The Ultimate Backyard BBQ Beer Pairing Cheat Sheet

Grilling? Here's your guide to the best beers to serve alongside grilled steaks or sausages, chicken, burgers, or veggies. [Photograph: Mike Reis

The first few minutes of a backyard barbecue are just beautiful, right? Cold, sweaty bottle of beer in hand, there's little to do but stare into the charcoal and imagine the tasty, fire-licked possibilities that lie ahead. It's a special moment that isn't really improved by fancy glassware. Once the grill gets going, how am I supposed to quickly stick some tulip glass into my "Kiss the Cook" apron if the steaks catch fire?

My tune changes, though, as soon as the table gets set. I want a beer—preferably in a glass—that's going to help every element of the skillfully grilled meal (ahem) taste even better. It isn't as simple as snagging the nearest longneck from the ice chest. You see, the beer that's best with burgers probably isn't going to do much for your grilled lobster tails or jerk chicken.

Once you've hung up the apron, you've got some decisions to make. I'm here to help.

The Best Beers for Burgers

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

A grilled cheeseburger with all the classic fixin's is just about the perfect food. There's the salty, savory ground beef, the sweetness of ketchup and tomato, the acidity of pickles (and mustard, if you're a crazy person who puts mustard on a burger), the bonus fat and umami from cheese and mayo or aioli, the bite of raw onion or the caramelized sweetness that comes when it's grilled or sauteed...

Oh jeez, I'll be right back. I gotta get a burger.

Okay.

As I was saying: burgers are perfect. And the only thing that can make a perfect dish better is the perfect beer to match. But when it comes to the best beers for burgers, the experts are divided. Many folks I respect love drinking IPA with their burgers. In theory, I like it. It's a pairing built on contrast. You've got a dish that's dense with four of the five basic tastes: salt (meat, cheese), sour (pickles, mustard), sweet (ketchup, tomato), and umami (meat, some cheeses). Bitterness is the taste that's missing, and IPA and other assertively hoppy styles offer that missing piece. I dig that, but prefer a pairing that helps unite the flavors of food and beverage by offering some similarities between the two.

So when it comes to hoppy beers for burgers, I'm reaching for a black IPA. Many of these beers offer a roasty malt flavor profile that can connect nicely with the char of your burger's grill-cooked patty. You've also got bitterness from both those roasted grains and the fistfuls of hops that are thrown into these pungent and aromatic beers. You've got both similarity in flavor to forge a connection of food and drink, and contrast in flavor to add depth and complexity.

Smoked porter is another great option. These beers also offer some of that complementary roasty bitterness, but the smoky side adds an extra-savory oomph. Try smoked porter with burgers topped with bacon, blue cheese, or barbecue sauce—natural friends of all things smoked.

Having trouble finding black IPAs or smoked porters? Non-smoked porters are available pretty much everywhere, and they offer char-friendly roasted malt flavor in a deliciously drinkable—and well-balanced—package. Deschutes' Black Butte Porter is an incredible beer that will make fast friends with just about any beef burger you throw at it.

Black IPAs to try: Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Deschutes Hop in the Dark
Smoked porters to try: 8 Wired The Big Smoke, Stone Smoked Porter (for a more subtly smoky experience)
Porters to try: Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Nøgne-Ø Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter

Turkey or veggie burgers usually run a bit leaner and softer in flavor, so they're better with a less intense beer pairing. Without the fat of a hearty ground beef patty, your burger can be overpowered by a beer's alcoholic strength or bitterness. Less intense porters, smoked and otherwise, are still an okay choice, especially with that veggie burger, but nutty brown ales or English ESBs will be even better. These beers have a toasty or caramelized malt flavor to buddy up with the browned and caramelized flavors produced on the grill, with a little something else to keep things interesting. Brown ales commonly offer a nutty or deeply roasty, almost coffee-like malty complexity to add depth to your pairing, and ESBs have earthy, zippy hop flavors to give a delicately bitter contrast to your dish—they're great with herbed meat or veggie patties.

Brown ales to try: Alesmith Nut Brown Ale, Big Sky Moose Drool, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog
ESBs to try: Fuller's ESB, Alesmith Anvil ESB

The Best Beers for Sausages

Sausage and Peppers

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

In his book The Brewmaster's Table, Garrett Oliver is pretty open-minded when it comes to pairing beer with bangers: "almost all beers work well with sausages," he says.

