Just when you had a handle on wine-food pairing, along comes the beer dinner.
With the opening of their second Heartland Brewery in Manhattan, chef Richard Pietromonaco and GM Phillip David plan more beer dinners.
As inevitably as hop blossoms follow the rain, the recent American love affair with beer has yielded another growth area–beer dinners.
Many of the country’s best known brew pubs have been in the vanguard popularizing these dinners–modeled in some cases after the traditional matching of multi-course meals with a series of wines from single vineyards or regions. But they are no longer solely the province of those brewing operators; many fine dining establishments, sensing a chance to attract new customers, have latched on to the trend.
From such big city brewpubs as NYC’s Heartland to such small town restaurants as the Parker House Inn in Quechee, VT, beer dinners have provided operators a chance to polish their public image while they develop new business. At the same time, chefs can use the occasions to stretch their culinary skills, customers are offered a way to learn about and enjoy perhaps unknown beers, and brewers can seize an opportunity to showcase their brews in a controlled environment.
“We do beer dinners because they’re a different level of what we already do,” says Phillip David, general manager of the two Heartland Breweries in Manhattan. “And to arouse promotions. Primarily it alerts some of the diners who don’t come here for the beer. As professionals, we enjoy doing it, too, besides the revenue factor, of course, because the cost is so high that the profit margin of these things can be very low.”
As David notes, these beer dinners are not likely to bolster directly the bottom line of any restaurant: most operators figure they are a break-even venture at best. “We can’t do them on a busy night, because we then might take a cost AND a revenue hit,” says David.
But those who are enthusiastic about beer dinners say they’re a great way to curry favor with regular customers and attract new ones, generate publicity and fill seats on an off-night.
Walter Forrester, owner of the Parker House Inn, believes the six or so annual beer dinners he holds in conjunction with local brewers are well worth the effort.
“The beer dinners distinguish us from everyone else around this part of the state; no one else seems to be doing them,” he says. Located in a two season resort area and right next door to a restaurant with an award-winning wine list, Parker House couldn’t compete, he says. “Our wine dinners have been somewhat unsuccessful. Anybody who’s really serious about wine would go next door.”
The beer dinners fill about 40 of the 60 seats in the Inn, not bad since they’re routinely held on nights Forrester would otherwise be closed. He’s developed a mailing list from which his dinners derive about a 75% return customer rate, with the balance coming from friends or newly interested customers. For him, beer dinners are primarily a promotion and reward for steady clients. And he simultaneously promotes local beers by bringing in such Vermont brewers as Catamount, Otter Creek and others to co-host the dinners
At Kansas City’s posh American Club, annual beer dinners fit in perfectly as just one of a number of promotional events held throughout the year. The most recent, held in conjunction with KC’s Boulevard Brewery, was stunningly successful, according to executive general manager Solomon Melesse.
“Last year, we overdid the food, serving portions that were too large. This time we did tasting courses and looked for things lighter and flavorful so guests wouldn’t be filled up. It worked out great,” says Melesse.
Chefs Michael Smith and Debbie Gold developed the menu and recipes after conducting a kitchen beer tasting with Boulevard vice president and operations manager Mary Harrison. Pairing a pale ale with sautéed quail breasts, couscous and mushrooms, a stout with a mixed seafood soup, a specially made cask-conditioned ale with grilled pork loin, venison sausage and veal raviolis, and finishing with a chocolate popover matched with Boulevard’s bully porter, the dinner was a coup, as Melesse and Harrison see it
“We look at this as a marketing opportunity and as a way to develop our customer base, like our other events,” says Melesse. “I think my market could probably bear two a year, but we’re only doing one a year now. We do a lot of stuff–cooking classes, guest chefs, wine dinners–and I’m limiting the beer dinners so I can be sure not to over-market them.”
That doesn’t worry John Harding, vice president and director of marketing at NY’s Restaurant Associates. He’s been successfully running beer dinners almost monthly for years at both the American Festival Cafe and the Beer Bar at Cafe Centro. Bringing in a mix of international and American brewers and celebrities as disparate as beer guru Michael Jackson and love doctor Ruth Westheimer, Harding routinely sells out the 55 seats available at the Beer Bar dining room, and has served up to 200 outside at the American Festival Cafe. “Now it’s Belgian beers that are very popular, but we’ve been working with importers, distributors and brewers successfully for some time,” he says.
For brewers, who in many cases will eagerly work on developing the special menu, providing promotional gifts and products where allowed and sending a brewmaster or executive to speak at the dinner, the beer food dinners are excellent opportunities for promotion.
Peter Close, marketing and PR director for Vermont’s Catamount Brewing says that while organizing beer dinners can be a lot of work, brewers like them because it gives them a chance to promote their beers in a cordial setting
More fine-dining operations are taking a chance with beer dinners, says Harrison of Boulevard, which has participated in about 30 beer dinners over five years, though they are not necessarily an easy sell. “It’s still a trick in some cases for a fine dining restaurant to get their clientele to come, but once they do in my experience people are really happy they tried it.” (Catamount and Boulevard, which cask-conditioned their spring Irish ale for six weeks strictly for service at the American Restaurant dinner, are only two of the many brewers who can provide help.)
“Generally, it’s restaurants that are preparing different kinds of unique foods that want to do beer dinners,” says Harrison. “I think it’s a response to the varieties of beers available. A beer dinner might sound odd if you only think of American pilsners like we had 20 years ago. But now that you have so many styles, it’s different.”
