Chili and Beer
A pair inside and outside the bowl
The spicy, earthy aroma of a big pot of chili simmering on the stove on a fall evening—this is my happy place. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen and warming my hands on the bowl, the flavors of the stewed ingredients melding together in each bite.
I memorized my grandma’s traditional Mexican chili, with its hominy and served with spicy cornbread, after shadowing her making it several times. What I love about her chili—and all chili, actually— is that it’s a one-pot meal, so versatile and easy to make, yet so satisfying on a chilly evening.
The International Chili Society specifies that traditional red chili is made with meat (any variety), red chili peppers and spices; no bean or pasta is allowed. I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of freedom to take the flavors in a wide range of directions. I’ve become adventurous.
My daughters’ favorite is my Pizza Chili, with pepperoni, black olives and topped with chilled, marinated pineapple. As for my favorite, I love my Breakfast Chili, made with chorizo and served with biscuits and a sunny-side-up egg.
As the pastry chef at The Manhattan in Camarillo, I spend my days working with sweet ingredients and using the precise measurements baking demands. Making chili encourages me to step outside of my comfort zone. The baker in me cringes when I add a little more of this or that—my instinct is to follow a recipe to the T but that is just not how it goes with chili. It welcomes experimentation and approximation. The recipe calls for a tablespoon of chili powder? Maybe two is better. It doesn’t call for garlic? Well, maybe I’ll add it anyway.
I’ve learned from trial and error which flavors go well and which are just not a good match. Milk chocolate isn’t good, but unsweetened chocolate is. It lends a slightly bitter complexity that’s wonderful with heartier chilis.
While drinking a craft beer at Poseidon Brewing Company in Ventura, I started thinking about how it would go well with a big steaming bowl of chili. Then I started thinking: If beer would be good with chili, it’d be even better in it.
So I started playing around. I discovered that beer is a nice ingredient addition, enhancing the flavors of the chilies. In some cases the beer lends a distinct taste—think hoppy IPA in a white chili. In others, it deepens the dimension of flavors (like a caramel-y stout in a spicy beef chili).
The beers’ nuances also played a role in the pairings. A stout was too heavy for the vegetarian chili, which needed a lighter-flavored beer. For this chili, a red ale with its light sweetness and maltiness, along with the less-hoppy flavor, highlighted the flavors well.