It’s around this time of year in Kansas City that the grills start going and the beer starts flowing. But what’s coming out of the cooler doesn’t always line up with what’s coming out of the smoker. And in a city like this, where the barbecue matters, that can’t be allowed to stand.
That’s why we asked Burnt Finger BBQ’s Jason Day (the inventor of the Bacon Explosion who had the first place chicken at last year’s American Royal) to bring some sauce to Bier Station on a recent Wednesday night, so we could determine exactly what you should be drinking with your smoke creations.
Bartenders Joe Godek, Dylan Broll and Ethan Brown took spoons to Day’s Smokey Kansas City sauce, which he released last week. As they sampled the original and spicy, they tried to find the perfect beer to bring to a barbecue.
“What is a true Kansas City sauce?” Godek asks as he dips a spoon into the original.
“Kansas City sauce is on the sweeter side. Both our sauces are ketchup-based,” Day says. “Some sweeten it with molasses. We achieve that through brown sugar.”
The bartenders notice the sweetness up front, along with some pepper in the sauce and heat at the back. They opt for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6% ABV), believing the hops could balance it out. [Forbes had an interesting piece in March examining just how Sierra Nevada became the country’s seventh-largest craft brewer]
“You’re trying to complement the food as opposed to add something more to it. The food is first. Not that the beer doesn’t need to be good,” Brown says.
The pale ale works and Day says that Boulevard’s Pop-Up Session IPA (4.3% ABV) is along the same lines – a lower-alcohol brew that disappears as easily as a well-made brisket.
“The conventional wisdom would say big barbecue sauce, big beer. But you should go lighter when the barbecue sauce is bolder,” Godek says. “Something a little more delicate balances it out.”
“You’ll never find me with a stout or porter, even though the roast might want it,” Broll adds.
It takes a little while longer for the trio to think about what could tame the heat in the spicy sauce, which comes from chipotle. They pour snifters of Founders Rubaeus (5.7% ABV) – a raspberry ale with a lot of malt and both sweet and tart flavors.
“It mellows out the heat a little bit. The beer just gives it a creaminess. It rides with it, but takes it down a notch,” Godek says. “It’s almost like a raspberry jam.”
Brown finds a comparison that any barbecue fan will appreciate.
“Beer is always the best answer with barbecue. But strawberry soda is second. And this is like that,” Brown says.
“That’s a Texas thing. Big Red,” Day says and laughs.
The heat in the sauce manages to bring out the sweetness in the brew, but Broll thinks a sweeter sauce would require a more delicate pairing.
“With a sweeter sauce, you might want a Belgian wit [wheat beer]. It would give you some nice coriander or a citrus element. Something with a little acidity,” Broll says.
With a handle on the sauces, Godek and Broll walk over to the cooler at Bier Station to start thinking about everything else that happens at a barbecue. They begin pulling out canned craft beer, reasoning that cans are easier to transport to wherever the barbecue is taking place.
First up is a Belgian wit – Avery’s White Rascal (5.6% ABV). It pours a cloudy white and Day is surprised to find that it mellows the original sauce.
“There’s usually a little bit of lingering heat, but this picked this up and cleansed it,” Day says. “After this, I want another bite of barbecue.”
Godek picks up some grapefruit notes in the White Rascal and thinks it would work well with kabobs on the grill.
“It keeps it bright the whole time. It’s nice and crisp,” Godek says.
For someone who’s standing in the smoke, Day explains that what he’s drinking can’t weigh him down.
“Barbecue is defined as a lot of things. But with the outdoor barbecue experience, I typically want something lighter, that’s chilled completely and refreshing,” Day says.
Godek has a pair of ideas – the Stiegl Radler (a 2.5% ABV Austrian brew blended with Grapefruit soda) and Left Hand Brewing’s Good Juju (a 4.5% ABV brew made with ginger).
“Stiegl and Good Juju are good for before, during and after the barbecue,” Godek says. “They’re low alcohol and refreshing. The ginger in the Good Juju is fantastic with a salad or beef.”
It’d be easy to stop there with two beers that could span the entire day, but Godek can’t stop thinking about the possibilities. Barbecue is like that. You’ve never quite done tweaking your recipe.
For something with a bit more body, he points to the Nebraska Brewing Company’s Brunette Nut Brown Ale (4.8% ABV and recently out in cans), “a utilitarian brown,” that is to beer what porridge was to Goldilocks. It can go with just about anything.
Wine drinkers might opt for the Sky Brewing Co.’s Hibernal Vinifera Stout (8% ABV), a barrel-aged beer, which has Malbec grape juice and an instant bond with steak. Those who like their sauce spicy could opt for Smith and Forge Hard Cider (a Miller Coors product that comes in at 6% ABV), one of the few canned ciders, with enough tartness to cut the heat.
“Do you ever baste in beer?” Godek asks.
“I’ll use it instead of stock or water because it can give me that depth of flavor,” Day says.
In the last pairing of the night, Godek and Day take sips of Tallgrass Brewing Company’s Ethos IPA (a dry-hopped India Pale Ale at 6.8% ABV) with the spicy sauce. Both exhale slowly after the combination.
“Immediately after drinking this. There’s a spice wave that hits like hot sauce. It’s almost like soda, that carbonation after barbecue can light you up,” Day says.
“This one would be for heat freaks,” adds Godek.
While the intensity builds, it also reveals something new in the Ethos.
“I taste the malt, but there’s almost like an orange marmalade taste,” Godek says. “I thought it was going to change the sauce, but it actually changed the beer.”
Find Your Beer is a monthly series on The Recommended Daily that is sponsored by Bier Station. A reader, who may normally be a spirits or wine drinker, visits the tasting bar and bottle shop for a one-on-one session with a Bier Station bartender. And together, they’ll sit at the bar as long as it takes, to find their beer. In our previous edition, we helped a wine drinker find her beer.