Who says that beer and fine cuisine don’t go well together for fun and profit?
Certainly not Greg Higgins. As the chef and co-owner of Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Oregon, he’s put together a menu that emphasizes both regional ingredients – Yakima Bay oysters, for example, and Rogue River blue cheese – and an astonishing beer list that includes more than 140 bottled brews and upwards of a dozen drafts. Customers who want some help wading through all the suds – microbrews, Belgians and rare international brews lead the list – can even consult with Higgins’ beer steward.
As a revenue source in the type of operation where wine can be expected to create a comfortable operating margin, beer brings in only about half the income that wine does. As a source of pride, though, Higgins’ beer program has given the restaurant a national reputation for its quality and attention to detail. And, says Higgins; “I’m crazy about beer. I’ve had this long standing love affair with the stuff.”
TAKING A CHANCE ON BREWS
Exceptional beers represent a revenue stream that’s ready to be tapped by both fine-dining and casual fine-dining restaurants. The better-beer boom, which seems to be reviving after some stutter steps in the late ’90s, has produced customers who thirst for brews with distinctive flavors that can match up very well with the dishes found in fine dining restaurants. And even if wine continues to be the gourmet’s traditional beverage of choice, upgrading the selection and service of brews can create prestige and customer loyalty.
At No. 9 Park, voted best restaurant in town by Boston magazine, “the beer program doesn’t have the glamour of wine,” says general manager and partner Garrett Harker, “but it’s been distinctive since we started it five years ago.”
It hasn’t been easy for beer to lose its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of beverages – and as long as Joe Sixpack makes unchallenging brews his most popular choices, it never will – but chefs in high places are giving it some respect. This past summer, the prestigious James Beard House in New York City presented a beer dinner with special dishes – oysters with beer foam, for example, and warm huckleberry crepes with beer ice cream – prepared by chefs from Danube, the highly rated Middle European restaurant run by David Bouley.
Hosting that dinner was Garrett Oliver, the award-winning beermaker of the Brooklyn Brewery, whose recent book, “The Brewmaster’s Table,” makes a convincing case for beer as a food companion. In many cases, says Oliver, beer can outdo wine, with a wider flavor range that allows different brew styles to work with all kinds of foods, including a few – chocolate and asparagus, for example – which are arguably better matched with beer than wine.
Oliver believes that many customers, unlike many sommeliers, already understand that beer isn’t just for pizza, burgers and hot dogs anymore. “The public is way ahead of the restaurants,” says Oliver. “The huge amounts of Chimay and Duvel [two world-class Belgian beers] being sold are a testament that they are almost becoming mainstream beers in some places. What I’m hoping is that we’re reaching the point where beverage managers are embarrassed that they don’t have better beers on their lists.”
While the markup on a bottle of wine may be greater, there’s money to be made on the higher-priced imports and microbrews, both as a primary purchase and as a secondary sale. “Let’s say your customer starts with spicy shrimp, then has a lamb entrée and finishes with a chocolate dessert,” says Oliver. “If he gets a bottle of red wine, that only goes with the lamb. But he can have wheat beer for the shrimp and an imperial stout with the chocolate. Not only is the customer happier, but you have an add-on.”
Choosing beers for high-end restaurants requires knowledge and a certain kind of taste. “If customers look at a list, and all they see is Bud, Heineken and Coors, you’re not giving them a perception of an elegant, sophisticated dining establishment – they can get that at Joe’s Bar,” says beer expert Stephen Beaumont, who is an author (“Premium Beer Drinker’s Guide), a Web site operator (www.worldofbeer.com) and a consultant to restaurants.
“You need to ask yourself how beer fits into your restaurant,” says Beaumont. “I suggest not going completely on the import side or the domestic side. Check out local producers. There can be a great effect to introducing your customer to a great beer made down the street that they never knew existed.”
Matching the beer list to the menu is crucial. At No. 9 Park, says Harker, chef Barbara Lynch’s cooking has “very robust, almost rustic flavors, but the technique is refined. There are so many nuances to the dish.” Classic brews from Belgium, England, France and Germany were the way to go. “These are beers that have developed with the cuisine,” says Harker. “There’s a history to the way [Belgian Trappists] made Chimay over the centuries. You have a bowl of mussels [a Belgian favorite] with Chimay and it’s, like, wow.”
A DASH OF BEER
Beer, like wine, functions as a condiment at the restaurants operated by Danny Meyer’s Manhattan-based Union Square Hospitality Group, according to Richard Coraine, director of operations for the company. At the group’s restaurant Tabla, which Coraine describes as “American food with Indian spices,” the 12 beers available in bottles and the six on tap are mostly on the lighter end of the beer scale. “The food is boldly flavored,” says Coraine, “so it’s not your typical chardonnay-cabernet sauvignon restaurant.”
Mario Batali, Babbo, NYC
At Casbah, a pan-Mediterranean, casual fine-dining restaurant in Pittsburgh, rare and exotic beers are pursued to make a statement. “Our restaurant uses unusual ingredients,” says manager Eric Shultz, “which is why we choose local micro and more interesting European beers.” When it comes to special brews, however, it’s hard to top Higgins Restaurant and Bar, where the draft list sometimes includes a beer called Greg, made by Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, a local microbrewery with a major national reputation. That brew, made in part with squash, is named after Greg Higgins.
