July 23, 2021
Fun beer fact to share at your next kegger: There are, broadly speaking, only two types of beer: lager or ale. While beers evolve from their original form—with now over 100 styles in existence—at their core it comes down the strain of yeast used in the fermentation process. Some might refer to these strains at “bottom fermenting” or “top fermenting yeast,” but it’s a little more involved than that. Lagers are also typically fermented at a cold temperature, whereas ales are fermented at warmer temperatures and have a higher alcohol tolerance, hence the higher ABV (Alcohol By Volume) across an ale’s myriad brewing styles.
Wait, what? You don’t go to keggers anymore? What Kind of parties do you go to?
But all joking and brewing science aside, you likely came here for one main reason: how to get the most of the flavor of the game you’re cooking while tilting back a brew. Nevertheless, there is a method to the madness as to why one beer might pair better than the other, so let’s break down the logic.
Malt: The Soul of Beer
Craft Beer & Brewing says it best: “Without malt, beer would be lifeless and flat. Hops bitterness only works in balance with malt sweetness, and yeast requires sugars and nutrients for fermentation, both of which malt-based wort offers.”
What do you likely notice first in the photo above? The gradations between light and dark, I suspect. This is the foundation of beer pairings, as malt is the backbone of brewing. According to a Food & Drink article in The Manual, “Malts lay the foundation for a beer's color, flavor, and mouthfeel.” What else has varying ranges of color? Wild game meat, of course.
From your light-colored meats like pheasant and quail to even your darker-flesh upland birds like prairie grouse to waterfowl to big game species such as deer, elk, bear—the color of the meat plays a role not only in the flavor profile but how you will prepare said game (example: cooking a backstrap medium-rare versus serving the breast of a pheasant well done, typically speaking).
Consider Pairings, But Drink What You Like
Chris Arnold, owner of River City Brewing Co. in Wichita, Kansas, is a lifelong bird and big game hunter who has been running German shorthairs in western Kansas for decades. “For pheasant or quail, I prefer lighter beers,” said Arnold. “With deer, I’m much more likely to need a bolder beer, drink a fuller beer—browns, stouts. The nature of deer is far more robust.”
River City Brewing Co. offers 43 menu items and 16 beers on tap and their service staff often gets questions regarding, “What tastes best with what?” Arnold’s advice is simple: “I can pair all kinds of beer with fish or beer with steak, but at the end of the day, drink the beer you like,” he said. “Don’t try to go, ‘Oh, well because this beer pairs with that.’ If you don’t think you’re going to like that, you don’t need it.
“The natural pairings of IPAs and spicier food—people will tell you that’s a natural pairing,” said Arnold. “But if you don’t like IPAs, I don’t want you to feel like because you like the spicy tacos you got to drink an IPA.”
What Are IBUs And Why Do They Matter?
IBU stands for International Bitterness Unit, a measurement that will help you determine how bitter a beer tastes. The higher the IBU, the more bitter it will taste. A few examples: Miller Lite is rated at 12 IBUs, while Guinness stands at 45 IBUs. Most IPAs will range between 40 and 60 IBUs. In terms of flavor balance, IBUs can offset sweet flavor tones.
Your tongue perceives four flavor categories: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. When preparing game it doesn’t hurt to consider overall flavor profiles and potentially the diet of the animal. Are you cooking up some wild boar that fed on grass and nuts and thus has sweeter and nuttier tones? Or perhaps a fall bear who foraged on berries? An IPA, with its higher IBUs, will help balance this overall flavor experience but may overpower or tilt flavor too far in one direction if eating a northern Minnesota swamp buck, for example.
For the more moderate game in terms of sweetness and bitterness, it may make sense to remain moderate in overall taste balancing, meaning for pheasant, for example, a pale lager or perhaps a pilsner could be the logical choice.