What do you get when you combine brats and beer on a autumn weekend? Pre-game celebrations,in Anywhere, America.
What do you get when you combine Black Oak Farm brats and bacon and then pour a Founder’s brewed beer into the pair? Michigan football celebrations, be it U-M, State, Eastern, or other colleges across the state.
During football season, I’m consumed with Michigander pride that also extends to supporting our exceptional selection of food and beverage businesses. Black Oak Farms and Founder’s Brewing Co. are both located in our state; Black Oak Farms, indeed, is one of only a few organic hog farms in the Michigan, Indiana and Ohio area.
Chuck, the owner, raises 400 hogs on his farm near Fenton and sells chops, bacon, sausage and bratwurst to Arbor Farms on Stadium Boulevard. Founder’s Brewing Co. hand-crafts a wide assortment of beers in Grand Rapids. Why not show my team spirit by combining Michigan-made brats, bacon and beer into one happy pot and enjoy the trio while watching college football?
The flavor of pork when cooked in beer, be it chop, loin, roast or sausage, is sublime. But I’m perplexed by the type of beer to select and glad, at least, I’d narrowed the process down to a Michigan brew.
When I cook with wine, a rule of thumb is to cook with the wine I’d enjoy serving to complement the meal. Shouldn’t the same rules apply to beer?
One of my favorite Michigan brews is Elk Rapid’s Short’s“Huma Lupa Licious,” so my first inclination was to braise with this beer. But Michigan has so many more brews… hoppy, malty, wheaty…all bottled up and packaged with winsome graphics and names to inspire our inner poet.
Michelle Zajac, the beer and wine manager at Arbor Farms, must have sensed my conflicted spirits as I stared at the beer case, so she offered her assistance. I told her my plans to braise pork sausage and bacon in beer and was considering the “hoppy-huma”, whose label proclaims: “A complex malt and hoppy theme park in your mouth.” (Beer is so much fun!)
Michelle offered differing advice. “I find it better to cook with a beer that is more on the malty side rather than a hoppy one,” she said. Oh rats – and I was so looking forward to saying the name “Huma Lupa Licious”, when describing the brat’s flavor to my guests.
“I’d recommend,” she said, “This Founder’s label brew.” She was careful not say the name aloud, but pointed to a six-pack of beer named, “Dirty Bastard.” (Michelle was, after all, on the job, and there was a gentleman standing nearby.)
“This Grand Rapid brewery uses seven varieties of malt to brew the beer,” she continued. “The concentrated malt that comes through with cooking will have a nice sweetness to it, which will complement the pork. A hoppy beer could contribute bitterness. Great to drink, but maybe not so great for braising pork.” I noticed the label said there were “hints of smoke” in the brew. That (and, of course, how delightful to innocently repeat the name at random), sealed the deal.
I purchased and experimented with several Michigan brews (someone has to do it), and had a panel of taste testers with varied palates offer their opinions. We sampled local brews from Shorts, Founder’s Brewery and Arcadia Ales, lamenting the fact we didn’t bring other local brews, such as Arbor Brewing Company, The Grizzly Peak, Leopold Brothers and the Jolly Pumpkin into our test kitchen. (Readers, understand – football season is not over yet!)
After significant tastings, we agreed Michelle’s choice of the Founder’s Dirty Bastard was perfect for this recipe, some preferring the addition of dark brown sugar to balance the intense malty notes before braising the brats.
If I had to make one generality about cooking with beer, I’d say the key to success is balancing the bitter and sweet to satisfy your own palate. Which brings me full-circle to my original thoughts: cook with what you like to drink, the only absolute being you’ve reserved enough to serve with your recipe!