BBQ with Beer: Tips from the Pros

Give me some barbecue and a beer and I’ve got an ideal dinner on a warm summer evening. However, beer isn’t just good to wash down those steak tips, grilled fish, or smoked brisket; it can also be an excellent source of flavor in the recipe. From sauces to bastes and marinades, beer adds a whole new range of complexity to smoked or grilled meats and vegetables. Get tips on how to incorporate your own homebrew into your BBQ from two chefs who aren’t just blowing smoke.

Lori Rice is the author of the craft beer cookbook Food on Tap.

There are three things to consider when considering the use of beer as an ingredient in barbecue — heat level, length of cooking time, and flavor goals. Hoppy beers that come in at about 60 IBUs and higher are in danger of turning too bitter when exposed to high heat or when exposed to heat for an extended period of time. That’s not to say that those bitter flavors can’t be balanced, but it will take a little experimentation and you have to be prepared for a failure here and there. That being said, though, a BBQ sauce with an IPA can be delicious if it’s brushed on in the final few minutes of cooking. I usually suggest skipping the hoppy IPAs when you get started and leaning more towards flavor notes that fall into the category of caramelized or toffee, something that adds sweetness. Boozy is never a bad thing either. Not necessarily a high-ABV barrel aged, but I like cooking with Belgian styles. Crisp light beers work well too if you don’t want an overwhelming beer flavor. (I’m not sure who wouldn’t want that, but to each their own when it comes to grilling!)

For marinades, I lean more towards crisp, classic styles like Pilsners and pale ales. While slightly different with more of a bright peppery note, a saison is another good choice. The flavor they add isn’t exactly acidic and there are some malty notes, but it’s sharper than a mellow brown ale, for example. Their flavors play a role that’s more closely aligned with a vinegar or lemon juice, a bit refreshing to lighten things up.

There are a lot of options when you are creating a barbecue sauce, and this is where I like to go smooth and sweet. Amber ales offer a sweeter caramel note that can sometimes be a bit floral as well. Brown ales lean towards toffee and nuttiness. Cream ales are a nice mild option that works well in sauces. The Belgian styles I mentioned earlier such as a dubbel offer boozy sweetness. Stouts and porters with coffee notes, or even those that are more chocolatey, can create an intriguing flavor in sauces. Fruity ales and wheats can go a long way here as well. Even if you might shy away from a sweeter fruit beer to sip, especially those with tropical fruits like guava and pineapple, they can create some stellar sauces for barbecue.

Beyond the main course, there are so many ways to incorporate beer in side dishes and condiments. The Miso-Witbier Dressing and the Pale Ale Parmesan Dressing in my book, Food on Tap, can be used in potato salad or coleslaw. They can also be used as a side for dipping BBQ ribs or grilled chicken. The Pilsner Quick Pickles are also great for topping BBQ sandwiches and burgers.

Besides hoppy beers, as mentioned earlier, another category of beers that is more difficult to incorporate into cooking is wild ales or sour beers (this is not consistent across the board for the style, it depends on how sour). A fruit-forward sour would work. The style can be a bit harder to incorporate into sauces, though, due to the tartness taking over the flavors of other ingredients. For me, they make much better partners for BBQ pairings than ingredients when making it.

Speaking of pairing beer and food, some of my favorites are brown ales and Belgian dubbels with smooth, sweet sauces like those used on pulled pork and chicken. The sweetness of the beer is a good match for molasses and brown sugar in the sauce. I also like rubs and sauces with some heat. For spicier BBQ, I’d pick a crisp Pilsner or a kölsch. Mexican lagers can be a great pairing here, too. They tend to calm the heat without causing it to disappear for an enjoyable meal. If rubs and sauces have less heat, but identifiable black pepper, I think they pair nicely with saisons. I’m just personally intrigued by peppery saisons and I love pulling out that flavor note with food. Smoky meats, like smoked chicken, can pair nicely with sour beers and wild ales. While I enjoy a well-made sour, they can be hard to pair so this is a fun category for experimenting. The smokiness balances the sharp tartness of the beer.

Richard Silvey is the Executive Chef at New Realm Brewing Co.’s Richmond, Virginia location.

My first rule when using beer in barbecue is to use a style that still tastes good when heated and concentrated. Hoppy beers are the most difficult to cook with because they tend to get bitter when concentrated, and the hops can come across as metallic against a sweet/smoky tomato base. Malty beers, on the other hand, help add a depth of flavor to a sauce or marinade. Bocks, stouts, ambers, and porters work well for marinades, while a lager makes a really good brine. One of my favorite bases for a nice flank steak is coffee stout. I’ll include a recipe at the end of the column that you can make at home, either using a stout with coffee or without.

When making a baste I like to use a cup of dark beer, a cup of honey, one stick of melted butter, and three tablespoons of minced garlic or ginger. The sugars are going to form extra flavor on the crust and add a lot of flavor. For sauces I like to use a Belgian kriek lambic or a Flanders red ale to add some sweetness and depth to the sauce.   

Another technique that you could use to incorporate homebrew into barbecue is using beer as a spritz. For this, I like to put some beer in a spray bottle and spritz it over meat in the final stages of cooking. The flavors of the beer will taste fresh and appealing. Those final minutes of cooking are often when meat loses moisture, and spritzing can offset that process. 

When it comes to smoking meats, I would use a smoked porter as a base to marinate the meat in before smoking. I have tried to soak the wood chips in beer before smoking and it is not a pretty picture.  The chips get sticky and don’t burn very well.  

And, of course, there is the classic — beer can chicken — which we offer at New Realm. The best things about the beer can chicken is how moist the meat stays while the skin gets nice and crispy because it’s standing up. My last piece of advice for incorporating beers into barbecue meals is in the sides. A couple of times I have used both lambic and Flanders ale in a vinaigrette that you can use on grilled vegetables or a side salad.

For those who would rather drink beer than cook with it at their barbecue, when it comes to pairing I like a dark Mexican lager with a dry rubbed brisket, but I think my favorite would be a big plate of ribs with a funky, effervescent, sour beer. However, I always say that if you eat what you love and drink what you love, your brain will find a way to make them go together. And frankly, if you’re sticking with beer and barbecue, it’s going to end pretty well for you. 

Chef Richard’s Marinade recipe

4 oz. (118 mL) stout beer (at room temperature, try a coffee stout if you’d like)
2 garlic cloves 
2 Tbsp. soy sauce 
1 Tbsp. Vidalia onion (minced) 
1 tsp. shallots (minced) 
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce 
1 tsp. Dijon mustard 
1/2 tsp.  ​tarragon (fresh) 
1/2 tsp. parsley (fresh) 
1/2 tsp. black pepper 
1/2 tsp. salt 

Issue: July-August 2019