With May just around the corner, a Memphian's heart, taste buds, nose, and waistline turn to barbecue. It really doesn't matter if you like the stuff of not, the whole city is going to smell like it in May. So, how to wash that glorious pulled pork down?
If you take an amble through Tom Lee Park during the contest week, you will be surrounded by the best pork the world has to offer. Given what they are drinking down there all week, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Busch is the natural pairing for barbecue. It's not, though it is an economical pairing and a sensible one at that. Being on a barbecue team means that all your family, friends, and anyone you've made extended eye contact with in traffic will be mooning about, cadging invites, and expecting to be fed all week. And they will want a beer. You will provide it because, well, you don't want to be that guy. Feeding them Natty Light is fine.
On the other hand, if you are just feeding yourself and a select few, you can do better than that. While I think we all ought to be forward looking, I'd like to politely ask the good people at Memphis Made to make some more of its old Lucid Kolsch. They described it as "A lawnmower beer with flavor." Another great 'Cue beer is an ESB, Extra Special Bitter — it goes great with big flavors and, if you want to drink local, a time machine. Alas, both High Cotton and Southern Prohibition have retired their ESBs. That makes me blue.
We can't live in the past, though. The truth is that, while they aren't glamorous, those American-style lagers do in fact go pretty well with barbecue. The big macros aren't trying to be particularly interesting — they are brewed to be drinkable — which works well, because barbecue is a big, bold taste, that usually has a little heat. To move up the scale a bit, you won't go wrong with Wiseacre's Memphis Sands. It's a solid, drinkable lager that aspires to be a solid, drinkable lager. High Cotton makes a Mexican Lager that is slightly lighter but a solid, drinkable lager. Also, a good choice for die-hard Jimmy Buffet fans.
For something new and summery with a little twist, Meddlesome has a Water Malone, a light American-style wheat beer made with watermelon puree. It will give you just a little twist of sweetness to soften those big, spicy barbecue flavors.
The issue here is that barbecue competitors, seeking to win in May, very often tweak their recipe to play to the judges. In Memphis this invariably means making their sauces sweeter — sickeningly so in my opinion. A friend of mine, whose team places as often as it doesn't, has a recipe he only serves to the judges, and never to someone who he'd have to look in the eye.
Given the danger in these parts of over-sweet sauce, an American-style pale ale is a near-perfect pairing. The big hoppy IPAs can get bitter and overwhelming in the heat, and are sometimes just too much paired with big food flavors. Pale ales just play well with barbecue, so it's a little odd that Delta Sunshine is the only local brewery currently making one. Being the new kid on the block, it's not exactly everywhere just yet, but keep an eye out for Room 414 Pale Ale.
With that in mind, Atlanta's Sweetwater 420 Pale Ale is one of the best local(ish) craft choices to wash down that pulled pork, baked beans, and whatever else you are going to get up to next month. Yazoo Brewing has a good pale ale but, as we all know, Nashville doesn't know the first damn thing about barbecue.