Time to fire up the grill. And, of course, you’ll need a brew or two to wash down all the classic summer dishes.
For any backyard gathering, you need a good all-purpose beer — something flavorful enough to satisfy your beer-savvy friends and family, but non-offensive to the uninitiated. It should be something light so that you can have a few on a warm summer evening.
The brand-new Fort Road Helles from August Schell Brewing Co. is just that beer. This malty but crisp golden lager is made with malt grown a few miles from the New Ulm, Minn., brewery. Toasted grain and a touch of sweetness dominate the palate, backed up by modest bitterness and spicy hops. It goes out crisp, clean and refreshing. This is my hit beer of the summer. It makes a great companion to almost any cookout eats.
Now let’s pair beer to the basics — hot dogs, brats and burgers.
Whether you like them plain or loaded up with toppings, hot dogs and brats need a lighter beer that won’t overwhelm their more delicate flavors, but with some spice and zip to help their sweet, smoky and spicy side come through. A German-style weissbier — wheat beer — does the trick here. Spicy clove and banana-like fruit from fermentation tie in perfectly to the meat and hold their own against a variety of toppings. It’s especially good with sweet or spicy mustard.
You needn’t go far for an excellent weissbier. Schell’s Hefeweizen and Fair State Brewing Cooperative’s Hefeweizen are brewed here in Minnesota. Both are readily available in area stores. Or run to Utepils in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis and grab a growler of Ewald the Golden.
Burgers need a beer with a bit more heft — something with some hops to cleanse the palate after each delicious bite. An American pale ale is a great go-to. It’s not as bitter or alcoholic as an India pale ale so you can drink a few. But it still has the tongue-scrubbing power and fruity/resin hop flavors to tackle any toppers from mayonnaise and ketchup to pickles and onions.
It’s hard to beat the original Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Still great after 30 years, it offers the perfect balance of sweet malt, bitterness and grapefruit/floral hops. For a good Minnesota-made pale ale try Kanū from Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth.
Time to move on to more intense treats — saucy or dry-rubbed ribs and smoked brisket.
With smoked brisket, reach for a smoky German rauchbier — literally “smoke beer” in German. This traditional German smoked lager showcases bacon-like flavors with underlying caramel malt and just a touch of spicy hops. It’s hard to find a more meat-friendly brew. With smoke on smoke you might expect an asphyxiating overload. But when pairing to beer, like often calms like. The two smokes tone each other down and blend together in a perfect marriage of flavors.
There aren’t many rauchbier choices available. I am not aware of any brewed locally except for the occasional brewpub one-off. But you can’t go wrong with Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen from Bamberg, Germany. It’s a meaty campfire in a glass.
Rauchbier works well with dry-rubbed ribs, as well. But for a real treat reach for a German black lager or “schwarzbier.” Sometimes called black pilsners, schwarzbiers have the crispness and balanced hops of that style with just a touch of dry roastiness. The dry beer is a perfect match with dry ribs. Gently sweet malt and spicy hops touch both sweet and spice in the rub. That hint of roast works with the grilled toastiness of the ribs. If your rub is spicy, the hops will accentuate the heat, but not so much as to set your mouth ablaze.
Bauhaus Brew Labs’ Stargrazer is a good locally brewed schwarzbier. For an authentic German example look for Köstritzer Schwarzbier. But be advised that poor handling can sometimes leave this one with a papery off-flavor.
Sweet and saucy wet ribs really sing with malty-sweet beers. Look for beers with caramel, toast and dark fruit flavors to pull out the best of both the meat and the sauce.
The richly sweet, caramel-toasty malt of Celebrator Doppelbock blends seamlessly with barbecue sauce, bringing out nice molasses notes in the finish. Celebrator has subtle background roastiness that adds a welcome hint of smoke to the pairing.
Spaten Dunkel is a classic Bavarian dark lager that is simple enough to complement the ribs without overpowering them. It seems thin with dry ribs, but with wet ribs the tangy sauce and sweet, toasty malt grab hold of each other and give a boost to both. Just enough hops and a crisp finish work to clear your palate for the next bite.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.