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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Pairing beer to fried chicken is all about finding balance. Despite its greasy reputation, well-prepared fried chicken displays a delicate interplay of juicy, flavorful meat and toasty, crunchy crust. The beer you choose should speak to both without overpowering either.
The aggressively bitter, citrusy punch of IPAs and pale ales throw the balance out of whack. The fruity and spicy yeast flavors of weissbiers and many Belgian beers can clash with fried chicken's crusty crunch. I like lighter-bodied beers that lean toward malt, but have enough hops to maintain a delicate balance between sweetness and bitterness. The toasted-caramel melanoidin flavors of mid-color malts are derived from the same chemical reactions that give the chicken its comforting character. How could that not be a match made in heaven?
Munich Helles is Pilsner's malty cousin. Light-bodied and lightly sweet with a focus on bready malt, the beer and the chicken have equal weight and temperament. The best examples have subtle toasty notes that pick up the chicken's toasty crust. Just enough bitterness and a dry, crisp lager finish make the style a perfect palate cleanser.
Märzen beers and English brown ales push the melanoidin match. Together with the crispy chicken skins, the malt-forward Märzen creates an explosion of caramelization and toast. The clean finish and balancing, spicy hops clear away the deep-fried grease. Brown ales lean more to toast than caramel, bringing out the darker side of the chicken skins. They're dark in color, but light enough in body that they won't overpower the meat.
The one exception to my above-mentioned preference for malt is a traditional Belgian gueuze. This blend of old and new lambics may not be for everyone, but if you are a fan of the fruity, funky, sour flavors of spontaneously fermented beers you won't find a better match for fried chicken. Those flavors are bold, but not so big as to overwhelm the chicken. Light residual sweetness in the beer picks up on caramelization in the chicken skins. The chicken somehow pulls out oaky tannins in the beer that otherwise aren't readily apparent. High acidity refreshes and washes everything away.
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Michael's Beer Picks
Ayinger Jarhundert-Bier: This is one of the best examples of the style. Light-bodied but full-flavored, it features clean bready-sweet malt with just enough balancing spicy hops. It's a perfect pairing with the breading on the chicken.
Surly Hell: A summer seasonal from Minnesota's cult brewery, it's lightly sweet with fresh-bread flavors and aromas. It complements the bready character of the crust and offers a contrast to its salty/savory side. It won't overpower the meat.
Great Lakes Oktoberfest: At 6.5% this Oktoberfest lager on the strong end of the spectrum for the style. It's full-bodied and full-flavored but still balanced. This one really has a party with the crispy chicken skin.
English Brown Ale
Wychwood Hobgoblin: Hobgoblin is on the sweeter side with rich caramel and toasty flavors. Earthy English hops and just a touch of roast malt bitterness keep it balanced. It's about as dark as you want to go with fried chicken, but the sweetness and toast make it a great match.
Lindemans Cuvée René: This lambic dances gingerly between sour, earthy funk and a bit of off-setting sweetness. Of all the pairings I tried, this is my favorite beer to drink with this dish.
Hanssens Oude Gueuze: This one is more intensely tart and funky than Cuvée René, but still has some residual sweetness to balance. This infinitely complex beer creates equally complex flavor combinations as it co-mingles with the bready, toasty crust and tender meat of the chicken.
What beer do you like to drink with fried chicken?
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. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint