How to Find the Perfect Beer for your Ribs 

BBQ and the right brew can be a perfect pairing.

It's hard not to love a Southern belle — especially after witnessing one execute a precise head flip that sends a loose strand of hair back where it's supposed to be without having to take the barbecued rib out of her hand. It's hard not to love barbecue, for that matter. And while we're on the subject, it's hard not to see that the marriage of barbecue and beer is a timeless love story unto itself.

Back when two enormous breweries held nearly the entire market and all their beers tasted exactly alike, that beautiful relationship didn't require much thought. Now that we've got the entire pantheon of beerdom available — as well as an evolving library of innovative experiments from brewers who can't leave well enough alone — the relationship, well, it's gotten complicated.

First, you've got to decide on the barbecue. I tend to haul out-of-town guests down to the Rendezvous, and everyone always loves it. On a pleasant Tuesday evening in the spring, however, it's hard to find a better low-key barbecue joint than the original Central BBQ. There is generally a line, but you can get a beer at the to-go window and the people are friendly. Then comes the significant other ...

click to enlarge spirits_centralbbqsign.jpg

The Charming Mrs. M. is a devotee of cheap domestic beer and opted for a Budweiser (no Bud Light). If you can get over your sneer at the macros, Bud isn't a bad choice: It's light, refreshing, and the taste will politely go away before the next bite. It's what you want to drink when you want to focus on your ribs.

Those light lagers work so well because even the mildest barbecue is a bold proposition for the palate and the digestive system. I've seen a brave and short-sighted man drink a milk stout with pulled pork, but I couldn't tell you what logic he was using. You've got two heavy flavors wrestling on the palate. Further down the line, the pair will get along like a 2 a.m. bar fight. But to each their own.

Even if you shoot for something with a bigger flavor, keep it light when dining on 'cue. One of the more popular drafts at Central is the Ghost River Cream Ale, called Grindhouse. It doesn't sound like anything you'd drink with barbecue, but the name is misleading. Unlike a milk stout, cream ales are neither heavy nor milky. They are a New World invention, similar to the American-style lager but brewed like an ale (top-fermented) then lagered (cold-conditioned). Cream ales are light, with a "creaminess" that comes from being heavily carbonated. Stick it with a plate of ribs, and you have something that is light without being watered down. Because of the carbonation, it is also filling, which might not be what you want.

Wiseacre's Tiny Bomb is another local favorite. It's their Pilsner "with a twist." The twist is a touch of honey. And it works.

Those who think that there is a right answer to these pairings, however, miss the best part of the puzzle: that messy grab bag of personal inclinations that is you.

I was in London as a young man —eyeballing some colorful punk rockers — when I had my first bitter. It was my first beer that wasn't churned out by Miller or Budweiser. Half a lifetime later, I was eyeballing the tap of the High Cotton's ESB thinking, "Well, here is an ale light enough to let the smoked meat have the right of way but has enough flavor on its own to not be overwhelmed by it." Deep. But was it wishful thinking? Could I marry childhood comfort food with that first discovery of the wide world beyond? And is that asking too much from the good people at Central BBQ? Or should I just be satisfied with Mrs. M.'s physics-defying hair flip?

Turns out the ESB was a good choice, not just wishful thinking. And Central doesn't charge for "circle of life" epiphanies. Which isn't bad for a Tuesday.

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