Popping open a frosty can to go with your grilled goods seems like a no-brainer, but which beer to choose? It depends on the style of barbecue and the way you cook and season the food, says Samuel Merritt, the founder of the certification programs Civilization of Beer and Certified Cicerone. For Memphis-style barbecue, which is typically pork dressed with a peppery, vinegar-based sauce, Merritt recommends an authentic Belgian Saison, like Saison Dupont ($9 a bottle). “Its bright, dry, and quenching acidity, along with its big, zesty effervescence, will cut through the savory fat of the meat,” he says. For the mustard-based sauces favored by barbecue fans in South Carolina, choose an American IPA, whose sweet, malty flavors will balance the tang of the mustard and whose hops and citrus notes will complement the peppery sauce.
In Texas, many devotees of the region’s slow-smoked beef brisket and pork ribs prefer their barbecue in a hot, vinegar-based dressing. For this style, try a rich, refreshing hometown brew like Shiner Bock ($8 for six cans), from Shiner, Texas, to help soothe the burn. Or try any beer with some malty sweetness to balance the heat and some hoppy, tangy notes to complement the tartness of the vinegar, such as an amber lager. If a rich, tomato-based sauce is preferred, Merritt suggests Guinness Draught Stout ($8 for six bottles). The beer’s bitter edge will accentuate the flavor of the tomatoes while its creamy smoothness mellows the peppery, salty meat.
If you prefer the Kansas City style of barbecue (meat of all kinds slathered with smoky, thick tomato-and-molasses- or brown-sugar-based sauces) try it with a Belgian Dubbel. This style of beer has been fermented with added sugars to give it some fruity sweetness but has a dry finish to counteract the richness of the meat.
“When pairing wines with barbecue, a good way to start is to match a dominant component in the sauce or style, keeping in mind what type of meat is used, and find a similar element in a particular wine,” says Beth von Benz, a wine consultant at mvbconsulting.com, who works with restaurants and retail stores. With the tangy sauce of Memphis barbecue, try a white wine with bright, fresh citrus notes, such as Bodegas Naia Rueda Verdejo 2012 ($13) from Spain, which has tart grapefruit and green apple flavors. If you prefer red, a smoky, spicy Malbec from Argentina, like Altos Las Hormigas, 2011 ($13), is a good choice, or go for a Cru Beaujolais. Enjoy the latter slightly chilled, says von Benz, which can bring out the fruity quality of the wine and makes it an ideal choice for outdoor gatherings.
With the smoky beef of Texas barbecue, a smooth, plummy Italian red with a naturally high acidity, like a Sangiovese, or a bold, smoky Shiraz would be nice with any spicy chili- or tomato-based sauces. Try the Torbreck Vintners Cuvee Juveniles Barossa Valley 2010 ($24), an Australian blend of the Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro grapes. It is unoaked and spicy with bright fruit flavors, so it can stand up to the heat in this Texas style.
For Kansas City barbecue, red Zinfandel is a classic pairing. “The fruitiness of the wine complements the molasses notes, and hints of black pepper bring out the spice,” says von Benz. Her choice: Joel Gott Zinfandel 2011 ($17), which is dense and rich with flavors of blackberry jam.
Since barbecue is a product of the American South, it makes sense to pair it with an American spirit that is also from the South: bourbon.
The way bourbon is produced plays a role in making it sing with barbecued meats and sauces. By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that consists of at least 51 percent corn, making it taste sweeter than spirits created with a greater percentage of barley, rye, or wheat. After it is distilled, bourbon is aged in new American oak barrels whose insides have been charred, which imparts a sweet woodsy, vanilla flavor that complements meats that have been smoked or cooked. And its mild sweetness pairs well with both the sweet and the spice of barbecue.
A versatile choice, bourbon can be enjoyed neat, on ice, or in a wide variety of cocktails. A Mint Julep is a great classic cocktail to pair with barbecue, says Nate Adler, the beverage manager at Blue Smoke Restaurant, in New York’s Battery Park City. “Not only is it culturally significant and pays homage to what they drink in the South, it is perfect with barbecue because the sugar and mint cool anything spicy and complements the sweet. You don’t even realize there’s bourbon in it.”
Lemonade, iced teas, and sweet teas are great choices with barbecue, but it’s a good idea to seek out sodas that are traditionally enjoyed in the regions where barbecue originated, says Eben Freeman, the head of bar operations and innovation at the Altamarea Restaurant Group, in New York. “It may sound romantic, but there is something to be said for drinking something that is born of a certain climate, using something as elemental as the water, the soil, the heat and humidity of a place. It’s going to make you understand the genius of why people in different parts of the country and the world drink different things with different foods,” he says. Freeman suggests southern staples like wild cherry-flavored Cheerwine ($12 for 24 cans, cheerwine.com), created in North Carolina in 1917, root beer, spicy ginger beer, or Dr. Pepper.