We are smack dab in the midst of grilling season here in the midwest and much like a bag of Doritos, it goes fast. One of the staples of a nice summer of grilling is the burger. This iconic food represents Americana at its finest. A blank canvas for flavors and motifs, the burger can be made simple for a picky five year-old, or it can be elevated to impress even the most adventurous foodie palate.
Where does one start with the hamburger? This topic often can incite debate with a fervor unparalleled in certain burger aficionado circles. Ever want to see someone from Minneapolis flip their cork? Tell them that Matt’s Bar is overrated. It would be less awkward to bring up religion or politics in a job interview. People are passionate about burgers. In the 1980s, burgers were an afterthought; just something that families would grill up, often to the point of being usable for the family floor hockey game and not really see the potential for culinary creativity. What kind of bun to use? Cheese or no cheese? Red or yellow onion? Mayo or Miracle Whip? What kind of lettuce? How many times do you flip it on the grill? All of these questions and more are the things that we all should contemplate when we are going to grill up this summertime staple. Sadly, very few of these things are ever even considered. You want to take egregious to a whole new level, consider that few people rarely consider what beer to drink with their beer. I know. It keeps me up at night, too. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that beer goes well with a burger, but there can be some beer styles that make a little more sense if you want to maximize the flavors and allow each element of the pairing to put its best food forward.
Let’s start with what type of burger you are making. Obviously, there are many types of burgers you can make ranging from beef or lamb all the way to a whole Portabella mushroom. For me, when it comes to burgers, I am a purist and beef is the name of the game. Now, I am not going to beat around the bush here. If you are worried about cholesterol, you might just want to stop reading now. The next few minutes are going to be painful. When it comes to beef, the biggest concern should be what percentage of fat you have in the meat. Some people might say the blend of beef that is ground matters most, but I will leave that up to the restaurants to worry about. To the common man, who doesn’t want to sit there and fuss at the meat counter, you are looking for an 80/20. “But what about the fat? Won’t it be greasy?” Yes, there will be fat, and yes, when fat heats up, it will melt away leaving with you with a juicy and flavorful masterpiece that might have you speaking in tongues.
When it comes to the bun, you want something with enough structural integrity to hold up to the juiciness of the burger and toppings, but soft enough so that it does not seem like you are eating a memory foam pillow. When it comes to the other toppings, I like to keep it simple. Remember that we want the burger to be the star here and if you saw the movie, Black Swan, you know how things can go south when you let the understudy overshadow the main attraction. For the purposes of this article, I used tomato, lettuce, red onion and mayo. I decided that Pepper Jack and Sharp Cheddar would be a nice way to jazz things up and visually, the contrasting colors are a nice touch. Some people are of the opinion that the toppings make the burger. If that is your school of thought, then by all means, pull a Liza Minnelli and go crazy. The only thing that I would caution you about is that if you are going for a harmonious beer and burger pairing, if you slather your burger with Habañero peppers, you probably won’t taste the beer.
Speaking of beer, you are probably asking yourself what style of beer is most appropriate. Well, here is where it gets complicated. When pairing beer with food I like to think about balance. A burger, if done right, should be full of bold and robust flavors. There should be a nice juicy patty that has been seasoned well. That is a flavor that you want to notice. There is a considerable amount of fat in a burger and if you add in bacon, cheese and mayo, you have a lot of fat. The key thing that you want to think about is which qualities of a beer will cut through the fat of the burger and accompaniments to get to the heart of all the wonderful flavors happening in the burger. That is where the hoppiness of a beer can be your best friend. The hoppy flavor will cut through the fat and allow you to hone in on some of the other flavors which you want to enjoy. Conversely, if you are drinking a domestic light lager, there is nothing to cut through the fat and there is no balance, which will not be the ticket to a favorable food and beer pairing. Think Pale Ales, IPAs, hoppy Pilsners,Double IPAs and Brown Ales. These will all have a hop presence to get you to where you want to be. I think that you can also make the argument for a good Scottish Ale to pair with a burger. The smokiness of the Scottish Ale is a combination that I like with a bacon cheeseburger. I would avoid any beers where the flavors are mores subtle and delicate. The softer flavor elements will be muddled or lost when paired with a burger.
Grilling season is a wonderful time to be creative, but also a time to perfect some foods that are tried and true. Have fun with it and be adventurous. The only way that you can really fail at pairing a burger with a beer is if you overcook it. If you come up with any killer combos, let us know. I am always looking for something new to try. Prost!