There are a lot of weird holidays out there, and some of them are pretty hard to get excited about. After all, who wants to celebrate Clean Your Floors Day or National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day? On the other hand, National Chili Day is easily a holiday we can get behind, and there’s no better way to celebrate on February 23rd than to whip up a batch of homemade chili.
Chili ingredients tend to be a hot topic, from whether or not it should contain beans to adding ingredients like chocolate or coffee to elevate your next batch of chili. One argument we can always get behind is adding beer to the mix. You don’t have to be a beer enthusiast to use this ingredient, and you won’t necessarily be able to taste the beer itself, but you’ll find evidence that it’s there. It tenderizes meat while also adding body, texture, and depth of flavor to soups and stews.
There are several beer styles to choose from, none of which are bad, but each impacts flavor by adding sweet, sour, or bitter nuances to the overall dish. These beers aren’t ranked in any particular order, other than we start with light lagers and crisp beers and move on to the darker beers and Belgian-inspired flavors. The hardest part will be choosing which direction to go.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Like other lager beers, this beer is fermented at cold temperatures, giving it a cleaner, crisper finish compared to ales fermented at warmer temperatures. But what makes Vienna lagers (like Samuel Adams Boston Lager) unique is the higher level of sweetness, reducing the hop bitterness to an afterthought and allowing smooth, bready notes to shine through. Samuel Adams Boston Lager is made with a malt called Caramel 60, which adds an extra toasty, caramel flavor.
That combination of flavors is what makes Samuel Adams Boston Lager particularly well-suited for chili. It does an admirable job of mellowing out a chili’s spice, adding a toasted sweetness that accentuates the dish’s meaty flavors. The malt profile here also adds a full-bodied texture to the stew, helping round out the mouthfeel even if you can’t taste the beer.
One of our favorite beers to use in homemade chili is Negra Modelo. While most Mexican lagers are pale-colored and crisp tasting, this one is classified as a Munich Dunkel lager. The use of Munich malts deepens the color from a lager’s traditional golden hue. That also gives it a maltier backbone than its lighter lager cousins, but it still finishes light despite the dark color since it’s still fermented with lager yeast.
We love using Negra Modelo in chili because the dark malts create a toasted, nutty flavor that adds caramel notes to the dish. It also happens to pair perfectly with the caramelized character of seared meat. What really sold us on this beer is that it’s included in Rick Bayless’ chili recipe at Frontera. If it’s good enough for one of the great masters of authentic Mexican cuisine, it’s good enough for us.
These flavors play well to accentuate the sweet and spicy aspects of your chili, providing a nice balance while also introducing an earthy element to the mix. The beer itself isn’t heavy or bold enough to dramatically change the chili’s flavor, but it accentuates the flavors brought by the other ingredients. This is an especially good choice if you add spicy peppers (like habaneros) to the mix, which contain fruity flavors in addition to their bold level of heat.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
As we begin our journey into beer with hop presence, we stop first at American pale ales like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Unlike some hoppy beers, pale ales generally have a balanced level of malt, providing a finish that’s not altogether light but wouldn’t be called heavy. The hops are certainly there, bringing in bitter notes that can range from citrusy and floral to piney, resinous, or spicy, depending on the variety used.
In the case of Sierra Nevada, the use of Cascade hops means a grapefruit-forward aroma and a lightly fruity flavor. This beer is malty enough to bring a slight sweetness into your chili, but we advise taking care before you dump in the whole bottle. It’s best to be careful when using hoppy beer with chili recipes, as bitter hops have a way of accentuating spicy food (which is why so many people love eating Buffalo wings with IPAs). Start with a splash and build from there; the finished dish might turn out spicier than you bargained for.
Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’
This beer is considered a specialty IPA (or white IPA) by the Beer Judge Certification Program, the program that provides guidelines for beer competitions for some of the best beer festivals in America. That means it has a hop presence similar to an American IPA but also features some of the same characteristics as a witbier. That makes it a good starting point if you haven’t cooked with IPA before because it won’t tend to get as bitter as it cooks.
Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin has a smooth, silky texture that will add a really nice body to the chili. The hop bitterness is still pronounced enough to accentuate spice, so plan on using this one for mild chilis (or go for it with spicier blends, just be ready for it to provide a real kick to the taste buds!).
We love cooking with Irish red ales because they’re all about balance. When you drink one, you’re first greeted with a robust flavor that’s rich with malt sweetness, bringing in notes of toasted caramel. It’s not all malty flavor, though; Irish red ales have a dry finish that finishes lighter than porters or stouts, and a touch of hops is perfect for accentuating the spice in a medium chili.
There are several different red ales to choose from, but we like Smithwick’s here because of its slightly sweet flavor and smooth finish. The use of roasted barley in this beer adds an almost coffee-like finish that enriches the earthy vibes of the chili, playing well with smoky spices like cumin or paprika. This beer also doesn’t have a noticeable hop presence, so you can add chili peppers with relative impunity.
Anchor Steam Beer
Anchor Steam Brewing is keeping an old-school San Francisco tradition alive with its trademarked steam beer that it’s been brewing since the late 1800s. These beers got their name from the original cooling process, which involved leaving the fermenting beer outside overnight to cool (creating steam). While they’re all brewed inside today, Anchor Steam still uses shallow, open-air fermenters. The other unique component of this beer is that it uses a lager yeast that’s fermented at warmer ale temperatures, creating the flavor of an ale with the crispness of a lager.
At first taste, Anchor Steam Beer might taste similar to an American amber but with a noticeable hop presence that’s both herbaceous and spicy. That plays well with chilis that have a balanced spiciness from chiles like ancho or pasilla peppers.
Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale
As we delve into darker, deeper, richer beers, it’s also time to consider using spicier chilies in your recipe. Since these beers have less hop presence, they’re less likely to increase the spice in your bowl. Instead, dark beers have a concentrated sweetness thanks to the addition of the malted grains that provide the beer’s color, which provides a nice balance for medium to high levels of heat.
A British brown ale doesn’t have any roasted flavors (like you’ll find in a porter or a stout), but it does thrive on nuttier, more caramel-forward flavors. As the name indicates, you’ll get a lot of toffee-like flavors in Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, but it also has a lightly bready finish and a smooth consistency. Put that together with roasted chili peppers or browned meat, and you’ll end up with an ideal combination of flavors. Brown ales also work well in chili recipes using chicken, too.
Guinness Draught Stout
Stout is a perfect base ingredient for stew because it combines the flavors of several “secret” chili ingredients into one, easy-to-add package: beer, coffee, and chocolate. An Irish stout like Guinness Draught Stout is particularly well-suited here because of the beer’s roasted flavor and creamy texture.
Look for Irish stouts with a nitro can, like Guinness Draught Stout (or Left Hand Milk Stout, if you can’t find the former). These beers have a creamier consistency that adds incredible texture to your chili. Because Guinness has a dry finish and a light hop presence, it will bring out spicy flavors more than other dark beers. Look to a pepper like jalapeños if you don’t want to get too aggressive with the spice. Of course, this is the perfect opportunity to let fruity peppers like habaneros shine, so don’t be afraid to be bold if you dare.
Pick Your Own Beers!
We recommend tasting the ale before blindly adding it to the chili, just to make sure that it’s your cup of tea. If it is, you’ll love the way the tart citrus notes linger on your tongue before you’re hit in the face with a surprising salinity. Put that together with sweet malt presence, and this beer can create an incredible balance of flavors that’s perfect for a medium-spiced bowl of chili.
excerpts from mashed