Warm temperatures and high humidity bring out a taste for lighter food and lighter beer. But this doesn't mean we have to lose out on flavor.
"Especially so with beer, because we have so many great brews available in Wisconsin," says Mary Baryenbruch, who, with her husband Dan, owns Fat Jack's Barbecue in Monona. "This time of year people look for a beer with flavor but just a little lighter body."
When selecting a beer, the general rule is that it should complement or contrast with the flavors you like in summer food. This can be challenging when you're looking for something that's thirst quenching - probably not the bold, high-alcohol beers that warm us when the snow flies.
Being the beer enthusiast I am, here are my picks for late-summer meals from the grill.
The starter: Select a beer that tantalizes the palate without staining the taste buds with the lingering underpinning of barley flavor. New Glarus' Berliner Weiss is a meal starter that needs no food companion. It's a unique beer with a hint of Riesling grapes that'll surprise you with its fruity tartness. Napoleon called Berliner Weiss "the champagne of the North."
The appetizer: Oscura, a new beer from Spring Green's Furthermore Brewing, has a bold roasted flavor that comes from adding whole coffee beans to the fermentor. A 12-ounce bottle makes for an interesting conversation starter when shared among friends. However, its coffee flavors could carry over to the main course, so drink it with a palate cleanser like sharp cheddar or Gouda cheese.
For vegetarian entrées: The light, citrusy, effervescent qualities of a German Hefeweizen or Belgian Wit (white) are wonderful with grilled veggies and cold summer pasta salads. The hazy golden color and fruity tones of Great Dane's Crop Circle Wheat (hefewiezen) harmonizes with eggplant, squash, bell peppers, asparagus and mushrooms. Lake Louie's Belgian Prairie Moon, a Belgian Wit, offers similar flavors and is a little lighter, with hints of orange and coriander.
For grilled seafood: Blond ales, like Ale Asylum's Gold Digger, are excellent. The Gold Digger offers body and malty smoothness but needs a delicate entrée like shrimp and scallops, or even thin slices of grilled trout to keep the beer in perspective.
For sandwiches: Nothing seems to match the quick and easy attitude of a burger on a bun like a can of beer. So if you're intent on pulling the tab on a cold one for the meal's main event, Capital Brewery's Amber is the local choice for a beer and the barbie. Hamburger, grilled chicken, even a portobello mushroom cap will complement this medium-bodied, smooth, clean beer. Capital Amber is available year-round in bottles, but the brewery also makes it in cans for the summer boating crowd.
To withstand bratwurst: A highly hopped beer is perfectly engineered for brats. Okay, not to overthink the simplicity of the backyard brat, but one needs an aggressive bitterness to contrast with the hard-core nature of burnt sausage and sauerkraut. Tyranena's Bitter Woman is assertive; it has its own harsh attitude, which stands up admirably in a marriage of flavors.
For the backyard feast: If ribs are what you seek, then Furthermore's Fatty Boombalatty or Prairie Gold from Capital Brewing of Middleton sets the stage for a big, hearty meal. These beers have Belgian beer qualities with robust spiciness, fruity background and alcoholic warmth. Their yeast favors and dry finishes harmonize nicely with sweeter barbecue sauces.
If you like Cajun-style ribs, then my pick is Prairie Gold because of its dry, hoppy finish. Also on my radar: Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. is about to release a batch of its own Belgian Pale Ale. Says brewer Eric Brusewitz, "With its complex, spicy flavors and firm hoppiness it's a great beer for summer barbecue."
For steaks: Avoid the temptation to go for a full-bodied porter or stout. Summer is better for medium-bodied amber beers like J.T. Whitney's Badger Red Ale or even Capital's Oktoberfest (this season's first bottles appeared last week). The caramel flavors complement the meat, and their medium body is more respectful of the summer temps.
For the big finish: Summer beer can also be great dessert. Sprecher's 2006 Barley Wine is sold in specialty beer stores for about $5 a bottle. It might be hard to embrace a big-bodied brew like this right now, but it's a great way to relax while the grill cools.