May is finally here, urging us to go out to patio or deck and to cook on an outdoor grill. For many, outdoor cooking means barbecue and here in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee we take barbecue very, very seriously. So serious in fact that, every year in May, barbecue cooking teams and aficionados from around the world descend on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. More than 200 teams take part in our own little ‘throw down’ we like to call the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. In terms of pairing craft beers with barbecue we strive to bring out the best in both.
Unlike what most folks call ‘barbecue’ (which is really just grilling over charcoal, gas, or wood), real barbecue is achieved by cooking seasoned meats at low temperatures with a fair amount of smoke. During Memphis in May, this art is taken to new heights as teams compete in a variety of categories over the three-day event which draws more than 100,000 visitors each year. The smoke rising from Tom Lee Park on the riverfront can be seen for miles and the aromas of smoke, spice and meat drift even farther.
In my restaurant at the Inn at Hunt Phelan in downtown Memphis, barbecue is often on the menu in one form or another. Our guests enjoy the deep flavors of smoke and spices mingled with the richness of pork in many forms. We, just like the championship teams, develop flavor by selecting premium pork cuts with the correct amounts of fat, meat and bone to meet the needs of the low and slow cooking process. The spices and flavorings we use before, during and after cooking – often no more than 225°F to 250°F — in our marinades, rubs and sauces are based upon the cut of pork and our overall menu. Great care is taken to balance flavors with smokiness to achieve a satisfying plate of ribs, a chopped sandwich or belly slab (what we call a ‘bacon steak’).
Pairing craft beers with barbecue should bring out the best in both. As a professional chef, I look for pairings that will enhance both the beverage and the menu item regardless if the beverage is beer, wine, spirit or even sweet tea – another sacred subject in my neck of the woods. The flavors of hickory smoke, rich pork, tangy tomato, garlic, onion and brown sugar are pronounced in true barbecue, each being amplified by the slow cooking process and the liberal use of sauce after the cooking is completed (and always on the side please!)
A craft beer with bright hoppiness and citrus high notes, a touch of malt on the back end for balance, a fair amount of alcohol to enhance the overall flavors and even a bit of smoke or wood would be my choice for championship (or backyard) barbecue – natural fits for American Pale Ale style craft beers. I am particularly impressed with the Lagunitas New Dogtown Pale Ale, Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale and Memphis’ own Ghost River Glacial Pale Ale craft beers and the way each brings out different aspects of barbecue’s flavor. The American hops are pronounced in each presentation with differing amounts of malt, toast and citrus underpinnings. Each will make a beautiful addition to barbecue any time of year.
Chef Kjeld Petersen takes Southern cuisine in new directions at the Inn at Hunt Phelan. The beautifully restored 1828 antebellum mansion and grounds feature a full restaurant, catering and event facilities as well as beautifully appointed guest rooms just off Beale Street in downtown Memphis. Chef Petersen works with local farmers, ranchers and other purveyors to select the ingredients for his interpretations on Southern culinary classics and regularly hosts special tasting and pairing events at the Inn.