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The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings

How to get the most flavor out of the game you're cooking by pairing it with the right brew.

The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings

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. (Photo courtesy of Jack Hennessy)

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.”

The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings
This framed malt chart found at Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence, Kansas shows the differences between malts. (Photo courtesy of Jack Hennessy)

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.”

The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings
The higher IBU of this HighBeam IPA pairs nicely with the curry found in the game meat and rice bowl. (Photo courtesy of Jack Hennessy)

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.


The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings
An Irish Red pairs great with the spicy sauce of this game meat sandwich. (Photo courtesy of Jack Hennessy)

The Chart you Came To See

Though, as mentioned above, there are over 100 styles of beer, here is a quick and dirty guide to pairing your game with beer. Though flavor profiles may vary across styles, these suggestions are created with IBUs and overall taste in mind in relation to your game. However, the manner in which you prepare your game will vary—for example, grilled backstrap with a sweet berry sauce. The suggestions below are based on the innate flavor profile of referenced game with nothing more than salt and pepper as seasoning. DO NOTE: An animal’s diet will play a large role here; for example, sweeter-tasting cornfed deer versus those bitter-tasting ones that live by munching on deciduous trees and native vegetation.

The Ultimate Guide to Wild Game and Beer Pairings

Guzzle The Water That Grew Your Game

A distinct difference between your city breweries and those further out in rural areas is the method in which they source their water. Chris Arnold, with River City Brewing Co., treats his water with reverse osmosis and then adds minerals to create a flavor profile. For breweries like Walnut River Brewing in El Dorado, Kansas, nothing more than a carbon filter is necessary.

“At the brewery [in El Dorado], all we do is a carbon filter and then we’re off to the races,” said co-owner BJ Hunt.

“Water matters 100%,” said his business partner, Rick Goehring. “We’re in El Dorado because of the water. For us it’s about the mineral content of the water itself and how it relates to the beer styles we make. In El Dorado, it’s relatively soft water, which lets us brew a wide variety of styles without really having to alter the chemistry. So really for the vast majority of beers that we make, we don’t have to treat the water in any way. The biggest factor out there as well, aside from mineral content, is that land surrounding the reservoir out there is all pasture land, which basically means we don’t have to worry about that runoff from farmland with fertilizers and chemicals.”

What does all this mean for us hunters? We are essentially sipping on the same water with the same minerals that grew our deer. In Kansas, generally speaking, those minerals are largely responsible for the big deer we target. Call me strange, but when sipping a pint of beer that came from the same water that nourished my game—I can taste some sort of kindred-soul relationship.

Does that mean you can’t pair city beer with your wild game? Absolutely not. Minerals are returned to the water used to create a comparable profile, but still, it’s interesting to consider when traveling to places like Montana or New Mexico. In such scenarios, the most important factor remains: How refreshing is that first beer after a long hunt? 

Diehard beer drinkers and hunters, did I miss anything? Message me on Instagram with any thoughts: @WildGameJack

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