrel of Pittsburgh’s own Big Hop IPA from East End Brewing Company. This one-man operation churns out dozens of top quality craft brews from Hefeweizens to Barleywines, and this well-balanced citrus flagship is incredibly drinkable. Stop those Alebucks from all flying over the border to Colorado – think global, but drink local. Now if I only had some friends.
What’s that? I just gave an unnecessarily long-winded response culminating with two answers? Oh, the humanity! My bad. And the cycle of violence continues…
DR. RIPPED VAN DRINKALE, III
If you’re from New England and haven’t traveled the BBQ belt, you simply don’t know what good BBQ is. The fact remains that Redbones may just be the best BBQ joint in the area, but just because they’re the best around here doesn’t mean they can even compare to the real thing. I don’t know why that is. We’ve got pigs, we’ve got cows (Not the best, but we can get em’), we’ve got millions of cherry, apple, oak and every other quality smoking tree just sitting in our backyards. Why can’t we do BBQ? My opinion, and it’s only an opinion, is that we don’t have the time. I guess it’s not really a lack of time, it’s more a lack of patience. New Englanders would much rather sear their meats at 1800 degrees (A la Ruth’s Chris) then sit around and wait hours on end for a slow-smoked cut of deliciousness. We’re also terrified of things that contain fat (Except for fat chicks, we loves the plumpers). Sure, we’ve got Ben & Jerry’s and their fat-laden creamed ice, but those guys also make health conscious frozen yogurt. You will never, ever, find a BBQ stand in the South that offers a lower fat version of anything to appease their customers. As has been said time and time again, there is only one difference between the North and the South, and that’s their take on BBQ. I heard something about some past arguments and misunderstandings between the two sides, but couldn’t find anything on WikiLeaks to substantiate those rumors.
So, what’s the best beer to go along with tasty BBQ? I’ll keep it very simple – It’s Shiner Bock. I’m not saying Texas has the best BBQ, although I won’t argue with anyone that states this claim, but I will say that the semi-shitty yet fairly tasty Shiner does wonders for their brisket. I love brisket, I love smoke, I love a cheap beer that compliments the meal rather than imparting any particular flavor on the meat. No need to tell me that Shiner isn’t very good – I already know that. For BBQ though, it’s just perfect. Like Slouch, I think a good BBQ beer has to be something that’s consumed before, during, and after the whole cooking process. Shiner is easy going down and a 12 pack fits in just right with a long day of smoking.*
Beerford’s note: Meat. Smoking meat. The Aleheads do not endorse smoking cigarettes in any way.
HERR HUMULUS HORDEUM
I agree with the other Aleheads that a Hoppy beer is the way to go here. The staunch bitterness is an excellent contrast to the sweetness, and those astringent hops cut through grease much like the tannins in a red wine. If you haven’t tried red wine before no need to run out and purchase some, take my word for it and spend your money on beer.
Just a hoppy beer isn’t enough though. Sure, if I had posted first I could have gotten away with it. So what key barbecue ingredient has been overlooked in previous Alehead picks? Wood, of course (inset childish comment here). To make things a bit more interesting, why not a barrel aged IPA? The earthy flavors should meld well with the smoked meats and connect with the great outdoors. The big problem may be that these beers tend to be seasonal and produced in fairly limited supply. Two good ones I’ve tried recently have been the Humidor series Jai Alai from Cigar City, and Great Divide’s 16th Anniversary Wood-aged Double IPA.
COMMANDER PINT O. CHUG
What in god’s name is wrong with you people? I’ve read like 5000 words of this post and have gotten all of 3 beer suggestions. Pulaski, a courtroom lawyer by training, would be ashamed of the verbosity engendered by his simple question.
I’ll start with this premise: for any barbecue sauce with even a hint of sweetness — which is pretty much all of them except a pure vinegar — avoid beers that are sweet. Nothing goes worse with hot, rich, somewhat sweet food than a sweet beer. It just leaves your mouth and internal organs feeling gross. As a consequence, I respectfully disagree with Brother Barley’s suggestion of an imperial IPA. Hoppy as they are, imperial IPAs also tend to be rich and sweet. Nor do I find that the alcohol burn in those beers “cuts” through a sweet, fatty food. In fact, I would argue that anything but the most astringent IPA is too sweet for barbecue. So in addition to the HopSlam, out go the Dale’s, Jai Alai, Great Divide DIPA, and maybe Slouch Sixpack’s Big Hop IPA too.
To avoid sweet-tasting beers, I would stick with a sour or dark and smoky beer.
Second premise: bravo to Slouch Sixpack for his caution against super-high-ABV beers. I’ll drink an 8-10% ABV beer with just about anything (or nothing), but as Pulaski points out, with barbecue I’m going to want to suck down a few beers, and chances are I’m not going to want to pass out afterward. (Too bad Herr Direktor doesn’t serve BBQ, as I’ve dozed off the last six times we’ve hung out after 7pm.)
In keeping with these premises I commend the following beers to your consideration, though there are many other great choices:
Russian River Supplication: As we’ve previously said in these pages, this may be the finest sour ale in America. At 7% ABV, it’s not exactly a session beer, but nor is it a one-and-done for most of us. An afternoon of pulled pork with a Carolina mustard-based sauce and a couple Supplications sounds like how I’d want to spend my last day on earth.
Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout: Normally this isn’t my kind of stout, as I tend to prefer cream stouts or imperial stouts to coffee stouts. I haven’t had the Deschutes Obsidian Stout but I imagine it would go well here too. Bell’s K-Stout has strong coffee and roasted-something flavors that make this a solid, smoky brew. At 6% ABV it meets my second criterion as well. I would pair this with a sweeter sauce, and maybe a fattier meat like ribs.
If you’re eating corn syrup-based barbecue sauce that comes from a bottle, you don’t deserve a good beer anyway. MGD will be fine for you.
I hate to agree with people. And by people, I mean the Aleheads. If I agree with them, how can I feel superior? In this case however, I find myself with no other option. When it comes to barbecue with a rich, smoky, sweet-ish sauce, I think you need the astringency of a good Imperial IPA to cut through all that business. In the case of dry-rubbed barbecue, you could probably get away with something more in the realm of a standard IPA, as you wouldn’t have quite so much sticky sweet whatnot to deal with. A smoked porter would probably do fine as well, but I’d save that for your after dinner option (though it might be interesting to pair with vinegar-based sauces). For the IPA option, I’m going to point you toward Bridgeport Hop Czar. For the Imperial IPA, check out Russian River Pliny the Younger. If those hops can’t cut thorough whatever you’re pulling out of the smoker, I can’t do nothin’ for ya son.
*Editor’s Note: Nice call on the Pliny the Younger, Beerford. Maybe in future Conundra, you should refrain from selecting a beer that none of the Aleheads (including yourself) have ever consumed and that isn’t sold in bottles nor can it be purchased in growlers. You can only get the Younger during a very brief, two-week window in February, and only at a very limited selection of bars. Also, it’s only available on tap which means that unless the aforementioned bars also happen to be barbecue joints (note: they aren’t) it would be physically impossible to pair the Younger with smoked meat. In other words, your selection makes utterly no sense and you should hang your head and shame and weep for having suggested it. This complete and utter smackdown has been brought to you by Brother Barley.
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