Full Sail

When it comes to barbecue, not all beers are created equal

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By JOHN FOYSTON
Special to The Oregonian

It's hard to be humble when barbecue season arrives and you have a beer in your hand.

Your wine-drinking friends are looking a bit apprehensive and no wonder: The best they can do, really, is limit the collateral damage. Quick: What wine goes with tangy ribs? Or slow-cooked pork shoulder? Or succulent, juicy barbecued chicken? Or freshly grilled peppers or corn?

But choosing a beer to accompany barbecue -- or as the base for a marinade or sauce -- is as easy as rolling a keg off a loading dock, because beer and barbecue were made for each other.

Recipe included with this story: Summer Ale Barbecue Sauce

Cindy Hayter is a board member of the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association, which sanctions barbecue competitions on the West Coast, and a member of the Ella's BBQ team. Plus, she's a native Texan, so she knows her barbecue, and she says that where there's good barbecue, it's a good bet there's good beer nearby.

Cleanse your palate
"Beer is perfect for cleansing the palate and making each bite as good as the one before," she says, "Barbecue teams use beer not only as an ingredient in sauces and marinades, but as their beverage of choice.

"My personal favorite to complement any barbecue is a good lager. The light, refreshing flavor brought on by the cold fermenting process goes perfectly with a warm summer evening and a tasty barbecue. My local favorite is Full Sail's Session Lager."

For more robust meats she suggest pale ales or a Belgian Trippel. "Depending on how rich the meat is," she says, "you could pair it with a brown ale or bock-style lager. For gamier meats, like venison, try a Scottish ale such as Fearless Scottish Ale from Fearless Brewing in Estacada."

For the traditional standards such as pork, chicken and seafood, Hayter suggests India pale ales (if Oregon had a State Beer, it'd be an IPA,) blondes, pilsners and German-style weizens.

And she has a special place in her heart -- and on her grill -- for Northwest salmon: Pair that with an Extra Special Bitter such as Red Hook's. (And speaking as your beer writer here, please don't overlook Hopworks' wonderful Organic Velvet ESB.)

I also talked to people at several craft breweries to find out what they'd drink with barbecue. "The big Full Sail for a traditional barbecue is Amber," says Full Sail co-founder and brewmaster Jamie Emmerson. "The caramel flavors blend really well with sweet/smoky flavors.

"Session Black also pairs well with, of all things, grilled shrimp, especially if it leans toward Southwest flavors. The coffee/roast flavors play against the caramelized grill marks, and the chocolate malt undertones are an excellent flavor against the shrimp's briny richness, kind of like a liquid mole -- unconventional but delicious.

"Hoppy beers have a harder time with traditional barbecue flavors, because the hops can come across as metallic against a sweet/smoky tomato base. That being said, if the grilling flavors lean toward Thai/Viet and spicier Tex-Mex, then hoppy beers can be really excellent matches. The herbal cilantro flavors can play really well with green hoppy flavors, but you have to be really careful on overall bitterness because it can kill your palate."

Stands up to robust flavor
Alan Sprints of Hair of the Dog brewing favors one of his lighter beers to accompany barbecue, "Ruth is an easy beer to drink with barbecue, but if it's spicy I like Fred to cut the heat. I use Fred and Adam -- both are strong, flavorful beers with lots of malt and hops -- as liquid in my brines. Beer in general is great with the robust flavors created on the grill or in the smoker: The sweetness from grain makes meat taste better, and hops and alcohol help cut the richness that you get with fatty cuts of meat."

Rogue Ales brewmaster John Maier recommends his Smoke Ale, which has an intense smokiness that stands up to the most painfully authentic of sauces.

Kurt Widmer of Widmer Brothers Brewing rates beer and barbecue as two of life's finer things. He loves a smoky sauce, preferably Maker's Mark Gourmet Sauce, made with the distiller's famous bourbon.

"I slather it on so thick that you can't see the neighbors for the smoke," he says. A good beer that stands up to that dousing is Widmer's Altbier or Blackbier, which has been unavailable for a while. The brewery plans to make another batch, although it likely won't be until after the Oregon Brewers Festival in late July now, so plan your early September barbecues around it.