To tap or not to tap: that can be the question for a lot of high-end establishments. “You really shouldn’t have beer on tap if you’re not going to go through a small keg before it goes bad,” says Beaumont. No. 9 Park in Boston had taps at one point, but they were taken out. “Inconsistency in the supply of particular drafts doomed it,” says Harker.
GLASSES AND BOTTLES
Just as wine service in this country mimics the Continental style, there are ways to present beer with class. In Belgium, virtually every beer has its own specially designed glass, and the same is true for many brews out of Germany, England and Ireland. Not only does this give the beer a special look, but also in some cases – German wheat beer, for example – the size and shape of the glass maximizes the enjoyment of the beer’s aroma and taste. On a more down-to-earth, very American level, the Union Square Hospitality Group’s barbecue restaurant in New York City, Blue Smoke, has a metal trough filled with ice stored near the entry, showcasing its selection of bottled beers.
Restaurants may want to consider varying the amount they pour. “I think people who offer smaller sizes – six ounces, eight ounces, ten ounces – are brilliant because beer can be very filling,” says David Lynch, beverage director at Babbo, one of celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Italian outposts in Manhattan. “If you really want beer to find its way onto the dinner table, it seems a little much to weigh people down with pints. I know that with Mario’s food a pint of beer would get heavy in a hurry.”
But all of your attention to beer lists and beer service can be unrecognized if the staff hasn’t been educated and trained, even if it’s only one person who functions as the beer expert. Even though the world of suds offers many different types, “distinctions among styles of beer are perhaps a little easier to recognize than those among wine styles,” says Lynch. “So in the world of beverage-and-food pairing maybe you’ve got something more assertive and direct to hang the pairing on.” At the very wine-intensive Babbo, says Lynch, a former Cheers editor, there are two taps.
NOT SO MASS MARKET
If a restaurant skips mass-market beers on its list, a knowledgeable server will be able to skirt that tricky request for a familiar brand name. “Our restaurant doesn’t handle the larger names, like Budweiser,” says Casbah’s Shultz. “If someone asks for a Bud, we say we don’t have that, but here’s something else you can try.”
Developing a customer’s taste buds can also lead to extra revenue through the staging of special beer dinners. Casbah put on a vegetarian clambake, and Shultz reports that the food went very well with Hoegaarden, a Belgian white beer. Higgins held a special all-Chimay event, with a vertical tasting of the Trappist ales in 750 ml bottles.
There are special dividends for restaurants that guide customers through beer nirvana and create a strong sense of loyalty. “I think that introducing people to new flavors and new experiences is part of what a great restaurant does,” says Oliver. “If you pour them something really different and they really like it, they will come back for more.”
Ron Givens writes about beer for many publications, including the New York Daily News.
Greg Higgins of Higgins is a beer man, not an unusual trait to find in a chef, but he also makes sure that his love of brew shows on the restaurant’s menu. Here’s the latest version, which changes seasonally.
HAIR OF THE DOG “FRED,” OREGON, $3.75/$4.75
BRIDGEPORT IPA, OREGON $3.00/$4.00
DESCHUTES MIRROR POND ALE
(CASK CONDITIONED), OREGON, $3.00/$4.00
PILSNER URQUELL, CZECH REPUBLIC,
GUINNESS STOUT, IRELAND, $3.00/$4.00
PAULANER HEFEWEIZEN, GERMANY, $3.00/$4.00
PAUWEL KWAK, BELGIUM, $5.50
LINDEMAN’S KRIEK, BELGIUM, $5.00
LUCIFER STRONG GOLDEN ALE, BELGIUM, $7.50
BLANCHE DE BRUGES, 11.2 OZ. $5.50
DUVEL, 11.2 OZ. $6.00
DELIRIUM TREMENS, 25.4 OZ. $12.00
SAISON DUPONT, 25.4 OZ. $11.00
“LES BON VOEUX” DUPONT, 25.4 OZ. $11.00
AFFLIGEM TRIPEL, 25.4 OZ. $11.00
RODENBACH GRAND CRU, 11.2 OZ. $8.00
ABBAYE DES ROC GRAND CRU, 25.4 OZ. $12.50
BRUGSE STAFFE HENDRIK DARK, 25.4 OZ. $11.00
SILLY SCOTCH ALE, 11.2 OZ. $6.00
SCALDIS SPECIAL ALE, 11.2 OZ. $6.50
LIEFMAN’S GOUDENBAND, 12.7 OZ. $7.00
ORVAL, 11.2 OZ. $6.50
CHIMAY “CINQ CENTS” WHITE LABEL,
25.4 OZ. $12.00
CHIMAY GRANDE RESERVE BLUE LABEL,
25.4 OZ. $12.00
LINDEMAN’S CUVéE RENé 1994, 25.4 OZ. $25.00
BOON, GUEUZE KRIEK OR FRAMBOISE
“MARIAGE PARFAIT”, 25.4 OZ. $22.00
CANTILLON ROSé DE GAMBRINUS,
25.4 OZ. $22.00