Most people think of beer as a summer drink. The crisp, clean flavor is refreshing; and the low alcohol content makes it the main adult beverage we reach for to quench our thirst. And beer is a perfect match for the lighter, more informal fare we feel like eating in the hotter months.
Beer sales track the rise in the temperature very neatly, and both usually peak around mid-summer. After that, operators are likely to see sales drop as the mercury falls, until only the die-hard beer drinker really feels like ordering a cold one.
Some bars and restaurants, however, have discovered the secret of maintaining beer sales year-round: they change the type of beer they sell and serve.
These businesses understand that, for the specialty beer lover, beer doesn’t lose its appeal as winter draws near–if anything, this is the season when beer really comes into its own. Winter brings us a diverse collection of rich seasonal brews that come with the frost, and disappear with the spring. They are perfect companions for heartier dishes, and can be equally at home with casual or more formal menus.
When most people think “beer,” they picture the straw-colored mainstream lagers that dominate the industry. These brews are the descendants of middle-European pilsners, driven ever-lighter in the hands of America’s biggest brewers. This style accounts for nine out of ten beers sold domestically and internationally, as most popular brands are fundamentally in the same style. So when we tire of beer and stop buying it, what we’re really tired of is a single style of beer–whether the name on the label is Budweiser, St. Pauli Girl, Tsingtao, Heineken or Corona. (Imagine a wine list that features six different brands of riesling year-round and nothing else: such limited choice would kill wine sales as the temperatures fall, too.)
But there are more than sixty other distinct beer styles in addition to mainstream lager, each with its own flavor profile. Most have their origins in the great brewing cultures of western and central Europe; many have been revived and modified by experimental American microbrewers out to prove that beer need not taste just one way.
The seasonal styles, in particular, are a return to beer’s oldest traditions, when brewers made beer with what was seasonally available to suit their customers’ changing tastes, and technology simply didn’t permit the production of a single, unchanging product throughout the year.
CHANGING BEER MENUS
A handful of restaurants in North America have made a changing menu of specialty beers their central theme. They stand out from brewpubs, which brew their own beer on site, or multi-tap beer bars, both of which offer beer variety, but may or may not pay much attention to food.
These specialty beer restaurants regard their beer and food as all of a piece, and emphasize the high quality in both. As such, they may have the most useful lessons for restaurants that already offer good food and wine, and want to bring their beer choices–and beer sales–out of the doldrums.
At Monk’s Belgian Café and Beer Emporium in Philadelphia, there are no doldrums. “We don’t have any dip in beer sales in the winter,” says Adam Glickman, chef at Monk’s for the past five years. “We just sell different beers. We have a great selection, mostly Belgian ales, and there’s something for every season. We’re just getting ready for the Christmas ales from Belgium. We had so many last year that this year we celebrated ‘Christmas in August’ with what was left over, just to get people in the mood.”
Nearly a year ago, Steve Beaumont, a Canadian beer writer, and chef Brian Morin opened beerbistro in Toronto. From the outset, they had a commitment to both food and beer. That means adjusting the whole menu, not just the food, to take advantage of the changing seasons.
“To me, it’s intuitive,” says Beaumont. “In the last decade or so in North America, food has been all about learning to eat with the seasons. Enjoy what’s local. Why pay inflated prices for a tomato that’s been ripened on a truck during the drive from California? We’ve learned to appreciate seasonally appropriate food. Why aren’t we doing the same with seasonally appropriate beer?”
Despite food preservation and global trade that makes seasonally-limited foods conveniently available year-round, greater caché is attached to eating within the season, and beer you can drink with the season.
“The funny thing is, there’s not a lot of that, even with wine, and that’s where beer has a leg up on wine,” continues Beaumont. “Wine isn’t particularly seasonal. In the middle of the summer, you can decide to have a big cabernet with a steak on the grill. Wine choices are dictated by personal taste.
“With beer, you really don’t want to sit down with a 12 percent [alcohol by volume] barleywine in the middle of the summer. Beer choices rely more on season and mood.”
At Higgins Restaurant in Portland, OR, award-winning chef and owner Gregg Higgins loves “all good edibles and drinkables, and that includes good beer,” according to sommelier Walter Steenson.
The restaurant’s beer sales are higher in winter than summer. “People think beer is a summer thing, but that’s just not true,” continues Steenson. “It’s in the winter that people can turn to beer for something that is warming, stronger, heavier. People have to fatten themselves up to survive until spring!
“In food and drink, everything is seasonal. It’s getting cooler now, and we’ve moved from Bavarian hefeweizens to classic Oktoberfest beers, and then on to the winter warmers. Those are my favorites — they are the true expression of the brewer’s art. The Christmas beers aren’t a strict beer style, the brewers aren’t bound to style guidelines, they’re just using these full-bodied, strong beers to express themselves.”
COOKING WITH BEER
Glickman approaches the beer from the chef’s point of view, knowing that when he incorporates beer into the dishes at Monk’s, that can be the first step to encouraging diners to pair beer with those choices at the table.
“Basically, there’s more selection in ales to cook with,” he explains. “You can take a Belgian white beer [a style also called a wit beer] like Hoegaarden from Belgium or Ommegang Witte from New York, which is spiced with coriander and orange peel. Reduce it, and it comes out monumentally. I can use that the way I’d use a white wine, and I use it year ’round.
“When it gets cold, I use malty ales for braised meats. They make stews that make you feel warm and cozy. The Flemish sour ales I use are like red wine. They have hints of cinnamon and spice, and some sourness.” Every winter, Glickman makes a lamb stew with Monk’s own sour ale, and recommends that customers enjoy it with Anchor’s Christmas Ale.
Beaumont also recognizes the value of incorporating beer into the menu to capitalize on seasonality: “Choose rich broths, sauces with heavy cream, or something as primitively warming as French onion soup. Then encourage the chef to use the seasonal beers: You can always incorporate seasonal beer into a broth, then the choice of a good beer comes [through] more naturally.”
Higgins Restaurant is known for its beer selection, says Steenson. “We have a lot of Belgian beers, which really blows people away, because we’re not a beer restaurant: we focus on high-end, local, organic cuisine. But beer is so much a part of the scene here, it’s in our backyard.”
BELGIAN BEERS & FOOD
For beer enthusiasts, Belgium stands out for the diversity, regionality and downright eccentricity of its beers. And while other countries have taught us how to use wine in the kitchen, Belgian cooks are just as likely to turn to beer. The cuisine a la biére is proudly seasonal, in food and beer.
Tom Peters, owner of Monk’s, and Glickman visit Belgium once a year for research. “The cuisine a la biére restaurants there are more fine-dining than we are,” says Glickman. “Instead of a sommelier, they have, well, a beer guy who knows all the beers and how they pair with the food.”
Beaumont is more direct: “Look to Belgium: they have crappy weather most of the time, and their menus reflect that.” But as winter rolls around in Belgium, the menus turn to rich game dishes and full-bodied winter seasonal beers as a natural combination.
Tips on Integrating Winter Beers in Menus
For customers, as well as for restaurant and bar owners and their staffs, the world of non-mainstream beers can seem intimidating. But restaurateurs emphasized the following simple steps to add specialty and seasonal beers to your menus.
TURN WINTER SEASONALS INTO A FEATURE
Capitalize on the transience and rarity of winter seasonals. Create a select seasonal menu and promote it separately from the main beer and wine listings to enhance the sense of occasion. In the case of winter beers, their most unusual feature may be the way they pair with desserts or substitute for after-dinner drinks.
TREAT BEER A BIT MORE LIKE WINE
Even a limited wine list will offer a number of varietals, and a restaurant or bar manager can promote the more robust wines in colder months. The beer equivalent of varietals is beer styles. A simple but interesting beer list could contain half a dozen styles: for example, a mainstream lager (one is enough!), a pale ale, an India pale ale, a dark lager (dunkel), a brown ale, and a stout. Then pick up one specifically seasonal beer: a malty Oktoberfest or a spiced winter ale, and lead with that.
EDUCATE YOUR STAFF
Familiarizing the staff with the beer list is crucial. Along with beerbistro, Steve Beaumont has had a hand in programs that promote specialty beer in mainstream restaurants. He stresses the education component.
“Begin by tasting beer with your staff. It’s essential that they know a bit about the beer. Invite a brewery rep or distributor to involve the staff in tastings. Then let them taste it–they’ll know what they’re talking about. You wouldn’t send your staff out to sell the appetizer or entree special without letting them know something about it, so let them learn about the beer they’re going to sell.”
Microbreweries and regional breweries are more inclined to release winter seasonal beers than the mega-brewers, who are already established with mainstream products (the very products whose sales flag in the winter). Because they’re not contemplating national roll-outs, smaller brewers often take more exciting risks with beer flavor.
“It’s the little guys I really appreciate,” says Walter Steenson, Higgins Restaurant, Portland, OR, “and so do our customers. A couple of breweries in town only supply a few local restaurants, and people appreciate that.”
A restaurant or bar can capitalize on both the local character and bolder flavor of the smaller brewers’ products, and create consumer interest.
The other source of splendid winter beers is the small imported brands, which, like domestic micros, tend to have bolder flavors than their own countries’ mainstream brews. An English barleywine, a Belgian Christmas beer or a Baltic porter offer novel flavors, combined with the appeal of an import.
USE BEER IN THE KITCHEN
The chef needn’t adopt the recipes of Belgian cuisine a la biére. Instead, replace the liquid in a conventional recipe with an equal volume of beer–then let customers know about it.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF THE BEER
Specialty beers attract beer specialists, who have high expectations about beer quality and presentation. Winter specialty beers are often served at warmer temperatures than mainstream beers, and in smaller quantities and in special glassware. No chilled pint mugs!
SUGGEST BEER-FOOD PAIRINGS
With every special he creates for Monk’s Belgian Café and Beer emporium, Philadelphia, Adam Glickman suggests an appropriate beer. beerbistro goes further: beers are grouped on their extensive list according to their dominant character: quenching, spicy, bold, satisfying, etc. Each item on the food menu carries a specific beer brand suggestion, as well as the general description; the diner can accept the recommendation, or scan the other beer options under the same dominant character.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO MAKE SOME PROFIT
A final word from Steve Beaumont: “The American consumer has demonstrated again and again that respect evolves from price. These beers are seasonal, unusual…if the beers are priced in a way that builds respect, non-specialty beer restaurants can have an impact on the bottom line by offering specialty beers. They’re very sexy now.”