First we must stipulate that barbecue is a noun that refers to a specific kind of Southern food, and the proper way to prepare that food is with fire and wood smoke in some variation of a pit.
That said, firing up a grill with a bunch of hamburgers and hot dogs is a perfectly fine, even all-American way to celebrate Father’s Day and the Fourth of July.
And when it comes to the question of what kind of beer goes best with bratwurst or steak or pulled pork or fatty brisket, most grilled meats and barbecue really do have a lot in common.
Which is to say, don’t sweat it too much. When pairing almost any kind of food and drink, the easiest path to enlightenment is to think in terms of harmony or contrast.
For barbecue, harmony means darker beers like brown ales and porters that will match the roasted and smoky flavors of the meat.
Contrast could be lighter German or Belgian-style wheat beers or even some kinds of fruit beers that will play against the heaviness and the richness.
In between, classic German Oktoberfest lagers or American amber ales will pair with almost anything from the grill or smoker, and satisfy almost anyone.
Of course, beers with smoked malts, such as classic German Rauchbier, can be a really fun way to lock in to the deepest essence of barbecue. One of my favorites is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen, a German smoked wheat beer that manages a bit of harmony and contrast in the same bottle.
Earlier this year, SweetWater Brewing Co. made a limited edition bacon-and-hickory-smoked porter, dubbed Pulled Porter, in collaboration with Justin and Jonathan Fox of Atlanta’s popular Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q.
It took the Fox Bros. crew several days to smoke 1 ton of malt on their wood-burning Lang smokers. And to add that extra bit of barbecue flavor to the malt, they tossed in some racks of bacon.
Pairing the Pulled Porter with Fox Bros. pulled pork sandwiches at a charity event at SweetWater seemed to make everyone happy.
Recently, I asked Jonathan Fox what he thought about the Pulled Porter experience.
“I didn’t know how well it would come across,” Fox said. “But when I tasted it, the natural hickory smoke and the flavor of bacon really came through. I was surprised. And I thought the porter style really worked.”
Naturally, I also wondered what kind of beer Fox generally liked to drink with barbecue.
“I’m kind of a traditionalist,” he said. “I like my American pilsners, which may not be so American anymore. But I’m a Budweiser guy. And I’m from Texas, so I do like Shiner Bock and Lone Star. I think the Shiner Ruby Redbird with grapefruit is a great summertime beer that’s good when you’re grilling or smoking. I like something a little lighter and a little more refreshing with my barbecue.”