I think he's being a little overly generous with this one, but I will concede that there's hardly a better food for beer than these tasty little tubes of encased meat. Sausages are fatty and rich, ready to take on the bitterness of an IPA, the carbonation of a bottle-conditioned Belgian ale, or the alcoholic fortitude of some stronger styles.

But since I've got the microphone here, I'll say this: you really can't go wrong with German lager and a good sausage. It's a classic pairing best enjoyed on long tables with good friends and beers by the liter, but it's almost as good in your backyard.

Sausages cooked on the grill develop a wonderfully snappy caramelized crust, which just begs for the dense maltiness of amber or brown lagers like Märzen, Vienna, or dunkel. These beers are packed with bready, caramelly, or toasty flavors. These flavors alone taste great with your BBQ standard hot dogs and other sausages, but their true pairing power lies in their interaction with common toppings.

Sauerkraut, relish, mustard, and raw onions can derail a pairing with their sharpness and acidity, but the soft maltiness of German lagers helps to keep these elements in balance. If you're dealing with especially spicy sausages, the maltiness will help, easing the burn where more bitter beers would make things worse.

Smoky beers are also a great friend of sausages, and rauchbiers offer all the power of Märzen, Vienna, and dunkel lagers, with a bonus blast of smokiness making for an even more intense pairing experience.

Amber/brown German lagers to try: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen, Heater Allen Coastal Lager
Rauchbier to try: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen

The Best Beers for Steaks

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The granddaddy of backyard grillables is most definitely the steak. Unlike many of the dishes we're talking about here, there usually isn't a ton of messing around with the primary ingredient. A good grilling steak seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, stands alone as a thing of serious beauty. We're talking big beefy flavors here, and we need a beer that's going to play into their best characteristics.

My recommendation is a dry and assertively roasty stout or porter in the 5 to 7% ABV range. Your steak is bursting with fat and umami, and roasty bitterness from the darkened malts used in stouts and porters offers the perfect contrast, much in the way the explosive tannin of a heavily-oaked Cabernet would. The deeply roasted black malts that give stout and porter their color undergo the same carbonization as the blackened crust of a steak does as it develops from contact with your grill's ripping hot metal grate—it's an easy flavor similarity to latch onto.

Leaner grilled steaks, like this recipe for hanger steak, work better with a slightly less aggressive beer. Lightly roasty brown ales offer many of the flavor matching benefits that porter and stout do in a package that's a little less in your face.

Stouts and porters to try: Deschutes Obsidian Stout or Black Butte Porter, Founders Porter
Brown ales to try: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog

The Best Beers for Grilled Chicken

[Photograph: Mike Reis

Pairing with grilled chicken presents a different challenge. Because chicken has a milder flavor than other meats on the backyard cookout menu, your beer pairings will work best if you play off the sauces, marinades, and other ingredients.

If you're keeping it simple with a bit of barbecue sauce and little else, amber-brown lagers (Märzen, dunkel, Vienna) and rauchbiers will work deliciously. You've got crispy caramelization of the chicken's skin and brown sugar barbecue sauce sweetness to find common ground with the beer's similar qualities. Since chicken is a fairly lean meat, you wouldn't want to overpower it with a more assertive beer.

For brighter grilled chicken preparations loaded with herbs, bright spices and citrus, your best bet is a blonde bière de garde. These beers have a doughy maltiness enlivened with spicy, grassy, or peppery flavors from yeast and hops that seamlessly meet the rosemary, lemon, coriander, parsley, and mint you've used on your bird.

Spicier preparations, like Kenji's insanely delicious jerk chicken (seriously, do yourself a favor and make that) benefit from a pairing with a little malty sweetness to avoid pushing that heat into uncomfortable territory. Your blonde bière de garde will be delicious here too, but helles lager is a safer bet for cooling the heat, offering a grainy, almost honey-like malt flavor. These beers have a touch of grassy earthiness from German hops that unites nicely with the heavily spiced chicken.

Amber/brown German lagers to try: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen, Heater Allen Coastal Lager (if you're on the West Coast)
Blonde bières de garde to try: Brasserie St. Sylvestre 3 Monts, Saint Germain Page 24 Réserve Hildegarde Blond
Helles lagers to try: Weihenstephan Original Premium, New Belgium Summer Helles, Ballast Point Longfin Lager

The Best Beers for Grilled Seafood

Grilled Lobster with Lemon-Shallot Butter

[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

Grilled seafood is a great partner for some more delicate beers. Helles works brilliantly again, matching the sweetness of shellfish like shrimp and lobster without trampling the shellfish's delicate flavors. Pilsner tends to be a bit drier, but works similarly, offering an additional hit of bitterness to help balance the richness of drawn butter or the fat of a fish like salmon. Witbier brings some of that sweetness back, bringing a bit of citrusy acidity and coriander spiciness to the table (these beers are especially good with shellfish).

