David Sweeney Photography

For too long, wine has dominated as the boozy liquid of choice for improving any given meal. But beer is not only as effective at elevating food -- it’s even more versatile than its grape-based counterpart. The irony of this new discovery is that it isn’t new at all: centuries ago, plenty of cooks would use beer instead of water for its added nutrients. Although we no longer have this excellent excuse to cook with (and imbibe) beer, many of today’s chefs still utilize the ancient beverage to its maximum potential. We spoke with a few from around the world to learn how beer has specifically improved their signature dishes.

Irish Stout with Steamed Mussels and Cockles

Chef Ian Connolly – Dublin, Ireland

When it comes to anything beer-related, the Irish are well informed. Not surprisingly, beer has crossed over to traditional cuisine, in dishes such as shepherd’s pie or Guinness beef stew. At the Five Lamps Brewery in Dublin, head chef Ian Connolly uses the brewery’s own “Liberty Ale” to steam mussels and cockles, a traditional Dublin dish. The Liberty’s Dublin Ale has a rich brown color, full body, and a balanced finish which doesn’t overpower the delicate shellfish. “Steaming the mussels and cockles with this specific ale is imperative – the malty notes bring out a certain flavor which white wine doesn’t, and the leftover liquid caramelizes to make an ideal sauce,” says Connolly. “Round this off with a freshly brewed beer, and you could die happy.”

Ancient China Meets Modern Microbrew

Chef Li Shuai – Shaanxi, China

In China, striking modernity and classic traditions are constantly being blended by those in the kitchen. For Li Jin Shuai, Head Chef at Ki Song Restaurant in Shaanxi province, the missing ingredient in his most traditional dish turned out to be a malt-forward craft pale ale from Beijing. Sichuan Royal Honey Chicken was traditionally cooked for Chinese royalty, but Li has modernized the dish by substituting chicken broth with beer from Beijing’s Jing A Brewing. “We use the Worker’s Pale Ale because it lends the perfect flavor to this dish,” he explains. “I start by sautéeing pickled Chinese chestnuts and tender chicken legs over sesame oil. I then slowly stir in the pale ale and add Taiwan quail eggs. The beer, oils from the chicken, and sesame create wonderful flavor.”

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A Dark Twist for Classic Fish and Chips

Chef Robbie Lewis – Dallas, Texas

Though fish and chips batter classically calls for light lager, Chef Robbie Lewis rejects such traditionalism at his Texan restaurant, The Meddlesome Moth. “We use a stout for our batter, and it makes an enormous difference. It just adds a richness you don’t get with the lighter ales,” he argues of the batter, a blend of flour, salt, sugar, white pepper, and a dry, Irish stout from local Dallas brewery Community Beer Co.. The beer’s carbonation leavens the batter in the oil, resulting in a crispy (but light) texture. Cod is dredged in flour, dipped in the beer batter, and fried in 350°F oil for about four minutes. “I would never go back to making the batter with light ale,” Lewis swears. “This is definitely an improvement to the traditional recipe.”

Mexican Dark Beer with Ribs

Chef Eduardo García, Mexico City, Mexico

When it comes to bringing out the best flavor in ribs, the most important ingredient is a good, well-balanced dark ale, according to head chef Eduardo García of Maximo Bistrot Restaurant in Mexico City. “Tenderizing the ribs with beer creates a rich, caramelized flavor that you don’t find with wine marinades,” he says. “Beer breaks down through the fibers, making it more tender and flavorful at the same time.” Eduardo uses a few different beers for his marinades, but the house favorite is Barbar Bok, a classic Belgian strong dark ale. Barbar Bok’s caramel malt and honey aromas “create tremendous flavor”, according to Garcia. His signature dish, Barbar Bok Beer-Braised Ribs is usually served with a glass to further enhance the flavor. Claims Garcia, “I’ve tried every kind of marinade for ribs – nothing compares to the quality I get from a high quality strong dark beer.”

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Dark Lagers for Brazilian Marinades

Chef Stuart Rackham– Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Brazilians take their barbecue techniques very seriously, and marinades are a key aspect to achieving perfection. At Fogo de Chão in Rio, dark lager is used in the restaurant’s most popular dish, beer-marinated jumbo chicken legs. For Director of Food and Beverage Innovation Stuart Rackham, using a dark lager is crucial: “Only a medium balanced dark lager provides the perfect balance and subtle yeast flavors that distinguish this dish. The jumbo leg marinates in the beer, brandy and other special ingredients for 24 hours, ensuring a rich, savory flavor,” he says.