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Certified Cicerones know all about beer styles, proper beer storage and service, and how to identify off-flavors in beer, but they're especially handy to have around when it comes to pairing beer and food. These folks are trained to consider how a beer's intensity will work with a given dish, and how to seek out complementing and contrasting pairings. They consider the roastiness of the malt, the bitterness or fruitiness of the hops, any flavors and aromas resulting from fermentation, and the liveliness of the carbonation, among many other qualities. In turn, the dish is examined as well: Is it smoky and charred? Topped with spicy or savory condiments? Served on a slightly sweet roll? There's a lot to consider.
As we prep our grills for burger season, asked our crew of experts about their ultimate beer and burger pairing. Which beer is perfect for the Best Burger Ever? Here's what they had to say.
"It may be the Minnesotan in me speaking, but I believe there is no better burger concept than a Juicy Lucy. Cheese is stuffed inside ground beef which is seared until the fillings are dangerously molten. One of my favorite combinations is stuffed with pepperjack and topped with pickled jalapenos, peanut butter, bacon, a fried egg, and perhaps a few dashes of hot sauce. Salty, spicy, rich, and savory, this burger needs an equally robust beer to keep up with it. A hoppy porter could work well here but I personally like to go towards an American IPA to accentuate the spice and cut the richness. Staying true to the burger's Minnesota roots I look towards Surly Furious or Badger Hill Traitor IPA for a decadent Twin Cities treat!"—Daniel Parker (Original Gravity)
"My ultimate burger and beer pairing would push the limits of decadence in gastronomy. It would feature a grilled Kobe beef patty topped with shredded duck confit, Havarti cheese, and truffle aioli served on a lightly toasted brioche bun. In order to match the borderline-criminal richness of this burger you will need a similarly intense beer. I would go with an American Barleywine such as Four Peaks Hopsquatch. Its rich, toffeelike malt flavors will complement the burger nicely while the assertive bitterness from a ridiculous amount of American hops will help to cut through fat."—Tyler Morton (Taste of Tops)
"My favorite burger to make at home is my lamb burger! I make it with a 50/50 blend of lamb and beef. The lamb gives the burger that gamey lamb bite without being overwhelming to those who aren't freaks for lamb. I blend salt and pepper, cumin, garlic, fresh rosemary, and feta cheese into the meat mix, form up the burgers and pan fry them. I use brioche buns and top with red onion, arugula, more feta, and tzatziki sauce. My favorite pairing is a toasty Märzen-Oktoberfest, in particular Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen. The rich toasty caramel character of the beer matches with the roasty crust on the meat and the high carbonation refreshes the palate."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewer's Guild)
"I'm partial to a charcoal grilled burger cooked to medium and topped with whole grain mustard, roasted tomatoes, and baby kale. Alaskan Smoked Porter has a subtle enough smokiness to not overpower the burger, but enough to enhance the smoky flavors imparted by the grill. The sweet malt and chocolate flavors accentuate the caramelized sweetness of the burger and roasted tomatoes. "—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)
"A burger utilizing any type of lean game meat (elk, bison, etc.) kept fairly simple with a semi-soft cheese such as Gruyere, mixed greens, and aioli. Unlike traditional cheeseburgers that pair well with aggressively hopped IPAs, this simple, lean burger needs to be paired with something that won't be too overpowering. ESB and English IPA tend to be perfect for this; both styles have a pronounced bitterness that will cut through the fat of the meat, but not to the point where it will dominate the pairing. The earthy/woody hop aroma of these beers will also pair nicely with both the gaminess of the meat and mushroomy character of a mildly aged cheese."—Ryan Spencer (Bailey's Taproom)
"The best burger and beer I've ever had together was at Burger Bar at in Las Vegas. The burger had dill pickles, avocado, a fried egg, and 12 strips of bacon on a plain sesame bun. There was almost as much bacon as there was meat, it was glorious. I like burgers with a big IPA, but I needed to go bigger with this one, and went with Dogfish Head 90 Minute. The piney and citrusy hops cut through the richness and saltiness of the beef and the bacon, the malt resonated with the caramelized flavors and the toasted bun, and the carbonation lifted everything kept things fresh. It was exactly what the burger needed."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)
