Beer in mind, brewmasters reveal barbecue pairings

Bartenders pour beer for thirsty runners following a race at the New Helvetia Brewing Co. in Sacramento in 2014.
Bartenders pour beer for thirsty runners following a race at the New Helvetia Brewing Co. in Sacramento in 2014. Sacramento Bee file

Few drinks pair better with a hot day and delicious barbecue than a cold beer, but selecting one that can impress friends and family at a cookout requires the tastes and expertise of veterans of the craft beer industry.

Sacramento has its own eclectic group of successful craft breweries that offer a number of session beers, a style that has low alcohol content, so customers can drink throughout the hot summer heat, and light options for pairing with more thought-out and intimate meals.

Light is a relative term to beer drinkers, according to Owen Largent, general manager of New Helvetia Brewing Co. in midtown Sacramento. Light can describe a beer’s color, alcohol content or bitterness, which comes from the release of alpha acids in hops during the boiling process.

At the brewery beers are listed on boards based on color, alcohol content and bitterness. For a barbecue, Largent generally steers customers to the lighter side of the boards – light in color, low in alcohol and little bitterness to distract the palette from the savory tastes of a classic barbecue.

Lighter styles of beer include pilsners, Kölsches, hefeweizens, Belgian whites, Goses and Berliner weisses, but for the sake of finding a crowd-pleasing and consistent beer for a party, Largent recommended India pale ales and lagers, with a crafty touch.

“For a barbecue, I’d go light in alcohol, light in color and I’d go light in certain kinds of flavors,” Largent said. “You don’t want a really malt-dominant IPA. If you’re going to get an IPA, you want something with a clean finish, nice and floral, that doesn’t hang around.”

Sloppy Session is an IPA New Helvetia recently brewed for its Sloppy Moose Running Club, which Largent recommended for the large all-day barbecues. He said its flavors play to a crowd with varied tastes and don’t overpower hearty barbecue meals.

For parties where guests generally don’t drink beer, Largent recommended a nice middle-of-the-road option like New Helvetia’s Molly American red ale, which he usually recommends for wine drinkers, or their Buffalo Craft lager, which he recommends mixing with San Pellegrino to make a cool, crisp shandy.

When in doubt about pairing with the type of meal, Largent said that light rubs on meat generally go well with hops. He said a heavily spiced meal does not match well with typically bitter IPAs, and so the safe bet is a lager, hoppy pale ale or session IPA.

Whether one is ordering a keg for a large party or grabbing a couple of growlers and heading to a couple of different local breweries, Largent said that Sacramento is rising as a city for wonderful beers and creative breweries.

“If I want to impress, other than the beers that my friends always have, I’ll go and source a bunch of beers locally,” Largent said. “With the rising tide, all boats rise, so if you don’t speak negatively and you bring up the other breweries, eventually the community will buy in and see the brotherhood and turn into Portland (Ore.), where every single brewery does well.”

Though they have developed award-winning artisanal beers, co-founders of Sacramento’s Track 7 Brewing Geoff Scott and Ryan Graham don’t consider what they do to be an art as much as a creative science.

Much of their beer pairing recommendations come from experimentation with different flavors of their own cooking and food cravings. Graham said the skill of matching a beer comes down to whether the goal is to compare, contrast or enhance flavors of a dish.

Much like their Nuckin’ Futz imperial porter enhances desserts with its chocolate and peanut butter undertones, Graham recommended pale ales that are slightly acidic and clean the palette for a typical savory barbecue – chicken or steak.

“Hops on it are going to cut, so if you have something that’s really fatty, the pale or the IPA, depending on how bitter you get and how much flavor, it will cut the fat,” Graham said. “If you’re doing something super light and delicate it may overpower it. If you were going with fish like a salmon, I may be looking at something like a blonde ale or a light lager … that doesn’t last (and) doesn’t linger.”

While Graham said Track 7’s Bee Line Blonde ale works well with lighter dishes, he enjoys pairing it with flavorful carne asada street tacos, with some crisp radishes or cabbage and topped with cilantro.

For a tri-tip – the classic of California barbecues – Graham said one can play with the choice between the bitter Daylight Amber that complements the charred, slightly caramelized skin or the aggressive Panic IPA that contrasts the meat and barbecue flavors.

Where the Panic IPA and Daylight Amber pose too much of a challenge for people who don’t drink beer often, Scott recommended the Slow Roll Session IPA that pairs well with less prominent flavors, making it a great match for chicken.

Sacramento’s breweries consider audience, occasion and preference before they recommend beer to their customers.