The Best Beers to Drink With Junk Food
It was sometime around midnight at the start of the fifth South Park episode of the night when the hunger began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe we should drive..." Then suddenly there was the terrible realization that we'd been drinking all night and nobody was going to drive anywhere. Swooping and screeching and diving into cupboards, we searched the kitchen for something to eat. The situation was desperate. We needed junk food. A convenience-store stumble was our only hope.
Binge bags in hand we staggered home intent on silencing the ravenous hunger that had pushed us out the door. More beer was needed too. But what to drink with chips and cheese puffs? What would not just quench the thirst but actually taste awesome with our junk-food haul? And that's when things got weird...
The Pairing Parameters
If you're in this situation, you're probably going to reach for whatever bottles happen to be in your fridge...but let's assume you've got some good beer in there. Instead of recommending specific beers to pair, I'll stick instead with broad groups of brews, some of which you might already have on hand: pilsner, hefeweizen, porter, stout...There are a couple of wild-cards thrown in for fun.
I also broke the snacks into some basic flavor categories; ranch (that's Cool Ranch to you), cheese (which includes cheese flavored nachos, Cheese Fix Munchies, and cheese puffs), barbecue, funyun (whatever flavor that really is), and "flamin' hot." If you find other junky snacks with the same basic flavors as the pairings below, the suggested beers will be a good place to start. To compare textures I included a variety of calorie delivery modes including potato chips, nachos, puffs, rings, and fries. It's all junk, and it all goes with beer.
A Few Basic Tips
You might be surprised, but a bit of classic pairing advice actually applies to the junk food example. For instance, most cheese-flavored snacks are vaguely cheddar-like. Things that work with cheddar cheese, such as IPA and stout, also taste good with cheesy (or cheezy) snacks. Beers that you might normally pair with barbecue, like stout or a Belgian dubbel, will elevate your barbecue chips, too.
It's worth considering texture, too. Puffed snacks dissolve to slime in your mouth. You need a beer with hops or bubbles to clear away the goo. The same is true for Chester Fries, which leave behind a greasy film. Potato chips have a delicate crunch that doesn't want a heavy beer. Nachos and Sun Chips are coarser and can take a bit of heft.
While not great with everything, IPA proved to be the most versatile junk-food beer overall. It's a good palate cleanser and can handle lighter and coarser textures. The hoppy flavors work well with cheese, barbecue, pork, and "flamin' hot." Keep it away from Cool Ranch, though.
IPA and stout are your best bets here. Both make the dusting of cheese-powder taste just a little more like actual cheese. A hoppy, American IPA is the perfect palate cleanser to scrape away any residue the puffs leave behind. The citrusy hop flavors bring out a tangy note from the snack. The stout/puff combination emphasizes roast, pushing the cheese flavor a bit to the background. The black malt bitterness pulls out a salty edge.
What an odd flavor the Funyun has. The key for matching it with beer? hops. Many American hop varieties have an undertone of chive that sparks the connection between IPA and Funyuns. The chive notes come through clearly with these oddly-onion rings, balanced out with the citrusy side of the hops. It's a magically peculiar melding of flavors.
Don't like IPA? Try Pilsner with your Funyuns. It's a neutral enough brew that it won't clash with the onions, and the spicy/floral hop notes in this beer have enough going on to carry on a strangely interesting conversation with the snacks.
Cool Ranch Doritos
These chips have surprisingly subtle herbal flavors and a lactic tang. The fruit and spice of a classic hefeweizen is the perfect partner. That bubble-gum mixture of clove and bananas ties in beautifully with the herba ranch flavor. Chip and beer both have a similarly light, yet mouth-filling texture. And the hefeweizen's fizz washes it all away.
Chester's Flamin' Hot Fries
While the moniker "flamin' hot" might be an exaggeration, there is a bit of a spicy kick to these. A bitter IPA offers citrus and spice that plays well with the snack, and somehow tones things down rather than fanning the flames. The IPA also took away the mouth-coating, greasy film that the fries left behind.
Barbecue Potato Chips
The thing with barbecue chips is that they give you the sauce without the meat. You get the molasses, tomato, and spices without the toast and the char. Pairing them with a porter adds that missing piece, bringing a roasty, bitter contrast to the sweetness of the chip flavor. The chip's seasoning also highlights molasses notes in the beer—they're delicious together.
Belgian dubbel also makes for a tasty combination, if you happen to have any on hand. The emphasis here is on sweet and spice, with deep, dark-fruit notes coming through from both chip and brew.
Cheese Fix Munchies
For those unfamiliar with the Munchies, they are a conglomeration of different Frito-Lay snacks all brought together in one bag. You have the grainy flavor and texture of Sun Chips, the salty blandness of pretzels, the firm crunch of Cheetos, and corny-crisp Doritos, all lightly dusted with a salty, cheesy substance. Which is to say, there's a lot going on.
Once again IPA is the beer to reach for, working well with everything in the mix. It stands up to the heavier textures without overwhelming the lighter ones. It brings out the tangy cheese flavors and amps up the salt. Our second-favorite option was stout which is particularly nice with the cheese-dusted elements in the mix and has dark malt flavors to complement the all-grain flavors of the Sun Chips.
Have You Tried It?
What's your favorite beer and snack combination to quell that late-night craving?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint