The first time I saw a beer can chicken at a friend’s barbecue about ten years ago, I thought he was playing a joke on everyone. There’s certainly something comical about the way this chicken looks (like maybe it should be wearing a pair of sunglasses) but the flavor and juiciness is no joke.
When you cook chicken perched on top of a can of your favorite beer, the steamy alcohol rises into the cavity and keeps the meat moist and tender, similar to basting without all the work. Some theorize that the malt and yeast in the beer also helps to give your chicken a crispy skin. Here’s what we know: Beer can chicken looks cool, gives you an excuse to chug half of a beer really quickly, requires little to no fussing, and (in our opinion) tastes amazing.
Where Did Beer Can Chicken Come From?
While the origins of this unusual yet iconic dish are murky, everyone seems to generally agree that beer can chicken was created in the south at least a few decades ago. If it can be said that certain recipes have a ‘collegiate vibe’ then beer can chicken sits on the top of the heap as the most summery, college-campusy dish of all. You barbecue a whole chicken balanced on a partially full can of beer. What could possibly be more silly or…wait? Delicious? Yep, beer can chicken is both a totally silly AND completely delectable way to cook a whole chicken.
There are as many origin stories for beer can chicken as there are cooks. The one we like goes something like this:
A barbecue pitmaster had been drinking beer (the officially sanctioned barbecue circuit beverage) all day. Around dinner time he realized that he was going to need to eat something if he was going to last all day and into the next morning tending his slow cooked barbecue. So, he opened his rig (a smoke grill big enough for several whole hogs) and set his beer down on the cooking grate to get something small to cook from his cooler. He picked up a chicken and put it on top of his half-full can of beer without noticing what he was doing. He looked for his beer, couldn’t find it and popped open another one without a second thought. That is until he opened the grill an hour later and (lo and behold) perched on his smoker was the first beer can chicken.
Regardless of whether the story is true or not, it is truly the best roasted chicken that we have ever made or tasted.
What Is the Best Beer for Beer Can Chicken?
What is the best beer to use to beer-can-cook a chicken? Well, the easiest answer is: what’s your favorite beer? What’s your preference? The simple answer is to use a light lager. The light beer works excellent! All American, mass-produced lagers are the gold standard for beer can chicken (like a can of Miller, or a Budweiser) but you don’t need to feel married to any one brand.
If you can find a Stella in a can or even a good old PBR. If you want to spread your wings a little here are Lowcountry Style & Living’s favorite types of beer for beer can chicken:
- IPA Beer – There are many different types of hoppy beers out there, but most common is an IPA. You’ll taste a malty, nutty flavor with some hint of caramel. Cooking chicken with a floral IPA craft brew brings out the best in the chicken. Samuel Adams, Wicked Hazy New England IPA, Cigar City’s Jai Alai IPA, and Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA will all complement your chicken perfectly.
- Stouts – In general, stout beers are black, powerful, and bitter. Coffee, chocolate, and caramel sweetness are the most prevalent flavors for these beers. The most famous stout is Guinness; despite its strong hop character, the chicken won’t be overshadowed by the flavor.
- Pilsners – Hoppy and light in color, Pilsners are similar to an IPA in terms of flavors, but less potent. You’ll never go wrong with Pilsner Urquell for your beer can chicken.
- Sour Beers – Different strains of yeast and bacteria are used to make sour beers which can have distinct, almost funky, flavors. North Carolina’s Tarboro Brewing’s Seed Spitter is a fruity, puckery beer that is ideal for beer can chicken. If you’re not sure what to select, your local beer store should have a Berliner Weisse or Gose-style beer that will work well with your chicken.
What If I Don’t Like Beer?
That is OK! Not everyone enjoys beer. Fortunately, chicken is very versatile and the options for other flavorful liquids to the substitute beer are endless.
Since acidity compliments the rich flavor of chicken, a can of lemon-lime soda such as 7-Up or Sprite would not be out of place.
With wine in a can becoming popular, others might opt for a white wine like Pinot Grigio in which the primary flavors are lime and lemon. Chardonnay will also work as the classic dry wine carries a rich citrus flavor.
Does Beer Can Chicken Do Anything?
What is it about the beer that transforms an ordinary chicken into a mouthwatering masterpiece? Maybe not anything specific. Maybe lots of things in combination. We do acknowledge that there is room for debate. The BBQ world seems to be split 50/50 on this question. But there is no need for a heated debate. For fairness let’s look at all sides of this issue.
Team No Steam
Some people have a theory that the chicken has been refrigerated and so has the beer. Even though you get the chicken and beer on the smoker, the beer inside the can inside the chicken never gets to a boiling temperature of 212 degrees. So, if the internal temperature never gets to 212, how does the beer boil to evaporate to steam the inside of the chicken? Great theory, no doubt.
However, there are plenty of people (Lowcountry Style & Living included) that say putting the beer in the chicken and that beer sits directly on the smoker at 225-250 for several hours, how can the beer not come to a boiling temperature?
Then there are those who say (beer or no beer) the fact that the chicken has its legs closest to the fire and the breast (white meat) furthest away allows the breast to retain whatever moisture it naturally has, thus creating a tasty and juicy chicken.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s about the fact that the chicken is being cooked low and slow in the vertical position allowing the bird not to dry out. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about having time to slow down and hang out with friends and family and enjoy good food, good beer, and good conversation. Whether you think this beer can chicken method works or not, that is up to you. At Lowcountry Style & Living we are firm believers in the beer can method. What’s at work is steam, infusing the meat inside the chicken with moist heat. Meanwhile, the outside of the bird roasts to crispy golden perfection.
Can I Use a Holder Instead of a Beer?
Yes. You can buy a holder that will keep your chicken vertical just like the beer can does. The holder keeps the legs close to the heat and the breast furthest away maintaining the moisture. But, there’s no beer. Let’s not call that beer can chicken.
Easy Beer Can Chicken Recipe
- Take your favorite beer, drink half. (Is this not the best first step of a recipe ever?)
- Season the chicken well. Season the chicken inside and out with a dry rub of salt, paprika, thyme, and cumin (and whatever else sounds delicious to you).
- Insert the can from the rear into the cavity of the chicken until about two inches of the can is left out of the chicken.
- Set the can and chicken on one side of the grill. If using a gas grill, turn off the burners directly under the chicken.
- Cook at a low temperature of 225-250 for about 2 hours and 30 minutes to 3 hours until the internal temperature reaches 160 in the breast/180 in the thigh (use a meat thermometer). Once off the grill, let the chicken rest under foil for about 10 minutes before carving the juicy goodness.
Sorry. We Almost Forget. How Do I Remove the Can From the Beer Can Chicken?
Remove the whole chicken (including the beer can) onto a cutting board to rest. Then have one person grasp the beer can with tongs to hold it in place while a second person grabs the chicken, using wadded up paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and pulls it up off the can.
What to Serve With Beer Can Chicken
Beer can chicken is a classic BBQ recipe and so pairs well with other classic fare. It’s a total no brainer:
- Grilled Corn on the Cob
- Potato Salad
- Macaroni Salad
- Baked Beans
- Chips and Salsa
We hope you enjoy this easy beer can chicken recipe as much as we do. It’s true backyard fun.
Still Want More?
Try this Lowcountry Style & Living insiders tip: choose a Dr. Pepper or an A & W Root Beer and then sit back and enjoy.