What's Beer Can Chicken?

Tony's question about beer can chicken seemed odd to us at first, until we realized that our 100 year old family patriarch had never watched how we cooked that chicken he so loved!

Simply put, it is one of the greatest ways to barbecue the world's favorite fowl! Also known as Beer butt chicken, and less indelicately as beer can chicken and chicken on a throne, it is fast becoming an American legend.

He then observed, from his throne under the cabana, this simple method to the most succulent chicken ever. "Boys", he said, "that's the way I want my chicken from now on".

He now asks us to make "drunken chicken". So be it!

Why Beer Can Chicken...?

  1. Because it steams the bird from the inside, infusing moisture and wonderful flavors, and then...it roasts the outside to a crispy, spice-enhanced delight; all of this and a lot less fat!
  2. Because it requires very little effort at the grill! No turning, and basting, and turning, and basting...

You can review the "Cookin' Cousin's" secrets at our "6 Secrets to Smoking Meat".

The only other method that will give you a result close to beer can chicken on the grill, is smoking chicken in a meat smoker. This is covered in our "Smoking Chicken" page. But let's put that grill to use starting with... 

The stuff you'll need for a great beer can chicken recipe:

Note: We've included some in context links to our favorite, backyard tested products, as a convenience for our visitors.

Patience   Low and slow is the real secret to great beer can chicken. Maintain the temperature between 230/250°F (110/121°C) for a couple of hours. This is not the fastest method, but the "bestest"!

One 12oz. can-o'-beer   Any beer will do, but why not buy your favorite? You need only half a can of brew for the bird.

Beer can chicken holder  This is not mandatory, but it certainly makes balancing the chicken on the grill a whole lot easier! You can get these great contraptions at most stores that sell barbecue accessories, but...

Most of them are not made of stainless steel, and do not have a built-in drip tray. That drip tray is brilliant! Now, neither of these features are a deal breaker, just nice to have when the price is right. 

Our three favorite beer can chicken holders are... the inexpensive Kingsford Stainless Steel  model, the heavy duty (more expensive, of course) Norpro Stainless Steel version, and for a whole lot more fun, look at this Double Beer Can Chicken Cooker. You can cook 'taters-'n-corn along with two birds at the same time!

Gas Grill  The indirect heat cooking method, to cook beer can chicken on a gas grill, requires at least a good two burner model .

Charcoal Grill  Our long time favorite is the classic Weber kettle type grill. It's inexpensive, very durable, and easy to use. For shear convenience, we love the feature loaded (albeit, more expensive) Weber Performer Platinum Charcoal Grill. This beauty has it all.

Meat  Try to buy fresh! A plump, 2-3 pound broiler/fryer is best.

Spices   We use rubs on our birds, and enjoy putting together our own with these basic fresh ingredients:

  • Salt, coarse (Kosher or sea salt)
  • Sugar (turbinado or brown)
  • Paprika (Hungarian much preferred for best flavor)
  • Pepper, black (fresh coarse ground!)
  • Chili powder
  • Garlic, granulate or powder
  • Onion powder

Go to Secret #2 for more on this.

Hardwood chunks/chips  Use only hardwood for any barbecue; never any kind of softwood. For smoked chicken we use Pecan, Oak, Mesquite, Cherry, Apple, or combine a couple for exceptional results. If you like a stronger smoke flavor, Hickory is great!

Shallow baking pan or a Disposable aluminum pan  You'll need one of these if you don't have a chicken holder with a built-in drip tray. If you do not have a readily available source for good quality disposable pans, we've found these Weber 7-1/2-Inch-by-5-inch Aluminum Drip Pans to be excellent for the price.

Smoker box, or pouch  If your grill came with a barbeque Smoke Box for the wood chips, you're good to go. Otherwise you can make an envelope/pouch from heavy-duty aluminum foil, and put a couple of handfuls of presoaked (in hot water for at least 20 minutes), drained chips on the foil. Fold into an envelope/pouch shape, and poke several holes in the top to release the smoke. However, for the best, and longest smoke effect, we use a Cast Iron Smoker Box. The chips last longer, and burn evenly.

Oven/Grill thermometer  We've found that the thermometer included with most grills to be unreliable. Our two favorites, for quality and accuracy, are the CDN High Heat Oven Thermometer and the Admetior Kitchen Oven Thermometer.

Instant-Read probe type thermometer  Nobody likes uncooked chicken! To be safe you want the internal temperature to reach the ideal temperature of 165°F (74°C). Two of our favorite inexpensive, very accurate, pocket models are the fast reading CDN Proaccurate Stainless Digital Thermometer and the little faster professional grade Thermoworks Super Fast Water-Resistant Digital Pocket Thermometer. For the discriminating cooks who want the top-of-the-line model, you'll love the (very expensive)  Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer. It's darn near perfect.

Tongs  Long, strong, professional type tongs are indispensable when handling anything on a grill. We have, and use both the OXO Good Grips 16-Inch Locking Tongs, and the Weber Style 6441 Professional-Grade Chef's Tongs. But for handling beer can chicken we more often we use...

Insulated Food Gloves  These things are by far the easiest way to handle awkward meat on the grill or smoker. Our very favorite set is Steven Raichlen's Barbecue Insulated Food Gloves. You can't beat them for the ease of fast transfer off of the grill to the platter, and no-burnt-fingers. Wash-up is a breeze!

Chimney Starter  For you charcoal smoke/grillr folks, this is really the only way to start, and maintain, the coals. If you've never used one, you're going to love the experience! By far the best is the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter. Lot of chimney starters out there, but this is the champ.

A great beer can chicken recipe starts with a rub!

The chicken is first "rubbed", with a simple, dry, spice accented rub, and then smoked slow, with low indirect heat. All for that unforgettable tender, perfectly seasoned, eating experience!

