Choosing Brews Suitable for Camping

August 26, 2008

in Beery Scribblings

Choosing the right beers for a camping trip is about as challenging as picking the right campsite. You don’t want to settle for any old can of suds, just like you shouldn’t ever plunk down a tent in the first open spot you see.

You must choose carefully, wisely. Survey the landscape. Consider the preferences of your fellow campers and the food they will prepare around the fire pit. You seek balance, of course, but also some distinction. Because, if you make the wrong choice, you could wind up with a bad taste in your mouth, feeling like you’ve slept all night with your head downhill.

We recently embarked on a 3-day camping trip to Chincoteague, Va., with a large group of close friends. The dinner menu included grilled cheeseburgers and all the fixings: fresh tomato slices, grilled onions, baked beans, etc.; Asian chicken in peanut sauce, served cold with a tangy long grain rice and peppers salad; cold fried chicken pieces; a creamy pesto chicken salad with asparagus; and s’mores and assorted cookies for dessert.

Such a broad array of dishes and flavors necessitated an eclectic selection of beverages. Because of limited cooler space, I needed some versatility, too. I knew I would want a pale ale and an amber lager on hand, because they work well with just about anything; an India pale ale for heavy lifting; and a few specialists, like a wheat beer and a rich, malty porter, for emphasizing the finer points.

Given its name, I expected the Amish Four Grain to have a bready, wheatlike flavor. Instead this pale ale, from Lancaster Brewing in Pennsylvania, is a sweet, malty, nutty beer that drinks more like an amber ale. And, with its low bitterness and sharp, high carbonation, it paid high compliments to a juicy cheeseburger slathered in brown mustard, with sliced tomatoes and Jay’s killer caramelized onions. It also matched up well with the smoky beans and other sides. The more-familiar Harpoon Ale, from Boston-based Harpoon Brewery, also paired well with the burgers and company. It’s got a nice, citrusy (they say orange blossom, but I can’t tell), cleansing hops quality that is balanced by a mild, caramelized grains flavor, with less carbonation than the Lancaster. It’s refreshing, without being overpowered.

I had not tried the High Rollers Wheat, from Anderson Valley Brewing Company, in Boonville, California, before we left on the trip. So, as seemed appropriate, I was rolling the dice. It came recommended as a great all-around summertime beer. And with its golden color, and bright and lemony flavors, it lived up to its reputation. Unlike other, similar brews, the wheat flavor and spices roll on a bit later and don’t hit you right in the mouth. So you end up with a dry, tart, refreshing drink that matches well with lighter fare, such as the Asian chicken salad and rice. The hop floral quality is moderate so it didn’t compete with the subtle peanut flavors of the dressing, and the high carbonation is a nice palate-cleanser. The Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, the Milton, Delaware-based brewery’s flagship beer, is a perennial favorite in my house. It also paired well with all the chicken dishes, though because of its bolder hops bitterness I think I liked it better with the more complex pesto and asparagus salad.

When dessert comes around, I often reach for a Brooklyn Lager. It’s an extremely versatile beer that is as comfortable mingling with cheeseburgers as it is sidling up to zesty, tangy chicken dishes. And, with its malty, caramel flavors, it’s an ideal match for sweet treats like cookies. Especially the homemade kind, like oatmeal chocolate chip, which are enhanced by the biscuity quality of the beer. I try never to run out of it at home. The other meal-ending quaff I chose was the porter from the Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco. A very hoppy concoction, brewed with roasted dark malts, it’s a great date for chocolate lovers. In fact, the rich, candy-like flavors simply spoon with the sticky, gooey goodness of a s’mores: melted chocolate, charred marshmallow, and (stale — always) Graham crackers.

And, if you can get a 10-year-old kid to make one for you, while you sit back, sip, and watch the sparks from the campfire leap up into the dark sky, it’s better than, well, taking down the tent in the morning, packing up, and driving home. That’s for sure.

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