Guide to Pairing BBQ with Local Beer

Local Libations Summer 2018 Issue

Guide to Pairing BBQ with Local Beer

By Bjorn Bergman | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

It’s summer time. It’s the end of a long week. It’s time to gather with friends for a grill-out and enjoy some cool Wisconsin beers. The coals are ready. I am about to throw a maple teriyaki flank steak on the grill along with some rounds of eggplant seasoned with chipotle, when it hits me—what beer am I going to drink with this meal? In all honesty, I am not sure. I typically aim for a light beer like pilsner or amber ale. Could I do better? Yes.

Before we dive deep into the world of pairing beer and grillables, let’s back up a bit and get down to some basics.

How does taste work, anyway? That delicious sip of ale flows onto the tongue, which is covered with around 10,000 taste buds. Those taste buds encounter about 10,000 different chemical components that are possibly in beer and send electrical pulses through the tongue’s neurons to the brain. It turns out that we can taste five different elements: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (meatiness). Adding to the sense of taste is the sense of smell. Aroma compounds in a beer waft down the throat and up into the nose. In fact, about 90 percent of what we sense when we taste is through smell. If you don’t believe me, think of what you can (or can’t) taste when you have a cold. Your sense of taste and smell give your brain a full picture of what just entered your mouth.

To make full use of that complex system of neurons and brainwaves, we should take advantage of the simple and elegant art and science to food and beer pairings. There are two generally accepted strategies about how to pair food and beer—like food with like beer, or unlike food with unlike beer.

The theory of pairing like foods with like beers builds off the idea that we need to think about the prominent flavors in a meal and find a beer with the same flavors to go with it in order to create a synergistic and complementary food experience. For example, pairing grilled lemon-pepper chicken with a tart and acidic sour beer. The acidic bite of both elements matches and takes a dining experience to the next level.

On the other side, the idea of pairing unlike foods with unlike beers is to recognize what element the meal is missing and find a beer that fills the void in the tasting experience. For example, a grilled burger offers four of the five flavors: umami (meat, cheese), sweet (ketchup, tomato), sour (mustard, relish, onion) and salt (ketchup, meat, cheese). What’s missing is bitter. Pairing a hoppy beer, like a pale ale or IPA, can add a fifth element to the meal that makes it a full flavor sensation.

While both pairing approaches can take your favorite grilled foods to the next level, it is up to you to experiment and determine which you like best.

Before we move on and talk more about the beer, there’s one final idea that’s important to consider: What happens to food when it is grilled? When you cook food over an open flame on a red-hot grill, the carbohydrates and proteins in the food begin to react (called Maillard reactions), which forms the delicious and flavorful browning compounds that we know and love. As the food gets hotter on the grill, caramelizing and, finally, pyrolysis (or charring) happen. Each of these stages creates new flavor compounds in the food. Additionally, the flames of the grill add wonderful campfire-smoked flavor to the food. When pairing beer with grilled food, it is best to keep in mind the flavor that grilling imparts on a meal and try to complement it or find what is missing in those flavors.

Now on to the pairing! Below are the main categories of beer that are available at most liquor stores with some of my ideas of grilled foods they pair well with. These are general foundations. I encourage you to experiment and try new things. Cheers to summer, grilling and enjoying Wisconsin beer!


LAGERS & PILSNERS are fermented at cooler temperatures and are characterized by their light gold color, high carbonation and minimal maltiness. They are not very hoppy and very refreshing after a long summer day. Pilsner is a more flavorful lager and has a floral hop profile and a more defined maltiness.

Lagers and pilsners pair well with just about anything. Since they are not overpowering in their aroma or taste, they match up well with subtle foods like grilled chicken and veggies.

Lager and pilsner recommendations: Capital Supper Club, Pearl Street Rubber Mils Pils.

AMBER ALES are balanced beers that offer a good amount of malty and hops characters without being overpowering. They range from amber colored to the tiniest bit of red. They are typically clear, well carbonated and have a bit of residual sweetness and caramel notes.

The residual sweetness and caramel notes of amber ales match up nicely with the sweetness in BBQ sauce and the smoky char of meaty grilled ribs. They also pair well with any type of spicy food like chorizo or Thai sausages.

Amber ale recommendations: Potosi Cave Ale, Tyranena Headless Man Amber Ale.

PALE ALES and India pale ales (IPAs) are less malty and more hop-forward than amber ales. They are golden to rich amber and can be clear to hazy. Their hop profile is typically moderate to bold and leans in the citrusy range. IPAs are more hoppy than pale ales.

Pale ales and IPAs pair well with lighter grilled foods. It’s important to make sure that your chosen pale ale or IPA doesn’t overpower your grillables. The bright, clean finish of a pale ale or IPA matches well with the light flavor of chicken, fish and veggies. On the “unlike with unlike” side of the spectrum, try pairing these beers with classic burgers to add a bitter element to the meal.

Pale ale and IPA recommendations: Ale Asylum Hopalicious, Karben4 Fantasy Factory.

STOUTS are traditionally made with roasted barley, which gives them their dark, rich color and taste. They have a creamy, lingering head of foam and taste at once rich, creamy and bitter (from the roasted barley). Stouts can be dry or sweet. Some brewers change up their stouts by adding oatmeal, wheat, rye, coffee and even lactose (milk sugar) before fermentation. (Read more about a close relative of stouts: porters.)

Stouts pair well with grilled food since the flavors imparted by grilling (caramel, char and smoke) are often found in stouts. When pairing grilled food with stouts, it’s important to match them with rich foods like beef so that their dark chocolate and coffee overtones don’t drown out the food. Burgers, steaks and smoked racks of beef ribs are sure-to-please pairings.

Stout recommendations: Central Waters Satin Solitude Imperial Stout, Sand Creek Oscar’s Chocolate Oatmeal Stout

SOURS are where things get a little funky. Sour beers are a relatively new trend on the scene. They feature all the same ingredients as a traditional beer except one: the yeast. Rather than being fermented with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast, they are transformed with a different group of microorganisms: Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus. Sour beers are typically fruity, funky, tart, dry, earthy and minimally hopped.

Sour beers complement a wide variety of foods. Their tartness pairs well with any food that’s marinated or served with BBQ sauce by cutting through the sweetness, creating a sweet-andsour element. Sours also pair well with fish, like grilled salmon or trout, especially when they have an added acid element like lemon spritzed on top.

Sour recommendations: O’so Infectious Groove Sour Ale, New Glarus Cran-Bic.


Looking for some grilling recipes to pair with those beers? 

Check out the "Grill" category in our recipe search!

Bjorn Bergman lives in Viroqua, Wisconsin, with his wife, Heidi. He is passionate about growing food and eating seasonally. Each growing season, he keeps a large garden and loves spending time preserving the harvest by drying, canning, freezing, and fermenting. Every summer and fall, he teaches a variety of food preservation classes through the Driftless Folk School as a way to share sustainable living ideas with others. He works at the Viroqua Food Co-op as their outreach coordinator.

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