Earlier this summer I received a package on my doorstep from Sam Adams—a sample bottle of the company's summer ale. That's usually all I get from the Boston brewery this time of year.
But shortly thereafter, another package arrived. I tore into it thinking by some lucky fluke I’d ended up on Sam Adams’ PR list twice. But inside there was no beer, just a box of wood chips. I read the accompanying marketing materials and realized I’d made a grave mistake; I was supposed to use the summer beer to soak the wood chips, then drop the wood chips into my backyard grill during my next barbecue. The idea here is that the smoky wood chip aroma seeps into your meat and veggies as they cook, multiplying the delicious factor.
It's these types of alternative uses for beer that make my life as a food writer that much richer. So I did some research on beer-soaked wood chips—asking various cooks and authors about their experience with it—and came to a surprising discovery: Maybe it was a good thing I consumed my beer long before the chips arrived.
“I thought it would be a great thing to do too," said Lucy Saunders, author of the cookbook Grilling With Beer, in an email. "But listen to me, I’m the voice of experience here. It isn’t." Soaking wood chips in beer "results in sticky ashes from the caramelization of malt sugars, and any hops aromatics are almost immediately wafted away by flame/smoke. Worse yet, using beer to soak a grilling board for fish merely results in the filet adhering to the wood.”
Scott Thomas, author of the blog GrillinFools.com, backed Saunders up. “Soaking wood chips in beer will in no way impart any beer flavor to the meat," he said. "It's a waste of good beer."
However, both Thomas and Saunders say that there are ways to incorporate beer into your barbecuing—beyond the obvious drinking. So if you must pour your beer into something other than your mouth, here are four ways to do it effectively.
1. Brine or Marinate
Both marinades and brines are great vehicles for incorporating beer, and both light and dark beers work, says Thomas. He uses light beers for things like fish, shrimp, and chicken. But “if you're going to cook something low and slow, adding lots of smoke flavor and then possibly saucing, then a lighter beer will be lost," Thomas says. "It just can't stand up to all those other flavors."
The same is true for anything that has really strong flavors. With, say, bison tenderloin, Thomas would use a coffee stout. Soak several hours or overnight, though you should never brine for more than 12 hours. Thomas says that the salt in the brine will tenderize the meat so much that it turns to mush.
Try it: Scott Thomas’ Coffee Stout Marinade
- 24 oz of coffee stout (2 beers)
- 1/8 of a cup of sugar
- 3 cloves, fresh minced garlic
- 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
Combine all ingredients and place your meat in the marinade for at least several hours and as long as overnight.
If you’re cooking over indirect heat, adding beer to a “mop” does wonders. A mop is a sauce you baste with as you grill. “You’ll get a lot of caramel color added because of the sugars in the beer,” Saunders says. Mop at least three times during the cooking process. Saunders will mop a fourth time for slower cooking meats like bone-in chicken breasts.
Try it: Lucy Saunders’ Lemon Lager Mop
- 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 teaspoon coriander seed
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1-2 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 6 ounces malty lager
- 4 ounces almond oil or nut oil
Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Makes 1 1/2 cups. Reserve 2 tablespoons to glaze grilled food right before serving.
Saunders likes putting some beer in a spray bottle and spritzing it over meat in the final stages of cooking. “The flavors of the beer will taste fresh and appealing,” she says. Those final minutes of cooking are often when meat loses moisture, and spritzing can offset that process.
Try it: Pick your favorite beer (Saunders loves Kolsch for this) and put it, plus a touch of water and some chopped herbs in a spray bottle. Over indirect heat, spritz your meat thoroughly in the final minutes of cooking. (While most beer is low enough in alcohol to not be dangerous, use good common sense while doing this and never spray directly into flames.)
It's simple: Dump a 12oz beer into a pan with a bottle of BBQ sauce, then simmer and reduce. “This works really well with porters and chocolate stouts," Thomas says. "Just throw it in there and cook it down."
Try it: Take a 32-ounce bottle of your favorite sauce and add 9 ounces of your favorite dark beer (you’ll have three ounces left over—go ahead and drink it). Simmer the sauce over low heat until it reduces and thickens.