Beer is the key to great chili – the rest is optional

SUPER BOWL Sunday is upon us, and the testosterone of championship-hungry football fans rages nowhere stronger than in the kitchen.

Armies of chefs, fortified with tongue-searing hot peppers, are trash-talking the competition, certain that this year – this year, I tell you! – they have an unbeatable game plan. They boast, they strut and they rant over the proper ingredients: beans or no beans, ground beef or sirloin, habanero or jalapeño . . . or perhaps they’ll break out the hottest of them all, the Naga Viper, with its paint-stripping 1,359,000 measurement on the Scoville scale.

One ingredient they won’t argue over in this year’s batch of chili, though, is beer.

While it’s true that no two chili recipes are ever the same, no pot would ever be complete without a bottle of suds, lovingly poured into the steaming mix of spicy meat.

With varieties that range from a golden lager to a black stout, the only question is: Which to choose? Last weekend, I stopped in at the Khyber Pass Pub for some tips from contestants in its annual chili cook-off.

Find a beer that matches your recipe.

Dark beer tends to produce a rustic flavor. The judges’ favorite, from Kevin Clough and his friend Korina Ambartsoumian of Old City, was made with a bottle of Pennsylvania-brewed Big Black Voodoo Daddy (“Half for the chili, half for the chef,” said Clough). The bourbon-flavored, oak-aged stout brought out the roasted flavors of seared steak and Andouille sausage.

Sweeter recipes, though, can be enhanced with a lighter, more effervescent ale. Worried that a stout would overpower the honey and ginger in her recipe, Michele Reynolds of South Philly added New Holland Beerhive Tripel (Michigan), a yeasty Belgian-style that gave her dish a sweet, zesty flavor. As a bonus, it infused the meat with an appetizing, reddish-orange color.

For a shredded chicken chili recipe, Sarah Johnson cracked open a bottle of light and fruity Kenzinger Kolsch (Philadelphia) to complement instead of dominate its delicate flavors.

Try a coffee- or chocolate-flavored beer.

“It gives your chili an extra kick,” said Steve Matt of South Philly, who spiked his recipe with Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout (California).

A few glugs of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (New York) and a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder rounded out the concoction from Petra Rose of South Philly.

Be a show-off.

Exotic meats will totally impress the fans around the wide-screen. Anybody can stew beef – try adding venison, wild boar and duck.

Matt Coll and Lewis Cook, who called their creation “Pet Cemetery,” found that simmering it all in Victory Lager (Downingtown) – a malty, easy-drinking Helles lager – helped bring out their recipe’s distinct, meaty flavors.

Meanwhile, the threatening-looking orange habanero peppers bobbing in Dave Kovalchick’s “Red Baron: The Revenge of the Habanero,” made with Yards Brawler, (Philadelphia) earned him a people’s choice award. Because they weren’t sliced open, the peppers added flavor without excessive heat.

Don’t be afraid of hops.

A basic India pale ale may be too bitter for your dish, but the malty sweetness of an imperial IPA can overcome that bite. Andrew Vidulich of Old City reduced a can of Oskar Blues Gordon to the consistency of syrup, then added brown sugar, caramelized ground beef, onions and spices. The finished product was sweet but still boasted the herbal freshness of hops.

Add bacon.

The French add butter to everything. Americans use bacon. Believe me, you can’t go wrong with bacon.

Add a topping.

Sour cream is the classic; shredded cheese is even better.

Or design your own. Here’s one I adapted from Coll and Cook.

1. Roast several poblano peppers, then de-seed and skin them.

2. Place in a food processor with crème fraîche and Belgian-style witbier (e.g. Hoegaarden or Allagash White).

3. Season with salt and lime zest.

4. Process into a cream and adjust ingredients to taste and consistency.


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