Chili is quite interesting. Like pizza, ramen, or hot dogs, it is a traditional food in the sense that it has been eaten for generations and can be passed down like folklore, but it is also non-traditional in that it needn’t imitate some pseudohistorical, platonic ideal. And yet everybody seems to have an idea of how chili should be made, in a way that goes beyond personal preference. Kind of like barbecue, people often maintain that there is a correct way to make chili, and all variations are either wrong, alien, or not chili at all. I think the most contentious single ingredient in chili are beans. The mantra of chili purists is “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans.” But I know beans about chili, and I can hardly imagine chili without them.
I can also hardly imagine chili without beer, which adds a wonderfully deep, rib-sticking barley sweetness and light hop spice to chili as it cooks off. I first made chili with beer a few years ago using a brilliant recipe from Allagash Brewing in Maine. It calls for Allagash Tripel, a strong Belgian pale ale, but actually the recipe works with almost any kind of beer, so long as it isn’t excessively bitter – a smoked beer, I imagine, would probably be delicious.
When I remade the recipe the other night, I had nothing but expensive/rare/special beer in the house, which frankly would have been a waste to use in chili. So I went to the store and bought some Carlsberg. Carlsberg is a fine beer, not great or even particularly good, but it’s perfect for cooking because its hops are fairly restrained while its malts are savory, grainy, and sweet. Plus there aren’t really any nice nuances that would go to waste in something as dense and robust as chili. To use something like, say, Den Udødelige Hest would probably taste quite nice, but all of its subtleties of dates and port and mocha would be muffled under the sandbags of spices that go into any good chili. (My spice blend, by the way, is top secret. So don’t expect a recipe!)
I used about two-thirds of a Carlsberg in the food, which reduced nicely into a thick, malty mortar to bind together all the beans, meat, and spices. I had the rest of the Carlsberg with my meal – and it wasn’t quite right. I was reminded of why I don’t particularly like mass-produced pilsners with Indian curries – while they do act as nice palate-cleansers to help clear all that ghee off the palate, somehow they seem to abrupt, too cutting, and yet so inconsequential. It was the same pitting Carlsberg against Carlsberg chili – it helped to wash down what was a very rich stew, but it didn’t do anything in terms of flavor. I may as well have been drinking club soda.
Next time, I will try it with something just as crisp and effervescent, but with a stronger malt flavor – possibly a dark German lager or an American pale ale.