Food is just one part of a cookout. The most important, to be sure, but still one piece of the puzzle. Often overlooked is the cooler of beer. Not solely viewed as a social lubricant any longer, the cooler has become more than a few six packs of Heineken and Corona. But the best hosts won’t just get better beer, they’ll get beer to match the food. The whole cookout harmonizing with food, drink, and uncomfortable conversations with that neighbor you felt you had to invite.
For those first wading into the world of food and drink pairings, bookmark this handy guide. It might seem intimidating, but the fundamentals are simple: Pairing is about matching flavor with flavor. For starters, think about the “level” of flavor. If this cookout is a finger food ordeal, a vegetarian-heavy get together, or kid-heavy (with relatively bland foods) then stick to your lighter, more subtle beers. This is so that the food doesn’t overpower the beer, and vice versa.
Once you match the “level”, start playing with flavors to either help balance or accentuate. Tons of sweet bbq sauce and fatty meat? Pick something bright and hoppy to cut the sweetness between bites, or choose a malty porter if you want to double down on similar flavors. Spicy wings? This time you can use hoppiness to bring out the heat. Here’s a handy breakdown of what to look for at a cookouts this summer, broken down by what’s being served. Each style comes with recommendations — some are hard to track down, others will be at any corner store that stocks beer.
Chicken, Seafood, Veggies
Light foods: For anything on the lighter end of the spectrum — most animals that fly or swim, salads, cheese and crackers, citrus based desserts — the beer should follow suit. Look for more neutral flavored beers, like lagers or pilsners, or beers that express themselves in ways other than with hops or sweet malt, like witbeirs, hefeweizens, and saisons.
Pork, Burgers, Sausages
Medium foods: Now we’ve got a little more fat and a lot more flavor to work with. For anything heavily sauced or cooked with sugar based glazes, look toward hops to cut sweetness. Don’t get too ambitious though — there’s a big difference between a porter and an imperial porter, or an India pale lager and a double India pale lager. Air on the side of low ABV when selecting more flavor heavy styles.
Maine Beer Co./Stone Brewing Dayslayer, Buy Here
Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union, Find Here
Anchor California Lager, Find Here
New Glarus Totally Naked, Find Here
Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Buy Here
Founders Porter, Find Here
Anchor Porter, Find Here
Hill Farmstead Everett Porter, Find Here (Unlikely)
Lamb, Brisket, Chocolate Dessert
Bold foods: Think aged cheese, game birds, and roast beef. Multiple-napkin-meals. This is when you can let loose and start loading the cooler up with heavy hitters. Anything dialed up with hops, malts, or funk should be able to stand up to even the most aggressive cookouts. The only exception would be beers like barleywines or sours or big imperial stouts, which will overpower pretty much any food.