"My ultimate burger pairing begins with what I consider to be the ultimate burger on the earth: the infamous Father's Office Burger served at the titular West LA restaurant. Chef Sang Yoon's signature cheeseburger is made with dry-aged beef, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, Gruyere, and blue cheese all on a delicate brioche roll and served alongside divine shoestring fries. A wide range of beer styles, from IPAs to stouts to sour ales work wonderfully alongside the decadent sandwich, and my personal go-to brew is a hoppy Black IPA like Stone's Sublimely Self Righteous. The dark malts match the sweet and savory condiments and flavorful grilled patty, while the lively carbonation and hoppy bitterness cuts the richness of the patty and the cheese."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow, Beer Paper LA)
"One of the best burger and beer pairings that I have encountered is from Pint + Jigger here in Honolulu. They have created a Stout Burger that incorporates local grass-fed beef with oatmeal stout, a house made beer cheese, garlic aioli, brioche bun, butter lettuce, and caramelized onions. The full flavors of the burger really call for a beer with a lot of flavor but will not interfere with the flavors that are already evident in the dish. I pair it with a Deschutes Black Butte Porter. The way that the oatmeal stout in the meat and the char of the pan sear can be matched so well with some of the sweeter chocolate malts present in the beer. The house made beer cheese, the toasty brioche, and the roast flavors of the beer remind me of a grilled cheese that I loved as a kid with the burned bits on the bread and crust. Black Butte is a wonderful example of an American porter with a touch of Northwest hops that can match the crisp, earthy nature of the lettuce, and the sweet caramelized onions are tailor-made for the dry finish of the porter."—Bill Carl (Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii)
"Give me a nice thick half-pound patty of 80/20 chuck ground beef lightly seasoned with salt and thrown on the grill with a generous amount of sharp cheddar before hitting medium rare. All topped with fresh tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce on a sesame seed bun fresh from your local bakery. I want a beer with enough carbonation to scrub away all the fat and oil but also has the intensity to match up with medium sharp cheddar. An IPA will do nicely here. I especially like the flavor of Centennial hops in Bell's Two Hearted Ale. With a 100% Centennial hop profile it has a great brightness of flavor without hop complexity to get in the way of what should be a very tasty burger."—Sean Coughlin (Genesee Brew House)
"My burger starts with an 85% lean chuck patty grilled medium to get nice crust on the outside and a juicy center. Next I add a few strips of smoky cured bacon, because, let's face it, everything is better with bacon. On top of that goes a pile of sautéed sweet Vidalia onions. In the same pan that cooked the onions go a handful of pickled jalapenos to get a little caramelization on them and they finish off the burger along with a few slices of fresh avocados to add cool creamy texture. All of this is packaged on a lightly toasted bun and paired with a traditional German Dunkel Lager. My favorite is Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel. It is a complex malt-focused style featuring a toasty and caramelly flavor. What might otherwise be too sweet a beer is balanced perfectly by moderate hopping with classic noble varieties. The char of the burger and the caramelization of the onions meld seamlessly with the toffee notes of Munich malt. The sweetness of the beer cools the flames of the jalapenos and the refreshing carbonation will scrub all the beef, bacon, and avocado oils from your palate clearing the way for another spicy, sweet, and savory bite."Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)
"LAB Brewing in Agoura Hills has the best burger I've ever had the good luck to consume. A perfectly seared Kobe beef burger is topped with sweetly caramelized onions, salty specks of bacon, a funky Gruyere and blue cheese blend, peppery arugula, and rounded out with a creamy garlic aioli. This complex burger is best paired with their Schwarzbier—notes of roast marry with the crispy sear of the patty and balance out the funky cheese blend, while the sparkling effervescence slices through every creamy, deliciously buttery bite and emphasizes the zesty notes of the spicy arugula. The clean finish of this lager allows this burger to leave a whisper of each flavor in your mouth. This is the pairing that I still dream about."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)