Joe Carroll on How to Learn About Barbecue and Beer

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Joe Carroll on lesser-known barbecue and his favorite beer books. [Photo: William Hereford]

Joe Carroll of Brooklyn's acclaimed Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau, and St. Anselm has had quite an education. He started by diving into the world of beer: "I really wanted to learn more about wine, but quickly realized that wasn't going to be possible on a college student's budget in New York City, so I decide that beer would be a good surrogate until I had a proper income. Luckily, this was at a time when a lot of the legendary European beers and the first wave of American craft beers were becoming available at a handful of delis in the city." Much tasting and reading ensued.

He decided to dig into that passion when he was looking for a way out of the music industry's downward spiral around 2001: "For a long time, I had the idea of starting a beer bar, but thought it was something I'd do when I retired," Carroll recalls. Maxing out the family credit cards, he opened Spuyten Duyvil in 2003.

A fascination with meat and regional barbecue meant that Carroll didn't stop there; he'd traveled to Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas to eat barbecue, but soon found himself fascinated with lesser-known regional specialties. He opened Fette Sau in a vacant garage in 2007, introducing Brooklynites to a wide range of barbecue styles. Carroll's recently released book, Feeding the Fire, dives into cooking his favorite 'underdog' barbecue specialties, as well as what to drink alongside them.

I asked Carroll about how he learned both beer and barbecue, and the books that helped guide the way.

When you were first learning about beer, what did you read? What are your favorite beer-related books today? The first beer book I ever read was the CAMRA Dictionary of Beer and Brewing. I took it out of the NYU library. All of Michael Jackson's book are great, though perhaps a bit dated now. Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing is also killer.

How did you go about learning barbecue? I taught myself how to barbecue by watching others, tasting different styles around the country, and drawing on my existing cooking knowledge. My approach to cooking has always been "Why not?" I would rather try something that hasn't been done before than replicate a dish from a book. For others wanting to learn the craft of barbecue, I'd suggest Peace, Love & Barbecue by Mike and Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois. And Smokestack Lightning by Lolis Elie and Frank Stewart perfectly captures the romance of the barbecue road trip.

When traveling in search of good barbecue in places like Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas, where did you turn for tips? Early on in my travels, any barbecue in the South seemed awesome, but after a few trips, I figured out that the most famous spots were often not the best; they'd become corporatized, or the pitmaster had left, or the joint had been largely forgotten after national chain restaurants moved into the area. So I started seeking out some lesser known American barbecue cookery. I followed Jane and Michael Stern's Road Food and I took suggestions from anyone I came across who liked barbecue.

Feeding the Fire highlights lesser-known barbecue specialties like New Jersey barbecue and barbecue mutton from Western Kentucky. Why do you think these have fallen under the radar at a moment when, say, Texas-style brisket is so hip? For some reason I always tend to look for the unusual peripheries of any topic I get into. So after I learned about the big four barbecue regions (Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas), I immediately began looking for new flavors, which lead me to traditions like Santa Maria Valley tri-tip and Cornell chicken.

Some of these regional specialties are overlooked because of their location (like New Jersey), or because the locals would never call them cooking barbecue, such as Baltimore pit beef. And others are really more a style of grilling, like Monroe County barbecue in Kentucky. Most people don't know about these practices because they are micro-regional and rarely, if ever, seen off of their home turf.

When you're not looking to grill or make barbecue, any other meat-related cookbooks you find particularly great? What else are you reading these days? I've been loving The Ginger Pig Meat Book, from the Ginger Pig butcher shops in the UK. It's great for an English perspective and is loaded with information on some more uncommon cuts.

Though I like cookbooks, I'm much more interested in culinary history and documentation. I love reading books like Gastropolis by Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch, Appetite City by William Grimes, and Taschen's Menu Design in America.