Craft Beer & America’s Favorite BBQ
As Americans, we cannot deny our never-ending love of BBQ. The way the flavors meld into the myriad of meats, styles of cuts and variety of cooking options is enough to make anyone’s stomach start rumbling.
Like BBQ, craft beer is not bottle-necked by any one type, brand or locale. No matter where you go across the U.S., you’ll be able to find unique and delicious craft beer. These two artisanal splendors go hand-in-hand, and eating great BBQ while enjoying a fine craft beer is always a favorable experience.
But you may come to find that some beers pair better with certain styles of BBQ over others. Which naturally raises the question: Is there a perfect beer style to pair with BBQ?
Allow me to preface my suggestions by saying that pairing is a subjective experience. What one fancies, another despises; what some embrace, others refuse. I can’t pretend to establish firm rules, but I can promise to lead a mouth-watering expedition into the savory, malty and char-broiled world of pairing regional BBQ styles with craft beer.
Memphis is big on pork, whether it’s a hearty rack of sumptuous ribs or a pile of pulled or shredded meat. Memphis-style BBQ is often cooked in a large pit, and usually incorporates the use of a dry rub that includes garlic, paprika and other spices.
However, there are “Memphis-style” sauces which are thin, tangy, sweet and tomato-based. For pairing with those, I prefer a heartier, more malt-laden beer to clear my palate of sugary sweetness or acidic vinegar, which ensures that each bite is a wonderful explosion of flavors.
To help save room for cornbread and slaw alongside my beer and ‘Q, I often enjoy an English-style porter or a light American stout. Porters infused with vanilla or similar flavors can match very nicely with sweet sauces. Smoked porters may match up terrifically with traditional smoked BBQ, but occasionally the smoke in the beer may interfere with the smoke of the meat.
Some of my favorite beers to pair with Memphis-style BBQ:
- Alaskan Smoked Porter | Alaskan Brewing Co. | Juneau, AK
- Pluff Mud Porter | Holy City Brewing Co. | Charleston, SC
- Pig Iron Porter | Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant | Wilmington, DE
- Old Tom Porter | Piney River Brewing Co. | Bucyrus, MO
- Robust Porter | Smuttynose Brewing Co. | Hampton, NH
North Carolina BBQ is often divided between “Lexington-style” and “Eastern-style,” though both typically concur that the meat should be brushed with a spice-and-vinegar mixture while cooking and served with a ketchup-based sauce. The difference lies in utilization. Advocates of Eastern BBQ use the entire pig, while the Lexington camp tends to use just the pork shoulder or ribs.
South Carolina BBQ is fairly similar—except that, in mid-state, the sauce is usually mustard-based and includes brown sugar and vinegar.
Since most Carolina-region sauces are rooted in a vinegar essence, I reach for a rye beer to cut through the acidity and ensure my ability to fully enjoy the flavors of both the sauce and the beer. Oftentimes rye beers can be hoppy, so I keep the IBUs low with an aim towards malt or rye characteristics. However, when the sauce includes brown sugar, an amber or brown ale suits nicely.
Rye Beers to pair with Carolina-style BBQ:
- Righteous Ale | Sixpoint Brewery | Brooklyn, NY
- 2XRye | Southern Tier Brewing Co. | Lakewood, NY
- LowRYEder | SweetWater Brewing Co. | Atlanta, GA
- Cane & Ebel | Two Brothers Brewing Co. | Warrenville, IL
Kansas City is a meat-packing hub, and deems no meat off-limits when it comes to BBQ. All meats are cooked super-slow and super-low, generally over hickory wood. The sauce is most commonly a thick, sweet concoction that has been said to “stick to ribs of both animal and man.”
Made with tomatoes and usually infused with molasses or brown sugar, Kansas City BBQ sauce is layered with sugary and sometimes spicy flavors. In this case, I suggest the roasted malt character of a German-style dunkel. A dunkel offers a mild balance between malt sweetness (which complements the molasses of the sauce) and hop character (which can slightly emphasize the spiciness).
Dunkels to pair with Kansas-style BBQ:
- Munich Dunkel | Carver Brewing Co. | Durango, CO
- Dunkel | Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen | Bellingham, WA
- Pious Monk Dunkel | Church Brew Works/Lawrenceville Brewery Inc. | Pittsburgh, PA
- Knight Ryder Munich Dunkel | Equinox Brewing | Fort Collins, CO
- Black Walnut Dunkel | Perennial Artisan Ales | St. Louis, MO
‘Bama seems to offer a delightful blend of styles reminiscent of, and influenced by, both Texas and Carolina. One of the state’s signatures, however, is white sauce, a mayonnaise-and-vinegar mixture that can be found onBBQ all over Alabama.
Between the mayo, vinegar, black pepper and additional seasonings, white sauce is quite an unusual taste to tackle, simply because it is so different from the norm—which is not a bad thing! I like to approach this off-the-wall sauce with a bit of an unusual pairing. Whether it’s soaked into pulled pork or slathered over crispy smoked chicken, I meet this mayo-and-vinegar beast with a little Belgian muscle.
A crisp Belgian-style witbier pairs well with white sauce, as I find the peppery and slight vinegar characteristics are subdued nicely by my Belgian selections. And if your favorite Alabama BBQ joint doesn’t have many options for Belgian beer (for shame!), you can always fall back on a simple brown ale.
Witbiers to pair with Alabama-style BBQ:
- White | Allagash Brewing Co. | Portland, ME
- White Rascal | Avery Brewing Co. | Boulder, CO
- Belgian-Style Witbier | Back Road Brewing Co. | La Porte, IN
- Belgian Wit | Brewery Vivant | Grand Rapids, MI
- Optimal Wit | Port City Brewing Co. | Alexandria, VA
Due to the fact that the state is so large and the variety so abundant, Texas boasts no less than four distinct regional styles of BBQ within its borders. In an attempt to pick a catch-all style, I went with Central Texas.
Central Texas BBQ has been said to be highly influenced by Czech and German immigrants. Meat is king here, while sauce and sides are treated as secondary elements—and rightfully so! The region has a huge number of meat markets that serve heaping portions of brisket and ribs that are lovingly and painstakingly smoked over wood chips like hickory, pecan or mesquite. Texas mop-sauces are generally heavy on spices such as chili and ancho powder.
The careful blend of seasonings entrances me with flavors, while the spiciness compels me to reach for a refreshing beer. For this reason, I trend light and effervescent. Blonde ale, Saison, Tripel and amber ale are my styles of choice for Central Texas BBQ. As always, feel free to toe the line between light and dark beers to find your sweet spot. Besides, it wouldn’t be Texas ‘Q without a Shiner Bock in the mix!
Various beers to pair with Texas-style BBQ:
- Dirty Blonde Ale | Atwater Brewing Co. | Detroit, MI
- Vieille Artisanal Saison | Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project | Denver, CO
- Tripel Horse | River Horse Brewing Co. | Ewing Township, NJ
- Bombshell Blonde | Southern Star Brewing Co. | Conroe, TX
- Shiner Bock | Spoetzl Brewery | Shiner, TX