A hogshead is a huge cask capable of holding 54 gallons of beer. A hog’s head is what’s staring at me from a smoker at the Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival at National Harbor. Attendees are ripping off succulent chunks of pork from the piggy’s remains.
Which of about five dozen beers being served at the event would be a proper pairing? I guess that a Belgian sour red ale might have some affinity with the Carolina-style, vinegar-based barbecue sauce. A few stations away, volunteers are pouring a vintage 2008 Vintage Oak Aged Rodenbach, a classic with tart cherry flavor, caramel malt sweetness and tannic bite in the finish. But the acidity of the beer and the sauce gang up to drown out the other flavors.
Clearly, matching beer and ’cue isn’t going to be the lead-pipe cinch I thought it would be.
People use the term “barbecue” to cover a wide swath of territory. They can mean anything from grilling weenies on the patio to a Hawaiian-style pig roast over red-hot chunks of lava to a whole ox rotating on a spit at the Munich Oktoberfest. Beer is almost always the preferred beverage, usually chosen for its refreshment value.
Jackson 20 in Alexandria carries four draft beers, 20-plus bottled selections and 25 cans. But at its monthly Pig-a-Palooza in the courtyard of the Hotel Monaco, which features a roasted suckling pig, the beer of choice is the light, fruity Hell or High Watermelon Wheat from 21st Amendment Brewery. “We sell a ton of it,” says chef Dennis Marron.
Amber ales and lagers tend to match up well with most forms of pork. The caramelized (but not heavily roasted) malt harmonizes beautifully with the sweet and savory meat. Aaron Willis, general manager of Harry’s Smokehouse in the Pentagon City Mall, says he tries to stock beers made within a 300-mile radius. His recommendation for pulled pork is Legend Brown Ale from Richmond. (“It’s a little drier than other browns but works fairly well.”)
Most barbecue sauces “are a combo of sweet and acidic, sugar and vinegar, in one form or another,” notes Jim Koch, chairman of Boston Beer Co. That calls for a balanced beer with a malt and hop profile sufficient to play off each element. Samuel Adams Boston Lager would work, he says. So would Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But probably not Samuel Adams Latitude 48 IPA. Washing down barbecue with a hoppy India pale is like piling on raw onions and chilies: You’re Napalming your dinner.
Chef Brian Robinson of 3 Bar and Grill in Clarendon (which also does a monthly whole-pig roast) takes a different approach: “I’d recommend an IPA,” he says, adding that his sauce is tangy enough to stand up to the extra hops. The restaurant offers Lagunitas IPA from Petaluma, Calif., a more subtle take on the West Coast IPA style, with a floral, earthy aroma and enough of a malt backbone to keep the hops in check. It does indeed go well with a pulled-pork sandwich.
John Daniel, general manager of Tuscarora Mill, also sings the praises of Lagunitas: Every year the Leesburg pub holds a “beerbecue” dinner featuring Lagunitas beers. The most recent event, held June 1, included Korean short ribs spiced with soy sauce and crushed peanuts and served with kimchi. The restaurant paired it with Lagunitas Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale, a strong, hoppy amber ale that commemorates a 2005 pot bust that shut down the brewery for a month.
Smoke is a common denominator of barbecued meat that provides a hook for beer pairings.
Backyard Ale from Flying Dog Brewing Co. in Frederick claims on the label to be “the perfect complement to all things grilled, charred, broiled, roasted and smoked.” This amber ale is a collaboration between Flying Dog brew master Matt Brophy and Bryan Voltaggio, chef and owner of Frederick’s Volt restaurant. As Brophy recalls, the idea was to come up with a beer “specifically crafted to be paired with food.” The two were playing around with possible ingredients when Voltaggio sniffed a sample of cherrywood-smoked malt. “It was like an epiphany,” recalls Brophy. “I could see the wheels turning in his head. We started to think about smoked meats, hanging out with friends, cooking outdoors.”
Backyard Ale contains only a smidgeon of smoked malt (just 7.5 percent of the grist), but it’s enough to give the beer a waft of charcoal and a dry, almost astringent snap to the finish that makes it a wonderful appetizer. But with an alcohol content of 7.5 percent (half again that of a mass-market lager), this is not “a thirst-quenching, easy-drinking summertime sort of beer,” warns Brophy.
Backyard Ale is available in 750-milliliter and 12-ounce bottles and in kegs, but once the current supply peters out, there are no plans to continue the brand. Boston Beer Co., however, is readying Samuel Adams Bonfire Rauchbier, its version of a German-style smoked beer made with malt dried over a beechwood-stoked flame. Unlike the smoked lagers of Bamberg, Germany, with their often overwhelming, sweet, bacon-y aromas, this one is more restrained, with a light acidity that keeps the malt from becoming cloying.
The bad news: Bonfire Rauchbier will be available only in Boston Beer Co.’s Harvest Collection fall variety pack.
The good news: Thanks to seasonal creep, fall beers now pop up in mid-August, too late for Fourth of July cookouts but in plenty of time for Labor Day.