How to Pair Beer with Wild Game

How to Pair Beer with Wild Game

Most hunters probably drink a can of gas station American light lager with their wild game—and that’s perfectly fine. I have nothing against Bud Light, Busch Light, or whatever your favorite brew that costs $20 per case might be. In fact, Coors Banquet always has a spot on my dinner table. But with that said, choosing the right beer for the right meal is an easy way to amplify wild meats.

Jon Brodie is a beer aficionado who’s made a career out of conducting private tastings, distributing local domestics, and organizing beer festivals. He’s lived everywhere from Rhode Island to Alaska to Florida, eating wild game and drinking local brews along the way.

“When planning your combination, a good beer pairing should reflect the character and nuances inherent in wild game,” Brodie said. “If you look for the same in beers, it will elevate the overall eating and drinking experience.”

With the help of Brodie, I built this guide for choosing the perfect drink to compliment your harvest. This should serve as a jumping off point; the beer pairing experience never ends.

Initial Considerations
Environment, age, and diet all affect the taste of wild game. Preparation methods also need to be considered when selecting a beer. Will the other ingredients create flavors that are fruity, spicy, smoky, or something else?

This is all to say that you won’t serve the same beer with venison brats as you will with venison tacos, despite the protein coming from the same animal.

You also don’t want to choose a beer that will overpower your meal. An overly decadent brew will outshine even the heartiest game. Oftentimes, lighter is better. Go with a beer that leans towards dryness and acidity over sweetness and richness. The dryness and lack of sugar allows the flavor of the beer to quickly disperse so the flavors of the food can prevail.

An oft ignored aspect of picking beer is freshness. As a general rule, select for the newest beer possible by checking the date codes on cans and bottles.

Big Game
Deer, elk, moose, and antelope have similarities in meat flavor, color, texture, and leanness. Flavor can vary depending on age and diet. For example, an antelope from sage country will have stronger and bolder flavors than a whitetail from corn country. Just as a moose calf killed in October will have more mild flavor than a rutting muley buck killed in November. But generally, you can interchange these meats in most recipes and pairings.

Look to Hefeweizens, West Coast IPAs, and Dunkels. Hefeweizen is a cloudy wheat beer with banana, clove, and coriander flavors. A good spicy chili will pair well with the Hefeweizen—the lightness of the beer will also help cut the heat. In a West Coast IPA you will find a bold hop aroma and higher bitterness. I enjoy pairing this beer with any grilled burger or steak. On the darker side is the Dunkel where you get flavors of toasty bread and spices. Look to this beer when making stews and hearty meals, using the Dunkel as an ingredient when you’re able.

For Hefeweizen, Brodie recommends Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier or any Bavarian Hefe. For West Coast IPAs, he recommends Bell’s Two Hearted or Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. For Dunkel, he recommends Paulaner Dunkel or Modelo Negra.

Small Game
Rabbit and squirrel are commonly associated with chicken, but they each have their own unique flavor. Rabbit has a lean, earthy flavor, while squirrel tends to be a little nutty and tannic.

Check out Pilsners, Bocks, and black lagers. Pilsner is a light-colored beer that is usually crisp and slightly bitter. Grilled squirrel goes perfectly with a Pilsner. In a Bock, you’ll find a higher alcohol content that is built on a larger malt presence and toasty, caramel sweetness offset by a little bit of hops. The Bock will pair well with fried foods like rabbit schnitzel. Black lager is a darker beer that presents roasted flavors without being overly chocolatey or thick. Black lagers pair well with stewed or braised meats such as hasenpfeffer squirrel.

For Pilsner, Brodie recommends Pilsner Urquell or Notch Session Pils. For Bock, he recommends Spatan Optimator Doppelbock or New Glarus Uff-Da. For black lager, he recommends sticking with German Schwarzbier—Köstritzer Schwarzbier.

Duck, goose, and swan are similar in texture and density, although flavors vary greatly depending on diet and habitat. Properly handled waterfowl can often be compared to a rich beef roast with even better flavor.