Some operators have specialized in even narrower beer niches. In March, White Plains, NY’s City Limits Diner hosted a five-course Belgian and Belgian-style beer, dinner featuring Rodenbach Red Ale and Brooklyn Pilsner; Blanch de Bruges White beer served with shrimp and scallops in a lemon grass broth; the newly-released Ommegang, a New York state-brewed Belgian-style beer with wild mushroom ravioli; Foret organic Farmhouse Ale with crispy free-range chicken; and raspberry-flavored Boon Framboise with chocolate ganache cake. A bargain at $39 per person, the meal almost certainly attracted customers unfamiliar with some or all the beers served.
“We did extremely well and sold out within days of announcing the dinner,” says City Limits general manger Bill Livanos. The experience has stimulated him to plan a bimonthly beer dinner program starting next fall.
“For us, the idea is to bring in new people to the restaurant to see the marriage of beer and food,” says Livanos. “The food connection is key. We’re called a diner, but the food here is much more serious.” With most wine sales by-the-glass, 60 bottled beers and six draft, City Limits already attracted a beer savvy customer base. “And beer marries better with the food we have overall,” he says.
But some logical beer/food dinner locations, such as Denver’s successful Wynkoop Brewing Company, have sort of dropped out of the category, instead focusing energies on their wildly-successful monthly Scotch dinner program. “We didn’t have that big of a following for the beer dinners,” said Wyknoop’s Alisha Brandsma. “We started the beer and Scotch dinners at the same time about two years ago, and the Scotch dinners took off way better than the beer dinners.”
While Brandsma thinks about organizing a series of beer dinners with other Denver-area brew-pubs, the success of the Scotch dinners is keeping her busy.
Others are new to the dinners and having mixed success. Suzy Crofton, Guinness enthusiast and chef at Chicago’s Crofton on Wells, has hosted a harvest beer and cider dinner and a Guinness dinner in her first year of operation. And while the consumer response was not as enthusiastic as she might have liked, she intends to expand to at least one more, a Hunters’ Moon dinner, this fall to join her Harvest Moon and St. Patrick’s beer dinners.
Beer dinners mean many things to many people; for some, it’s simply the matching of various beers to foods. For Crofton’s beer dinner on St. Patrick’s Day, she prepared each dish with Guinness, as well as serving the draft variety throughout the meal.
Heartland sometimes combines tasting meals with Scotch or cigar promotions to attract the upscale diner who may not consider the restaurant when deciding where to eat, even though their food is well-respected among the New York brew pubs. Heartland also retains a big advantage; costs stay lower when an operation already brews their own beer. And service and glassware issues are also more easily handled at beer-friendly operations. Still, Heartland is careful not to overdo it.
“We do about four or five a year,” says David. “If you do too many or put them close together, the initial great response can fade. It can easily become worn.” And unlike at the Scotch and hors d’oeuvres tastings, for which Heartland can bring in up to 100 guests, beer dinners are somewhat difficult to execute, and so the customer count is kept to about 50. Timing is also important–beside scheduling the dinners for off-nights, David avoids holidays and summertime because they are the most unattractive seasons for beer dinners.
But who knows? With brewers, including the Boston Beer Company and Pete’s Brewing Co., tinkering with summer beer programs, perhaps the more adventurous operator can find a way to get those customers stuck in the city on a hot weekend night to come in for an indoor barbecue or bar-side picnic, accompanied, of course, by beer.
Jack Robertiello is the editor of Cheers.
The most gung-ho beer/food matchers won’t be satisfied until hops and wort become culinary staples.
Catamount Brewery’s director of public relations Jeff Close offers three levels of beer/food tastings; matching Catamount’s beers with multi-course meals; concocting dishes that are made with beer; and using brewing ingredients in food recipes.
According to him, the most adventurous operations where beer/food pairing dinners have become common are now looking to expand their repertoire with such ingredients as wort syrup, the result of reducing steeped malted barley, used like maple syrup.
Walter Forrester, whose Parker House Inn is a Vermont neighbor of Catamount, has tried marinating chicken and meat in a hoppy blend but isn’t certain he’ll repeat the experiment. And while cooking with brewing ingredients may seem odd, so did beer dinners not so long ago.
Still, Close knows the real work is in establishing the dinners first.
Catamount and many other brewers routinely cooperate with restaurants for brewer dinners. Before working with an operation, Close will discuss the menu and try to coordinate a beer/food pairing that will show off both components equally well.
Important to settle, he says, are service and other front-of-house issues. While some operators like to arrange the dinners formally, with servers pouring half-glasses per course, Close says that level of attention is unnecessary. Other operators disrespect the beverages. One poured their beers into paper cups for the dinner. “We’ll never work with them again,” he says.
Close’s favorite beer/food presenter, Concord, NH’s Cheers, developed the most sensible method to handle the multi-beer service necessary for a four-course meal: at each course, servers arrive with a pail filled with ice and six bottles of that courses’ brew. At the end of each course, customers could keep what they liked; the table was cleared and a new bucket delivered.
Frequent glass changing need not be compulsive, though, Close says. “Except in the case of lighter beers that follow our porter, I think changing empty glasses is not required.” He favors tumblers or whisky sour glasses, although some beer styles gain advantage when served in a snifter.
“I don’t want the flavor of our porter tainted, so that gets a separate glass, but you don’t want to create a headache for the dishwasher of the waitstaff because if it’s a hassle, you won’t be invited back.”–JR