Say ‘Cheese’: Burger Month, Beer Week Great Portraits of Flavor

By JEFF LINKOUS | May 10, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Ah, May.

As months go, May is the deck of a bridge. It’s the metaphoric plane on which we cruise into meteorological summer and outdoor living, with the solemn, end-of-month holiday, Memorial Day, pressed (incongruously) into double duty as the starting gun for more leisure to come.

Think spring in full swing, horse racing, baseball season finding its groove, Mother’s Day, and Jersey-grown strawberries.

Think burgers, too.

And craft beer.

May is National Burger Month, a time for restaurants, gastropubs and the like to champion the iconic sandwich that’s virtually indispensable to their menus, not to mention a pillar of summertime backyard life. The observance peaks with National Burger Day on Sunday, May 28, falling square in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend this year.

May is also host to American Craft Beer Week, May 15-21, a nationwide salute to the efforts of small-batch and independent beer-makers. Now in its 12th consecutive year, American Craft Beer Week will be celebrated across the land with events such as new beer releases, beer-and-food pairings, brewery tours and tap takeovers at local watering holes.

But there’s more to this than just the intersection of two celebrations. The common thread is the adventurous quest for flavors in our comfort foods.

Besides our wont to build a better burger, we’re out to craft better beers, too. We’re that hungry, our appetite that ambitious. And we’ll take matters into our own hands, if we have to, with that backyard grilling and homebrewing.

We Americans eat billions of burgers annually, and probably have millions of ways to make and dress them. Reliable standbys like lettuce, tomato and onion are a given, but mango salsa, kimchi, grilled pineapple, sour cherries and barbecued pulled pork should also come to mind. So should aolis, garlicky or hot and spicy, and cheeses creamy, sharp, salty or funky.

Americans can likewise boast of 5,900 breweries from coast to coast, including three in our own backyard (Pinelands, Ship Bottom and ManaFirkin breweries). The proliferation of craft breweries is a manifest destiny that finds the beers putting the emphasis on flavor, not standardized production for the masses (sorry, Bud).

“When you think about it,” says Andrew Sparhawk of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, the trade group that represents craft brewers in the U.S., “the success of small and independent American brewers is part of a larger shift in our country’s food culture; this includes the all-American hamburger.

“Beer and burgers are not just classic partners, but represent the success of artisans who have rejected a one-size-fits-all commoditization of American comforts. Today, we are free to choose any type of beer that fits our mood or imagination, and that rings true with a hamburger, too.”

To be sure, a month devoted to our top, go-to sandwich should embrace all things that can be a burger. That stirs ground turkey, bison, veggie patties, mushrooms, falafel, black beans and white beans into the mix, for instance.

But make no mistake, mention a burger and what really comes to mind is a savory, pub-style ground beef sandwich that wears a brioche bun a lot like a tank top – beefiness visible beyond the covering. That’s how the best burgers roll. And they keep good company with beers dark and deep, delicate and light, or the hoppy IPA, the most popular beer style among craft beer drinkers.

“Everybody’s packing a lot of flavor in their burgers these days,” says Jason Chapman, of Pinelands Brewing in Little Egg Harbor. An IPA, like Pinelands’ Swamp Donkey, speaks to that trend. “You need a beer that’s going to stand up to that, a big malt-backbone IPA with plenty of bitterness and dry-hopped.”

John Holl, the Jersey-based author of the “American Craft Beer Cookbook,” sees burgers and beer as an ideal union, made perfect when paired with dark brews.

“I’m a fan of pairing porters and stouts with burgers. The two are natural allies,” Holl says. “When you think of a burger coming off the grill, with the caramelization of fat, some of those charred edges and the savory and sweet juices inside ... a roasty, dark-malt-forward beer fits perfectly.

“A porter and stout will have coffee and chocolate flavors, a bit of sweetness, even a pinch of carbon back, a slight edge on the finish. Beers like Sierra Nevada’s porter and Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter work great.”

Jake Stablein, the brewer at Ship Bottom Brewery in Beach Haven, frames the discussion via cravings and concurs with Holl and Chapman.

“It just depends on the flavors you’re looking for,” Stablein says. “A good pilsner can go well with a classic cheeseburger. You’ve got the onions, the cheddar, the tomato, the lettuce … all of that is going to mesh really nice with a pilsner.

“I’m a huge fan of bleu cheese – bleu cheese on everything – bacon, bleu cheese, and even wing sauce on a burger. Those pair really well with something like a good stout, a good porter. I’d go for something like our Shack IPA, if you did a burger with grilled pineapple and some teriyaki.”

Absent that, Stablein says his cravings could trend toward his own Ship Bottom Dark Water Nitro Porter, paired with the aged-cheddar and shredded short rib topped Tuckers Burger at Tuckers Tavern.

Count Allan Menegus, chef and general manager at Buckalew’s Tavern, as another who sees the flavor possibilities of burgers with beers, such as Kane Brewing’s Head High, or Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA.

“If you’re looking at something like our Hawkeye Burger, with the bleu cheese, bacon, sauteed onions and chipotle aioli, you’d want to go complement it with a hoppier beer, like an IPA,” Menegus says. “The bitterness of the hops stands up well against a nice juicy, medium-rare cooked burger, cutting through the richness of the burger and the bacon. The malty, caramel flavor pairs well with the sauteed onions, and the herbal, hoppy notes complements the bleu cheese well.”

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