By Micah Hanks
If you’re a recent visitor to the southernmost states through which the Blue Ridge Parkway runs, you will have noticed that the rough majority of the trees here in the Appalachian Mountains are taking their most golden hue. Nonetheless, the oak trees—a strange bunch in their own right—are just beginning to reach the brink of change, having held their summer green longer than most other species. It is within these oak trees that one of fall’s finest quarries, the gray squirrel, makes its home. Not only do squirrels live in oak trees, but the rich food source they provide also attracts deer, as well as a variety of other wild animals seeking food as the weather grows cold.
In addition to feeding season for many wild animals, in many parts of the country, the mid-to-late fall marks a special time of year for “foodies”; the time that wild game begins to become available at dinner parties that, unlike other times of the year, call for a special pairing of beverages to meet the unique meats being served.
When it comes to finding the right beers to serve with different game, first of all one must consider that wild game is truly a flavor unto its itself, and very unlike the sorts of things you can typically buy at the supermarket. The one exception may be Cornish hens (which are very similar to wild pheasant in flavor). Here in Asheville, North Carolina where Culture of Spirits is based, luckily we have a few restaurants that do serve game as regular (if not pricey) selections on their menus. Among these, West-Asheville based restaurant The Admiral comes to mind; this is one particularly quaint little dive (and trust me, they wouldn’t argue with this terminology, as evidenced by a neon Budweiser sign on the back wall that has been modified to reflect this sentiment).
One of the best things about The Admiral is that, in addition to serving things like pheasant on the menu, they offer a wide selection of bottled brews to pair with your regal dining experience. Ideally, in my experience lagers do not go well with wild game. You’ll want a beer that has a little more “kick,” ideally a porter with its rich malty and roasty characters. Some ales are also considered quite good with game, if enough good roasted barley comes through in the flavor (think along the lines of an english brown or nut brown… Newcastle is a traditional favorite, but any darker English brown might be worthy of consideration).
Although typically a hoppier beer isn’t recommended with wild game, I’ve found one or two excellent exceptions to this rule: one is Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA. Although this beer certainly has a hoppy character, there is considerably less “bite” than what you’d expect from many IPAs, and the round, subtle-yet-toasty tones provide a rich, very alcoholic drink you can pound back and enjoy as easily as any ale. Also, Asheville-based Wedge Brewery’s Iron Rail IPA works really well also (this beer, unfortunately, is only available in the Asheville area, however). Contrary to what one may expect, these beers actually compliment the “wild” flavor of game—particularly squirrel, venison, and even some game fish—better than any lager or other lighter beer ever could.
No matter what any tried and true taste-tester may tell you, it really comes down to personal preference. Still, I have to recommend trying beers that are, at very least, subtly stronger than what you’re used to when pairing brews with wild game. You’ll be surprised, but most of all, you’ll no doubt be delighted to see how a beer with the right amount of character compliments a strong, flavorful cut of fresh-cooked game. Enjoy!