Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite foods. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.
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When pairing beers with vegetables, be they in salads, steamed or sautéed, I typically think of lighter flavors. I reach for kölsch, pilsner, hefeweizen, and saison. But grilled vegetables are another thing altogether. Their flavors are intensified. The sugars seem sweeter and the planty tastes pop. Light charring adds intriguing dark flavors. Up against the stronger tastes, those lighter beers get lost in the smoke.
What's needed are beers with more heft. For grilled veggies like asparagus, red peppers, green peppers, corn, zucchini, tomatoes, and Vidalia onions, I turn to beers with more body and a touch of malty sweetness. The added sugars offer a sturdy complement to the concentrated sweetness of the food. Beers with some caramel and toasty notes (or even whispers of smoky roast) really set off those darker flavors from the grill. A little hoppiness keeps the palate fresh, but balance is key. Too much bitterness brings out hidden bitterness in the vegetables, making for an unpleasant aftertaste.
German amber lagers are the perfect beers to pair with grilled vegetables. Vienna-style lagers have the right balance of malty sweetness and hop bitterness to both complement and balance the sweetness in the food. Toasty notes pick up the flavors of the grill. The lager crispness keeps it all clean and refreshing. This style even stands up to the acidity of a grilled tomato. Märzen or Oktoberfest beers work similarly in terms of malt/hop balance, though the lack of toast means the pairing lacks some of the moving parts of the Vienna lagers.
Ordinary hefeweizens get plowed under by the intensified flavors of grilled veggies. All the great yeasty fruit and spice just disappears. But the additional malt-flavored heft of a dunkelweizen does the trick. The added caramel and dark fruit flavors provide a worthy match. The smoky grilled flavors of the food emphasize the spicier yeast notes in the beer while pushing the banana to the background. Citric flavors and effervescent carbonation cut the heaviness a bit. This really popped with grilled asparagus.
To really bring out the flavors of the grill go with a brown porter. The style is less roasty and sweeter than a stronger porter or stout. That bit of roast really speaks to the dark toasty and charred flavors in the food, while the caramel backbone converses with its sweeter side. The roasted malt also adds a touch of bitterness to contrast.
Michael's Beer Picks
Snake River Lager: This is a delightfully balanced Vienna-style lager. The malt has rich caramel notes with light toast. The hops have the spicy character of classic noble varieties. It has the sweetness and the toast to make it a perfect match.
Schell's Firebrick: Another Vienna lager, but this one leans a little more to the sweet side. Still balanced with spicy hop flavors, the caramel and toasty malt will sing with the sweet and smoky veggies.
Capital Fest: A summer seasonal release from Wisconsin's Capital Brewery, Fest falls somewhere between a Vienna and a märzen. It has the rich burnt-caramel melanoidin malt character of the latter with the slightly increased hop bitterness and licorice hop flavors of the former. It will speak to the sweetness of the dish, but not as much to the toast.
Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dark: A great dunkelweizen from one of the great weissbier brewers of the world. Leans a bit toward the banana side of the yeast flavors, but even that is relatively subdued. Caramel and faint dark fruits make an interesting match to the sweet and toasty vegetables.
Goose Island Rotweizen: Only available as a specialty selection at the Chicago brewpub, this is a bold yet drinkable beer with big caramel and bready wheat malt flavor. The yeast is balanced with both fruit and spice in equal parts. It's big enough to hold its own against the dish.
Fuller's London Porter: Rich and roasty, yet light and easy to drink. Sweet caramel gives a contrast to the bitterness of roasted malts. It hit the spot with the veggies' sweet sugars and flavors of the charcoal grill.
Meantime London Porter: One of the world's best. Coffee roast and creamy caramel make for a macchiato-like beer. It's creamy but not heavy. Great with a bit of light char on the vegetables.
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.