The Beer Lover's Table: Birria Tacos and Utopian Brewing Dark Lager

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve come across birria tacos recently. In that strange way that the internet collectively seems to nominate one dish for obsession every few months, birria is now everyone’s digital infatuation. Not that I’m above the fray – birria fever has gripped me, too.

As with all internet-famous recipes, it helps that the dish looks good: crispy, golden-fried tacos stuffed with juicy chunks of beef, plunged into meaty broth covered with a bright red slick of chilli-infused oil. However, as Tejal Rao notes in a recent NY Times article, “The Birria Boom is Complicated”, that’s not the full story. “Birria varies greatly in style from Jalisco and Aguascalientes to Michoacán and Zacatecas,” she writes.

The regional Mexican stew can be made with a wide range of meats – most typically beef, goat or lamb, but also pork, chicken or various offal cuts. It can be eaten in a bowl with tortillas on the side, or ladled into those tortillas and topped with salsa, onions and coriander. Or the meat can be taken out separately and tucked into Tijuana-style quesabirria tacos, which Eater describes as “a kind of cross between a taco and a quesadilla” – and almost epiphanically delicious.

My recipe deviates from Rao’s in a few ways, but like hers it’s for birria de res – the rich, meaty, vermillion stew – that can then be made into those internet-beloved cheese-and-beef-filled, fried and broth-dunked quesabirria tacos. You can stop at the stew and serve tortillas on the side, or go the full nine yards and throw a taco party.

A couple of notes: Dried ancho chillis and pasilla chillis (or guajillo, if you can find them) are an essential building block of this recipe, and what makes it spicy and earthy and deep in colour. As such they can’t be left out (though you can choose to leave out the arbol chillies, which add an extra punch of heat). You can also play around with the cuts of meat here, but essentially you’re looking for one leaner stewing cut and one that’s laced with fat and connective tissue to help impart the broth with richness.

As complex as birria is, the beer you choose to go with it doesn’t have to be. I’m now several years into my 180°-turn towards complete lager infatuation, and given this dish’s warm-weather origins, its spice and intensity, I can’t help but think of a chilled-down, heat-beating lager to accompany it and temper it. In a nod to those deeper flavours, a Czech-style dark lager – which has its own decoction-induced caramelised richness, a rich body and lovely toastiness – is the ideal choice to go with it, and it’s tough to do better than Utopian Brewing’s newly released Dark Lager. Utopian’s head brewer Jeremy Swainson was trained in Germany, and now brews continental lagers with an almost unmatched precision and dedication; this beer tastes classical, balanced, and refined to its core.

If you’re having an end-of-summer taco party, then, go on and grab a bunch and throw them into a cooler with ice. And if you want to add any sides to the mix, elotes are never a bad idea.

Birria Tacos
Makes 8-10
Adapted from the New York Times

For the birria:
5 dried ancho chillis
5 dried pasilla chillis
2 dried arbol chillis (optional)
1 kilo beef chuck roast or brisket, cut into several large pieces
1 kilo beef shin, cut into several large pieces
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 yellow onion, quartered
10 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican oregano)
2 teaspoons cumin
800g tinned chopped tomatoes 100ml white wine vinegar
750ml beef stock, plus additional if needed
4 bay leaves
4 cloves
1 cinnamon stick

For the tacos:
Vegetable oil
20 corn or flour tortillas (approximately)
600g oaxaca cheese (substitute with firm mozzarella), grated
2 sweet or red onions, diced
50g coriander
Lime wedges

1. Begin by rehydrating your dried chillis. Using kitchen shears, remove the stems from the chillis and slice them open. Shake out and discard any dried seeds (wear disposable gloves, if you can). Place a large frying pan over medium-high heat; once hot, add a batch of the chillis and toast for roughly 30 seconds on each side, or until fragrant but not burned. Repeat with the remaining batches. Place the toasted chillis in a large bowl and pour over roughly 700ml of boiling water. Cover and leave to soak.

2. While the chillis soak, prepare the beef chuck and shin. Season pieces generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Place a Dutch oven or other large, oven-safe, lidded pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil; once hot, add half the beef (or however much will comfortably fit in one layer). Sear for 2-4 minutes, or until browned; using tongs, flip and continue to sear on all sides until evenly browned. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining batch(es).

3. Next, make the chilli paste. To a blender or food processor, add the chillis and their soaking liquid, the onion, garlic cloves, dried oregano and cumin. Blend until uniform; it should be very thick and smooth. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the Dutch oven and place over medium heat; scrape in all the chilli paste and fry for 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly, or until it no longer has a raw onion smell.

4. Preheat the oven to 160° Celsius. To the Dutch oven, add the tins of chopped tomatoes and the white wine vinegar, and stir to combine. Return the seared beef pieces and their juices to the pot, and pour over the beef stock – it should cover the meat entirely; add more if needed. Stir through the bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil; once boiling, turn the heat off and cover the pot. Transfer to the oven and braise for approximately 2-2 1/2 hours, pausing to stir and flip the beef pieces every 30 minutes or so, until they are very tender and starting to fall apart. If you’d like, you can serve this as a stew with tortillas on the side, topped with coriander and a squeeze of lime juice – just be sure to check for seasoning and to break up the meat pieces a little bit.

5. Alternatively, for the tacos: Once the meat is braised, transfer the pot to the stove and place over low heat; remove the beef pieces from the stew and leave to cool slightly before shredding with two forks. If the stew liquid is very thick, it may need to be thinned out with additional water so it has a more broth-like consistency. Taste and add any additional seasoning to the broth if needed.

6. To make each taco, place a large frying pan over medium heat and add a drizzle of vegetable oil. Once the pan is hot, briefly dunk a tortilla into the simmering broth and allow any excess to drip off. Place the tortilla flat in the frying pan (it should start sizzling right away) and cover with an even layer of grated cheese. Once the cheese has melted, add a generous layer of beef to half of the tortilla, and sprinkle over some diced onion and chopped coriander. Using a spatula, fold the rest of the tortilla over the beef. Cook for 1-2 minutes; flip and cook on the reverse for 1 minute more. The tortilla should be golden-brown and crispy on both sides.

7. Repeat with however many more tacos you plan to cook at once (this recipe makes a large batch – just be sure to store the broth and the shredded meat separately if you plan to save some leftovers). Serve the tacos with lime wedges and a small cup of broth on the side to dip them in.

Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer hound and all-around lover of tasty things. You can follow her at @clairembullen. For more recipes like this, sign up to our HB&B All Killer No Filler beer subscription - you'll receive Claire's recipe and food pairings, plus beer reviews and expert tasting notes with up to 12 world-class beers - like this one - every month.