Try traditional dry ciders (non-sweetened), pale ales, or stouts. A traditional dry cider will offer acidity and hints of bitterness that may be perceived as sour. When pairing, I would choose waterfowl that’s quickly seared or grilled that’s accompanied by a fruity side, like seared duck breast with apple sage chutney. Pale ales are slightly hoppy and lightly bitter. Pale ales will help balance heat and spice—pair them with these Caribbean goose tacos. Stouts and imperial stouts have pronounced dark fruit and cacao notes and pair well with smoky, robust meals like smoked duck.

For traditional dry cider, Brodie recommends Shacksbury Dry Cider or Domaine DuPont Cidre Bouché de Normandie. For pale ale, he recommends Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale. For stouts, he recommends Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout or Deschutes Obsidian Stout.

Turkey, pheasant, grouse, quail, and dove are some of my absolute favorite meats. Most upland game birds have a delicate, sweet flavor and a light-to-dark meat ratio like chicken. The exceptions are doves and quail which have more dark meat than light.

Look to Vienna lagers, Belgian-style Wit beers, and American porters. Vienna lagers have a bready sweetness with enough hops to take the edge off. These lagers can handle heat from spicy wings and go great with anything on the grill, like buttermilk grilled quail. In a Belgian-style Wit beer, you will find flavors of coriander and orange peel. These beers pair best with light dishes that are flavored with citrus and herbs, like turkey with herb sauce. American porters are rich and complex with a nutty, malty flavor. They often pair well with anything sweet, salty, or fried, like fried pheasant and waffles.

For Vienna lager, Brodie recommends Sam Adams Boston Lager or Chuckanut Vienna Lager. For Belgian-style Wit beer, he recommends Allagash White or Avery White Rascal. For American porter, he recommends Anchor Porter or Deschutes Black Butte Porter.

Seafood, shellfish, and freshwater fish are a large and varying group that it’s hard to lump them all together, but there are some commonalities that bridge the gaps. To make it easier, place your seafood into categories of shellfish, fish with firm, dark meat, or fish with flaky, light meat.  

Check out a traditional Gose, Belgian Tripels, and Rauchbiers. Traditional Gose is a great all-around summer beer. It has a gentle salinity that complements the brininess of shellfish while also working with spicy ceviche. Belgian Tripels generally have spicy aromatics of pepper and clove with a higher alcohol content. Tripels generally pair well with white flaky fish, shrimp, or anything grilled, like grilled shrimp skewers. Rauchbier translated means smoked beer. They are dark, malty, and can taste and smell like smoked meats or bacon. They pair well with fatty fish recipes like smoked salmon.

For traditional Gose, Brodie recommends Anderson Valley Gose or Westbrook Gose. For Belgian Tripel, he recommends Victory Golden Monkey or Chimay Cinq Cents. For Rauchbier, he recommends Alaskan Smoked Porter or Stone Brewing Smoked Porter.

General All-Around Beer
Want to make things really simple? For the best all-around beer, Brodie recommends saisons or farmhouse ales. With those two choices, you can almost never go wrong.

“Saisons are the easiest to pair with wild foods,” Brodie said. “Many breweries brew a saison to show off local ingredients such as honey, foraged fruits and herbs, and local grains. If you don’t want to overcomplicate things, these are an easy choice.”

Some breweries take it a step further by using local, wild yeasts and bacteria to ferment the beer, creating a drink that’s deeply tied to the area your game or fish came from.

For saison and farmhouse ales, Brodie recommends Allagash Saison, Boulevard Tank 7, or Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere.

Drink What You Like
There are almost as many types of beer as there are animals we eat. This can make pairing overwhelming, but Brodie’s best advice is to get out and talk to local brewers. They’ll likely have recommendations for your area, especially if you shot or caught your harvest locally. In the perfect scenario, your meat and beer will be a product of the same environment.

In the end, the most important thing is that you choose a drink you like. If dark beer isn’t your thing, don’t choke down a stout just because you cooked mallard. If you hate hops, they aren’t going to suddenly taste better next to an elk burger. I encourage all hunters to explore and experiment with beer—but ultimately drink what makes you happy.

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