Burgers and beer are a natural pairing. So why is it that so many burger chains don't serve anything harder than a Coke?
That's one thing that Smashburger is changing. The Denver-based chain has opened a dozen locations in Houston since the end of 2008 and now it is partnering with Houston's Saint Arnold Brewing Company to offer suggested beer pairings eight of the most popular burgers and chicken sandwiches on the menu.
"You can guess some of them, but the ones that blow you away are the completely unexpected ones," Brock Wagner says.
With a debut on Thursday (during Houston Beer Week, natch) this will be Smashburger's third local brew pairing. The company debuted pairings with Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing in its Fort Collins and Denver locations in September, followed by adding Brooklyn's Six Point Brewery options to its New York locations a couple of weeks later.
While Smashburger CEO David Prokupek traveled to Houston in September to taste potential pairings with Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner, the final lineup of beer offerings was decided by Smashburger founder Tom Ryan on a subsequent trip last month that included a tour of the brewery and assembling the pairings lineup from scratch.
Ryan has a doctorate in flavor chemistry, so when it comes to bringing out the best flavors in each burger and chicken sandwich, there's really no one better. Wagner and Saint Arnold's Lennie Ambrose also joined the pairings panel, and the guys let me sit in as well.
"You can guess some of them, but the ones that blow you away are the completely unexpected ones," Wagner says. "That's the part I really love," Ryan adds in agreement.
Santo quickly emerged as a contender in virtually every pairing, with Ryan dubbing it a "universal burger beer." But where Santo had been slotted in during the previous pairing to match up with the Spicy Baja burger, this time a different favorite emerged.
"This is going to be a consumer experience that people haven't had."
"For the flavors I want people to appreciate in this, [Weedwacker] brings them out better. It makes them brighter," Ryan says. "I taste the tomato better, I taste the jalepeño better, and I think that's the magic of the interaction and what it really does.
"I think it makes it spicier. Pretty cool, huh?"
A few pairings had obvious favorites, like the Lawnmower with the spinach and goat cheese chicken sandwich, while others including the avocado club and the Buffalo chicken sandwich inspired some discussion and debate about which beer truly worked the best. According to Ryan, though, the most natural and effective pairing was when the Mushroom Swiss burger met the burger-friendly Santo.
"This pulls out all those creamy notes out of this beer . . . I think it's beautiful," Ryan says. "This is going to be a consumer experience that people haven't had. I think the Santo with this is magic."
The full lineup of Smashburger/Saint Arnold beer pairings is being announced at a media dinner on Wednesday, with the pairs hitting Houston-area Smashburger locations on Thursday. But with six Saint Arnold's beers already available on the menu, the most fun way to experience the new pairing lineup might be to try your own pairings and see if you agree.