BEFORE YOU light the fire, crack open a bottle.

Whether it's barbecuing or grilling, the first step is a great beer. Grab a cold one, take one long pull . . . and then pour the rest of it into your recipe.

Beer - good beer - is the essential first ingredient for almost anything you cook over hot coals. In marinades, it adds deep, rich flavor. In bastes, it caramelizes meats. In a can tucked under a bird, it creates the juiciest, most succulent chicken ever.

Great French chefs might insist on wine with their creations, but there's a reason you've never seen a backyard chef flipping burgers while holding a stemmed glass of Chardonnay. Beer and barbecue share common DNA. They are casual and fun and, yes, manly. A sweating long neck is as much of a grilling accessory as a pair of tongs and a dirty apron.

Hot dogs, wings, ribs, shrimp, steaks - whatever you throw on the barbie, beer is a no-brainer.

In coming weeks, I'll be writing about some of the best summertime ales and lagers to go enjoy with all that great food. But, first, I want to share a few tips about using beer as an ingredient.

There's just one important thing to remember: Not all beer is created equal.

I hate it when a cookbook instructs, "Add 1 cup beer." It's like saying "add 1 pound meat." What kind?

Beer is no longer generic. It is spiced or bitter or sweet or sour or funky or fruity or more. A smoked rauchbier would make a fine glaze for ribs, but the flavor would be overboard for veggie shish kabobs. A hoppy beer like India pale ale will completely dominate herbs, spices or any other flavor in your overnight marinade; you'd be better off with a bock or wheat beer.

My favorite beer-and-food author, Lucy Saunders, of grillingwithbeer.com, notes that, given the many flavors of beer, "Beer should be considered a main ingredient, the 'sauce of life,' as it complements and enhances your enjoyment of food, and life. Especially when grilling . . . the possibilities are endless."

Experiment with different varieties. Those brats you enjoy so much with Pilsner Urquell? Try them with Guinness Stout next time, and they'll be sweeter and slightly smokier.

Beer is liquid inspiration. Open one up and begin creating.

Here's some more advice, and a recipe.

* For bastes, use dark beer. The sugary malt adds color.

* Wheat beer, with citrus-like flavors, is good in salad dressings and seafood marinades.

* Pre-pour or decant beer to release its foam before adding it as an ingredient.

* Use a food thermometer with an alarm. It keeps the beer-guzzling chef on his toes.

* Grilling is a spectator sport. Keep your guests happy with a big tub of icy bottles and cans. And provide plastic cups for those who don't care to suck it down straight from the bottle.

* Track down a copy of Lucy Saunders' seminal 2006 book, "Grilling With Beer" (F&B Communications). It's filled with many more tips and recipes.

Here's one she shares with Joe Sixpack's readers.

Barbacoa is Mexican-style slow-cooked meat, typically made over an open fire or in a hole dug in the ground. This recipe adds plenty of authentic flavor to two pounds of flank steak.

BARBACOA

MALT MARINADE

2 ancho chiles en adobo with 1 tablespoon adobo sauce

4 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon

dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

12 ounces dark lager (examples: Negra

Modella, Sly Fox Instigator, Sam Adams Black Lager).

Purée all ingredients in a blender. Makes 2 scant cups marinade. Marinade meat at least 1 hour for best flavor.

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.