...let's start with a classic rub recipe that will impart all of the flavors your drooling chops are hankerin' for. Do not let the simplicity of this basic rub fool you. It works great, and you can adjust the recipe (as the "pros" do) to make it "yours". Look at our "Dry Rub Recipes" page for other great recipes and ideas.

Basic Rub Recipe For Beer Can Chicken

Mix together thoroughly the following:

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar (packed). We prefer "turbinado sugar" for ease of use, but either one works fine.
  • 1/4 cup Paprika, sweet (Hungarian, if you can get it)
  • 3 tblsp Salt, coarse (Kosher or sea)
  • 1 tblsp Pepper, coarse ground (fresh peppercorns are magic!)
  • 1 tblsp Garlic powder or 2 tblsp granulated (not garlic salt)
  • 1 tblsp Onion powder
  • 1 tblsp Chile powder (no, it will not be "hot")
  • 1 tblsp Cayenne powder

Now, let's prepare the meat...

NOTE: Chicken should be always kept in the refrigerator (below 40°F/4.4°C) before preparation.

  • Remove the thawed (in the refer) chicken from the refrigerator. Clean and trim the excess fat n' skin. Rinse thoroughly, inside and out - pat dry.
  • Apply the rub generously over/inside the chicken.

We leave the skin on our birds for the best flavor, and to keep it moist throughout the cooking period. If you must have skinless chicken, remove the skin after it is cooked.

Get the beer ready...

Drain half of the beer, using your favorite beer disposal method. Try a can opener to take the lid off. Failing that, pour the remainder (hopefully still half of a can) in a temporary container, cut the lid off and replace the beer. Or use an old "church key" to make a few more holes.

Now, our beer can chicken recipe is a very forgiving roasting method, so you can have some fun experimenting with putting complimentary spices/herbs in the beer.

Like what?

How about a couple/three minced cloves of garlic and some cumin. Throw in some cayenne for a spicy effect and maybe some diced onion! Some folks even put a tablespoon of vinegar in the beer.

If you add nothing to the beer, the chicken will still turn out fantastic!

Get the Grill Ready...

  • On a gas grill, fire-up all burners and get the temperature to 230/250°F (110/121°C), then shut down all but one for cooking. We found it imperative to use a good oven thermometer, placed on the meat side of the grill, as the only way to ensure that the cooking temperature is true. Note that the lid thermometer will indicate a higher temperature, and that indication should be used only as a reference.
  • Place the drained chips (pre-soaked in water for about 10-15 minutes) in the smoker-can/prepared smoker pouch, over the cooking burner.
  • Close the grill and let the smoke get started. This will be the last time you will have anything to do with the smoke. Too much smoke, when barbecuing beer can chicken, makes the meat bitter tasting.

  • On a charcoal grill, fire-up the charcoal...we like the chimney charcoal starter because it's the quickest and easiest way to start the coals. When cooking beer can chicken on the grill, you'll need to replenish the coals occasionally to maintain the ideal temperature of around 230/250°F (110/121°C).

NOTE: Please, if you use charcoal lighter fluid, allow the coals to burn to a gray ash coating. There are several better "fire-starters" on the market that will not taint the meat, or impart potentially dangerous chemicals to the food.

  • Start with about 60 briquettes. Let them get a to white/gray color and they will be ready for the grill. You will need to add more unlit coals (about 6 or so) right after you have the coals placed in the cooker, and several times during the cooking cycle, to maintain the temperature. Watch the temp. and anticipate this with about a 15-minute lead.
  • Control the temperature with the bottom/side vents on your grill. Open a vent for more oxygen (heat). Adjust the top vent to half open and leave it alone.
  • Put a couple of handfuls of chips/chunks of hardwood (pre-soaked in warm water for at least 15-20 minutes) on the coals. Now, close the grill and let the smoke get started. This will be the last time, during the cooking cycle, you will have anything to do with the smoke. Too much smoke makes the meat bitter tasting.

Cook 'Em

NOTE: Always use tongs or insulated food gloves! Never use the forked, sharp, pokey thing that seems to come with all backyard barbecue tool sets. It will pierce the meat and allow the juices to run out.

With the temperature holding 230/250°F (110/121°C)...

  • Place the baking pan on the side opposite to the fire; fill about 1/4 of pan with water.
  • Place assembled beer can chicken and throne on the pan, close the lid and let 'er go! If you choose not to use the pan technique, place the assembled bird and can on the grill, opposite side of the fire, and never let the meat overlap the fire. You cannot undo burnt chicken! Close the lid and...
  • Resist peeking! You are loosing precious heat and smoke. You can check it every 30-40 minutes to ensure it has not left the grill, or throne.

You have time! If you have faithfully maintained the cooking temperature, you can leave your station several times before the bird(s) are done. When cooking beer can chicken on the grill, think 2-3 hours 'til end-of-shift.

At the 2 hour mark, grab that instant-read meat thermometer and...

- Check the chicken at the meatiest part of the breast, looking for 160°F (71°C) to be the magic number.

Beer can chicken on the grill produces a wonderful, natural, smoke enhanced flavor. We do not cook beer can chicken with barbecue sauce as this interferes with the smoke absorption, and there goes your fame!

Serve Em!...

Carefully take your beautiful roasted beer butt chicken from the grill and let rest for at least 10 minutes. Resting allows the juices to redistribute through the bird, and avoids the dry meat nobody likes. Very carefully remove the hot can of beer.

Now, you are the chef, so pull a piece off of that beauty and try it! Yep! It just falls off of the bone.

So, now you have done it. Whether your friends or family call it beer butt chicken, beer can chicken, or chicken on a throne, your backyard fame is secure! 

Let's eat!

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