Beer and grilled sausage: the two are a natural fit. But there are so many different types of sausages and so many beers that offer potentially perfect pairings. It's such an overwhelming flood of delectable possibilities that it's hard to decide where to begin.
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To solve this enviable dilemma I took a shotgun approach by staging a sausage-fest. Together with some friends I grilled up 7 kinds of sausage and sampled 11 different beers in an attempt to discover the best-of-the-best brew and banger matchups.
Our sausage line-up included the following: Chicago-style hot dog (garnished in the appropriate fashion), classic bratwurst, smoked Italian, Moroccan lamb, elk sausage with mushroom and cherry, spicy tomato basil chicken, and Tofurky kielbasa for the vegetarians.
We went for a wide range of beer styles, flavors, and colors. Our selection included:
- Sam Adams Noble Pils
- Schell's Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale
- Paulaner Oktoberfest
- Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager
- Tallgrass Oasis ESB
- Brooklyn India Pale Ale
- Liefman's Goudenband Flanders Oud Bruin
- Auroch's Horn, a strong golden ale brewed with honey by Olvalde Farmhouse Ales
- Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen rauchbier
- Sprecher Black Bavarian schwarzbier
- Guinness Foreign Extra Stout
We tasted every beer with every sausage, recording individual impressions of complementary pairings and choosing a best pairing for each sausage.
Overall Best Pairings:
Liefman's Goudenband with Smoked Italian Sausage: The cherry and dark fruit flavors and light acidity of this Flanders Oud Bruin was a surprising match for the fennel, smoke, and sweet meat of the sausage. The beer brought out an interesting fruitiness that wasn't apparent when the sausage was tasted alone. The sausage made cherry notes in the beer pop.
Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen with Smoked Italian Sausage: The meaty and smoky beer formed a seamless blend with the meaty and smoky sausage. The fennel spice combined with the caramel underpinnings and subtle spicy hops to create a sweet and savory partnership that worked like salted caramel.
Guinness Foreign Extra with Mushroom and Cherry Elk Sausage: The full-bodied, roasty smokiness of the stout was a fantastic match for the intense meatiness of this sausage. That combination was amplified by the earthy mushrooms. This one made us say, "Wow!"
Most Sausage-Friendly Beers:
Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager: The toasty maltiness and lightly spicy hops were a perfect match to the meaty/spicy flavors in a wide range of sausages. The gentle and balancing bitterness was enough to cleanse the palate. It was especially nice with the hot dog and the elk sausage.
Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen: The meaty smoke of this Franconian classic was such a great pairing that it almost seemed as though we were both eating and drinking sausage. The beer added some nice raisiny notes to some pairings. This one did particularly well with the smoked Italian, elk, and Moroccan lamb sausages.
Brooklyn India Pale Ale: Citrusy hops and high bitterness offered a cleansing counterpoint to the rich sausages. Caramel notes from the malt still provided a complementary tie-in. We loved this with the bratwurst and the elk sausage.
Least Sausage-Friendly Beers
Sprecher Black Bavarian: This light-bodied black lager just never found its match. Though gentle, the coffee roast character clashed the more subtle char of the sausage casings. The underlying caramel and spicy hops lost out to the stronger flavors in the meat. That said, it worked pretty well with the Tofurky kielbasa.
Schell's Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale: I was looking for the spicy saison yeast and nutty wild rice to complement the sausage spice and grilled toastiness. It just missed the mark. This wasn't bad with the smoked Italian sausage—both sausage and ale were pretty spicy.
Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: Like the schwarzbier, the roastiness of this strong stout clashed with the spicy umami of the meat. This beer's bigger body, sweeter flavor, and background smokiness did pair nicely with the smoked Italian sausage. And while it didn't score highly overall, paired with the elk sausage it was one of the night's top picks.
Most Beer-Friendly Sausages:
Bratwurst: When you think of beer and sausage you have to think of bratwurst. It's a classic combination. The juicy pork and nutmeg/ginger seasoning worked well with Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen and Auroch's Horn golden ale. These two came at it from the malty side, Schlenkerla emphasizing the smoke and spice, Auroch's Horn complementing the sweet pork and spice. The brats were also a great match for the spicy hops of Sam Adams Noble Pils.
Elk Sausage with Mushroom and Cherry: This sausage was made for beer. The lean elk meat has a slightly gamey flavor that is enhanced by earthy mushrooms. This sausage fared well with the toasty, roasty, smoky, caramel, and fruity flavors in the beers. It stood its ground against high levels of bitterness and hops. Top beer picks with this one were Sam Adams Noble Pils, Liefman's Goudenband Oud Bruin, and Guinness Foreign Extra.
Smoked Italian Sausage: Another supremely beer-friendly sausage. It worked best with the malt or yeast focused beers, the caramelized and spicy flavors melding with the toast, fruit, and caramel of those brews. The obvious pairing was the smoky Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen, but it absolutely sang with Liefman's Goudenband. Other good matches were Schell's Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale, Paulaner Oktoberfest, and Eliot Ness Amber Lager.
Least Beer-Friendly Sausages
Tofurky Kielbasa: While the sausage by itself is not so bad, paired with beer it begets evil. Many of the pairings made a pleasant enough initial impression, but they all took a turn for the very worst somewhere midway through. The only beer that halfway worked was the Sprecher Black Bavarian.
Spicy Tomato Basil Chicken Sausage: This sausage was simply too spicy to pair well with the beers. Only the Paulaner Oktoberfest really worked; it had sufficient sweet malt to tame the flames.
Moroccan Lamb: A spicy German hefeweizen or Belgian tripel might have worked better with middle-eastern spicing of this sausage. Our best pairing, Auroch's Horn, is similar to a tripel in many ways. This strong golden ale had the heft, complementary spice, and contrasting honey sweetness that made a tasty match with this sausage.
The one wurst not included in the best and worst lists was the Chicago-style hot dog. Our pick here was Liefman's Goudenband. The fruity, acidic flavors of this unique Belgian beer did wonderful things with both the subtle spice of the dog and the multitude of flavors offered by the traditional Chicago toppings. It's also hard to beat a pilsner with hot dogs.
What's your favorite grilled sausage and beer pairing?
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.