Although the first official day of summer comes later this month, we are well into prime grilling season. Whether you prefer your favorite flame-cooked meats and veggies smoked, rubbed or sauced, picking the right beer for the meal can enhance your enjoyment.

Beer gets many of its flavors from the same chemical reactions that make grilled food so irresistible. Caramelization, toasting and roasting all play a part in turning grain into malt and malt into beer. This makes malty beer flavors simpatico with the light char of a well-cooked steak or the caramelized grill marks on a thick-cut chop. Zesty hops and fruity/spicy yeast bring contrasting notes and palate-cleansing power.

What to pour depends on what you’re cooking. Grilled veggies like beers that feature toasty-caramel malt, with just enough hops to provide balance. A burger with the works can handle a zippy brew dripping with hops. Seared red meats find harmony with the roastiness of rich, black ales. A saucy rack of ribs does well with stronger, malt-forward beers with plenty of dark fruit character.

My favorite beer to drink with grilled vegetables is Vienna-style lager. Easy-drinking Vienna lagers, with their amber color, have just the right amount of caramel sweetness and toast to complement the concentrated sugars and light toasting of the veggies. Some good examples include Schell’s FireBrick and Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager.

If fresh asparagus is on your grill, try a Belgian blond ale. The combination of sugary sweetness, light fruits and yeasty spice is a perfect match to this springtime favorite. Omer Blond and Leffe Blonde are both good choices. Or pick up a growler of Patersbier from Pour Decisions Brewery in Roseville. You can return to this style later in the year when Brussels sprout season rolls around.

Fishing for the right drink

Grilling walleye from your last trip Up North? Reach for a Belgian witbier to wash it down. Yeast and wheat give this super-light ale a fullness that will hold its own against the solid body of walleye. Citrus notes from yeast and orange peel work like a squeeze of lemon on the fish. Hoegaarden is a fine example that is available almost anywhere. I also like Wittekerke and Ommegang Witte. Boom Island Brewing in north Minneapolis sells growlers of its Witness white ale from the brewery.

Two more good locally brewed pairings with lighter fish are Indeed Brewing’s Shenanigans and Schell’s Goosetown. Shenanigans is a thirst-quenching honey wheat ale that showcases lemony Sorachi Ace hops. Goosetown is Schell’s interpretation of an old German-style ale called gose (GO-zuh). Its subtle salinity and bright, lemony acidity make it a perfect pairing with flaky fish.

Ready for ribs

Sweet and saucy ribs really sing with malty-sweet beers. Look for beers with caramel, toast and dark fruit flavors to pull out the best of both the meat and the sauce. Doppelbock is my go-to here. Richly sweet, caramel-toasty malt blends seamlessly with the sauce to bring out nice molasses notes. Celebrator and Salvator are two brands that are easy to find in area stores.

If you prefer your ribs dry, look for beers with subtle levels of black-malt roastiness and plenty of spicy zing from either hops or yeast. One of my favorites is Pepe Nero, a black saison brewed with black pepper from Goose Island. The pairing starts with a burst of citrusy fruit. Yeast-derived spice and black pepper quickly take over, combining with the spicy rub to create a deliciously piquant feedback loop.

Sometimes called “black pilsner,” German schwarzbier has the crispness and balanced hops of that style with just a touch of dry roastiness. The dry beer is a perfect match for the dry ribs. Gently sweet malt and spicy hops touch both sweet and spice in the rub. That hint of roast works with the grilled toastiness of the ribs. Try Köstritzer or Sprecher Black Bavarian.

The charred crust on the outside of a well-grilled steak calls for the deeper roast of porters and stouts. The smoky flavors of roasted malt and seared meat mirror each other perfectly. And these dusky brews are intense enough to stand up to the stronger flavors and body of steak. For a richer brew reach for Founders Porter or Deschutes Black Butte Porter. To go a bit lighter try a dry Irish stout like North Coast Old No. 38 or Murphy’s Irish Stout.


Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at