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Beer-can chicken reigns supreme

Published Aug. 26, 1999|Updated Sep. 29, 2005

The best chicken I ever tasted wasn't the poulet de Bresse stuffed with truffles that I had in France. It wasn't the chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in a mound of clay in Hong Kong. It wasn't even my Aunt Annette's plump, golden braised capon, although it comes close.

No, the best chicken I ever tasted came off a barbecue pit in Memphis, where it had been smoked upright in a singularly undignified position _ straddling an open can of beer.

Beer-can chicken, also known as drunken chicken or chicken on a throne, is a modern classic on the American competition barbecue circuit. I first tasted it in 1996 on the banks of the Mississippi River at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Memphis in May is the World Series, Mardi Gras and Summer Olympics of barbecue all rolled into one, a cutthroat competition and orgy of smoked meat and beer that brings 300 teams from around the world to compete in the uniquely American art of barbecue.

My introduction to beer-can chicken came from one such team, the Bryce Boar Blazers from Memphis. I happened on their site one afternoon just as the team captain, Jim Birdsong, was lifting the lid of a giant smoker.

Inside were a half-dozen chickens, their skins bronzed with smoke and gritty with spice rub, perched upright on cans of beer. The chickens were destined to feed the crew after a week of the smoke, sweat and toil of competition.

The Blazers had injected their chickens with Cajun seasoning (using the culinary version of a hypodermic syringe) and rubbed brown sugar, onion and garlic under and over the skin. Open cans of beer seasoned with more spice rub had been inserted in the cavities of the upright birds, protruding like pedestals. The legs were brought forward to form a sort of tripod. Thus positioned, the birds had been placed in a smoker and slow-roasted for 4 hours over mesquite.

The meat was unbelievably moist and tender, the bite of the spice mix accenting the perfume of wood smoke. The use of the beer can turned out to be a brilliant, if crude, tactic: The bird is steamed and infused with aromatics from the inside on what amounts to a vertical roaster. (Although beer-can chicken is commonly slow-cooked, it doesn't have to be. Hotter, faster grilling methods are excellent, too.)

Birdsong said he learned the technique from one of his company's customers in Texas and became a devotee. Another ardent fan is Elizabeth Lumpkin, the owner of Boss Hawg's Barbecue and Catering Co. in Topeka, Kan., who began making beer-can chicken in 1995. Lumpkin places quartered apples and onions in the cavity and smokes the bird over apple and cherry. "Sometimes my husband will be all crabby because I've used all the beer in the house for chicken," she said.

Beer-can chicken exists even outside the quirky world of competition barbecue. My cousin Rob Raichlen, who works in communications for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team and knows his way around a kettle grill, practically lived on beer-can chicken at cookouts at the University of Southern California. He learned how to make it from a college roommate from New Orleans.

A few weeks ago, I was able to confirm a Louisiana connection. I was discussing barbecue on a New Orleans radio talk show, and several listeners called in to volunteer their recipes for beer-can chicken. One said he adds garlic and onion juice to the beer can. For another, the secret was a generous shot of crab boil.

"The birth of beer-can chicken is sort of like the domestication of animals," Ardie Davis, a barbecue expert, said. About five years ago, "it just happened everywhere at once."

Davis, who goes by the nom de guerre of Remus Powers, is one of the most respected judges on the barbecue circuit, recognizable by his signature bowler hat and tuxedo studs fashioned from pork ribs. He barbecues his chickens on "tall boys," 16-ounce cans of beer.

When outdoor cooks learn about beer-can chicken, they find it irresistible. First, there's the novelty factor.

Even more important are the unique flavor and texture. The technique is so effective because "the heat makes the alcohol in the beer volatilize," Birdsong said, adding that the fumes "add a delicate beer flavor" that joins other flavorings and at the same time keeps the bird moist and tender. Because the steaming takes place inside the chicken, it accomplishes all this without making the skin soggy.

Then, of course, there's the heady tang of wood smoke. Beer-can chicken is always cooked with wood or wood chips. To reinforce the beer flavor, many pit masters will actually soak their wood chips in beer.

There's a final benefit, the fact that the chicken is roasted upright. This vertical position allows the fat to drain off and the skin to roast quickly, crisply and evenly. Indeed, cookware shops sell special vertical chicken roasting stands for this purpose, but these devices lack the allure of steaming beer.

In the last three years, I have cooked a lot of beer-can chickens, and I have tried varying the methods just about every way I can think of. Competition barbecuers cook the birds at a relatively low temperature (190 to 225 degrees) for a long time (4 to 5 hours). This is fine if you happen to have a smoker. Smokers produce the best smoke flavor, but they never really quite make the skin crisp.

I prefer a conventional charcoal or gas grill at a higher temperature (350 degrees). By using the indirect grilling method and adding wood chips to the coals or smoker box, you still get an intense smoke flavor. The chicken cooks in about 90 minutes, and the skin always comes out crackling crisp.

I have also experimented with other birds and seasonings, such as game hens cooked on miniature beer cans. I have invented a root beer bird, and for an Asian touch I rub a chicken with five-spice powder and add Chinese seasonings to the beer.

The fact is that you can put any seasoning on the bird and other flavorful liquids _ not just beer _ in the can. For that matter, you can use a can of your favorite soda. Soda is more interesting than you might imagine.

Beer-Can Chicken

2 cups hickory or oak chips soaked in beer or water to cover for 1 hour and then drained

2 12-ounce cans beer

{ cup of your favorite barbecue rub

2 3{- to 4-pound chickens, fat removed, washed and blotted dry.

Place wood chips in bowl. Pop tab of each beer can and make 2 additional holes in each top, using a church-key opener. Pour half the beer from each can over the chips. Add additional beer or water to cover chips, soak them for 1 hour and drain.

Set up grill for indirect grilling.

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon barbecue rub in neck cavity and 2 teaspoons in main cavity of each chicken. Add 1 tablespoon rub to each open, half-full can of beer. (Don't worry if it foams up.) Season outside of each bird with 2 tablespoons rub.

Stand beer cans on work surface. Holding each chicken upright, lower it over can so that can goes into main cavity. Pull chicken legs forward to form a sort of tripod: the chicken should sit upright over can. Carefully transfer chickens to grill in this position, placing them in center over drip pan, away from heat.

If using charcoal, toss half the wood chips on each mound of coals. If using gas, place chips in smoker box. Barbecue chickens until nicely browned and cooked through, about 1{ hours, keeping temperature about 350 degrees. (If using charcoal, replenish coals as needed.) The internal temperature of the birds (taken in thickest part of thigh) should be at least 165 degrees.

Carefully transfer birds to platter in same position. To carve, lift bird off can and discard can.

Yield: 4 servings. Preparation time: 1} hours.

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