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Bartenders and Chefs Reveal Their Top Beer Pairings for Barbecue

What suds should suit smoked and grilled meats best?

The bar at Slows Bar-B-Q in Corktown.
The bar at Slows Bar-B-Q in Corktown.
Michelle and Chris Gerard

Summer is officially here which means time to fire up the grill or smoker. What is that ideal beer to pair with your perfectly cooked entrees? We asked nine of Metro Detroit's top bartenders, chefs, and restaurateurs what their recommendations are on pairing beer with barbecue.

"Barbecue" Versus "Grilling"

A quick note of housekeeping, there is barbecue and there is grilling. Most home chefs are likely grilling, which is cooking meat directly over a higher heat source. Proper barbecue restaurants and home chefs with the right equipment (and patience) can make barbecue, which is meat cooked over a lower indirect heat source and smoked. We'll touch on both in this article and refer to them as grilling and barbecue respectively.

How to Pair Alcohol With Food

There are many ways to address pairing alcohol with food. The simplest is drink what tastes good to you. Subconsciously, there is pairing happening in your head. You just don't know it. Elizabeth Cosby, Rock City Eatery's new beverage manager, confronts it more scientifically. "There are three ways [to approach pairings]," she says, "comparison flavors, contrasting flavors and layering flavors." Comparison flavors are finding similar tastes in the beer and sauce such as sweetness or tartness. Contrasting flavors leverage opposing tastes to elevate everything. Laying flavors is the final pairing strategy. This is the most complex and is often done by chefs. Picking up key flavors in the sauce and enhancing them with other tastes makes the whole meal more complex.

Phoenicia. [Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard]

Expert Recommendations

Detroit's industry experts consistently favored sour and malty beers for barbecue pairings. Chas Williams, head bartender at The Oakland, loves a sour as it cuts through the rich, fatty, smoky flavor of barbecue. Paul Fradeneck, head bartender for Mabel Gray, agrees. He says it especially compliments the tart flavors of a Eastern North Carolina-style vinegar sauce.

Malty beers work well with sweet sauces like the Memphis-style. Nate Bonkowski, bartender at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, suggests a beer with caramelized flavors that don't overpower the meat. Black ales, black IPAs, and Scotch ales all fit this profile. Christian Stachel, beverage director at Wright & Co, says a smoked beer is a unique way to go and compliments the smoke in the meat such as a rauchbier (smoked lager). He says hoppy beers can also work but be careful to not go too bitter.

All of this being said, don't be afraid to go with a simple lawnmower-style beer here or be "selfish" as chef Kate Williams says. She is often the one doing the cooking and she will pick something that is familiar and easy drinking such as Bud Light or Corona (with lots of lime). She leans towards unpretentiousness for whole hog cook-outs.

Dorothy Elizabeth, bartender at Standby, is a vegetarian but still loves great barbecue. According to Elizabeth, Wurst Bar in Ypsilanti will do special grilling events where they cook-up "chickfu" (chickpea tofu) that is deep-fried and smothered in barbecue sauce. It pairs well their over 20 draft beer selection.

For a light easy to pair beer with many styles of barbecue, Jen Refuss, bar manager of Au Cochon selects a lager like New Holland Brewing's Full Circle. Dave Kwiatkowski, partner in the Detroit Optimist Society, likes Mahr's Hell beer because it's light, crisp, and refreshing. These two types of beer will cleanse the pallet and not compete with the flavors of the sauces. For the sour route, Fradeneck recommends the Leelanau Brewing Company's Whaleback White. With all the fat in the meat, you can also get away with a higher ABV beer, says Elizabeth. Weyerbacher's Double IPA has that high alcohol and is not too hoppy.

Video: This might be the best barbecue in America

The Oakland

201 West Nine Mile Road, , MI 48220 (248) 291-5295 Visit Website

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails

15 E Kirby St, Detroit, MI 48202 (313) 818-3915

Au Cochon

260 N Old Woodward Avenue, Birmingham, MI Visit Website


1301 Broadway Street, Detroit, MI 48226 Visit Website

Mabel Gray

23825 John R Road, , MI 48030 (248) 398-4300 Visit Website

Rock City Eatery

4216 Woodward Avenue, , MI 48201 (313) 265-3729 Visit Website