Every beer culture has a food that's a natural pairing for the native beer styles. Germany has sausages and lagers, Belgium pairs moules frites with geuze, and in America, there's fried chicken and beer. For decades the go-to brew to wash down a bucket of Southern fried chicken was the ubiquitous light lager, but today there's a near limitless list of beer styles to pair with any variety of fried chicken. The choices can be overwhelming, but the professional bird fryers and beer makers in Los Angeles have some suggestions for finding the perfect match.
"You need a beer with bigger flavors to stand up to the brine and the smoke," says Jerry Su, chef at Eagle Rock Brewery Public House. Su brines and smokes his chicken before it hits the hot oil. He recommends Eagle Rock Brewery's Populist IPA. "The hops mesh well with the spices. They play nicely together."
When the chicken gets spicy, like in Korean fried chicken, a hoppy IPA can intensify the chile heat. If you'd rather cool the fire, look for a more malty beer like a brown ale or porter.
Before chef Daniel Mattern left the now-closed Cook's County, the restaurant's weekly fried chicken nights showcased just how beer-friendly a chicken, skillet-fried until deeply browned, can be. Mattern still obsesses over fried chicken, endlessly tweaking his recipes and techniques while planning a new restaurant. He's also working beer into his preparations and testing different beer styles to add flavor to his pre-fry brine. As for what to drink after the chicken's been fried, he recommends a beer that's "malt-forward but balanced," like an American Oktoberfest style.
"With fried chicken you get a heavy amount of caramelization, and maltier beers can provide some lovely, resonant flavors," says Alex Davis, general manager at the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica. Davis recommends the balanced Deep Roots ESB from Three Weavers Brewing, especially with Southern-style fried chicken, because its golden brown crust will harmonize with the toasted malt flavors in the beer.
Three Weavers Brewing in Inglewood sits between two of L.A.'s bastions of classic Southern fried chicken: Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles and Pann's Restaurant, and customers often bring their to-go orders of chicken to the brewery tasting room. Three Weavers brewmaster Alexandra Nowell says complementary flavors are one key to a good match between brew and bird. She recommends the bready and gently hopped Deep Roots ESB and the bitter, refreshing Seafarer Kölsch.
"Fried chicken can be taxing on the palate," says Nowell. "There are lots of assertive flavors and fatty richness. You need a beer that plays well, not something that's going to fight the chicken." Beer is well suited to tackling fried chicken; its bitterness and carbonation help refresh the palate between bites of chicken much like an acidic wine would.
"It's why Champagne and fried chicken is actually a thing now," says Su. "The effervescence and brightness of the sparkling wine cuts through tongue-coating richness. I want to explore how sour beer plays with fried chicken."
Mattern has gone down this road and recommends the trendy Gose style as a good place to start. The light-bodied and tart wheat beers are refreshing and provide a stark contrast to unctuous fried chicken.
Chef and co-founder of the growing Plan Check chain Ernesto Uchimura prefers a hop-forward IPA with fried chicken. "Some people like sweet-on-sweet, though," he says. "It's up to each person's palate." One unexpectedly popular pairing at Plan Check has been the smoky fried chicken and the beer float made with a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop a pint of Santa Monica Brew Works' milk porter.
"Beer culture is more loose than wine culture," says Mattern, who doesn't believe, unsurprisingly, in stressing out over beer and fried chicken. "There are less rules with beer, and even if there's a bad pairing, what's the worst that can happen? It's still fried chicken and beer."