Grilled seafood dishes are also the best place at your barbecue to explore sour beers. If that sounds a bit weird, think of it as a spritz of lemon finishing your fish. Not so crazy now, right? Tart beers offer a bright and refreshing counterpoint to the oily or sweet seafood on your plate. Try Berliner weisse and gose, two lightly sour German wheat beers, with shellfish and white fish like this halibut.

Helles lagers to try: Weihenstephan Original Premium, New Belgium Summer Helles, Ballast Point Longfin Lager
Pilsners to try: Victory Prima Pils, Pilsner Urquell
Berliner weisses to try: Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse, The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse
Goses to try: Ritterguts Gose and any others you come across!

The Best Beers for Grilled Veggies

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Keepin' it all veggie-like at your barbecue? Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about you. For grilled vegetables, you're generally going to be looking for a beer without a ton of bitterness or alcoholic strength. Too much of either will make your beer overpower more delicate dishes like simple grilled corn, zucchini, or peppers.

These dishes are wonderful with German pilsners and helles lagers. The German and Czech hops in these beers tend to be floral, earthy, grassy, or lightly lemony in flavor, all of which nicely complement vegetables.

Especially earthy grilled vegetables like eggplant or mushroom taste great with schwarzbier (a dry black lager with roots in Germany), which builds on that earthiness with a restrained roasty, almost coffee-like malt bitterness. However you roll, it's worth remembering that veggies offer the least amount of fat or richness of any of the dishes we've looked at so far. Especially bitter, alcoholic, acidic, sweet, or rich beers will easily overpower most grilled vegetable dishes.

That is, unless you're going to slather your veggies with mayo and cheese. I freakin' LOVE elotes, and they're a fixture at most of my barbecues. The added fat helps this dish stand up to the bitterness of an American pale ale or the lively carbonation of a Belgian saison. The citrusy, floral pop of American hops in the pale ale tastes great amongst the herb-laden and lime-doused corn, while the saison offers peppery, floral, and citrusy aromatics of its own from yeast and European hops.

Pilsners to try: Firestone Pivo Hoppy Pils, Victory Prima Pils, Pilsner Urquell
Helles lagers to try: Weihenstephan Original Premium, New Belgium Summer Helles, Ballast Point Longfin Lager
Schwarzbiers to try: Uinta Baba Black Lager, Köstritzer Schwarzbier
American pale ales to try: Drake's 1500, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Saisons to try: Saison Dupont, Boulevard Tank 7, Pretty Things Jack D'Or

If You Had to Pick Just One...

[Photograph: Mike Reis

By now, we've got more beers on the docket than any Igloo cooler on the planet can hold. Let's pare things down a bit.

The one characteristic that unites all of these dishes lies is the cooking method itself. Cooking food on a metal grate over glowing hot embers has the tendency to impart a lightly smoky char and deep surface caramelization and browning.

If you're cooking meat and want to pick a single beer to pop in the ice chest and roll with for the entire night, grab yourself a brown ale or dark lager. These beers have caramelly, toasty, nutty, or lightly roasted malt flavor that will latch on to similar flavors produced by the grill, and allow your beer to connect with just about everything on your plate. Choose brews in the 5 to 6% ABV range so they don't overpower or shy away from the food you're serving.

Sticking to seafood and veggies? Pilsner, helles, or Berliner weisse are your new best friends. Not only do these beers taste great under the heat of the summer sun, but they'll bring out the best in your food as well. They're soft enough to avoid crushing delicate dishes with their beery might, but bring a little something extra to the table too. Pilsners have a floral or earthy hoppy bitterness, helles a spice-balancing maltiness, and Berliner weisse has its sunshine-in-a-glass acidity to brighten things up.

Brown ales and dark lagers to try: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Big Sky Moose Drool, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen
Pilsners to try: Firestone Pivo Hoppy Pils, Victory Prima Pils, Pilsner Urquell
Helles lagers to try: Weihenstephan Original Premium, New Belgium Summer Helles, Ballast Point Longfin Lager
Berliner weisses to try: Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse, The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse

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