Beer is the refreshing star at sports bars and a ready mainstay at most casual dining restaurants. It captivates a growing number of aficionados who want the latest and greatest—and willingly pay well to get it. Beer has its own gardens and halls, cools barbecue and Tex-Mex, and livens up fried chicken and catfish. Is there anything beer can’t do?
Heads-up: beer does dessert, too. Your sweet tooth happily can indulge in a glass of beer flavored with ripe berries, peaches or black currants—made with real fruit, too—or a smooth, lightly sweet brown ale. Or you can take things right over the top with a big, rich goblet of something chocolate-deep and wine-strong. Beer does dessert, and has for years, but it’s only now that guests and operators are awakening to the possibilities.
“People don’t realize that beer can taste that way,” says Justin Lloyd, west coast regional general manager of operations for ESPN Zone, the nine-unit chain based in Glendale, Calif. and owned by Walt Disney Co. Fruit has been added to beer in Europe for centuries; it added flavor and went well with the often-sour early beers. The more modern versions, though, mostly from Belgium, only began trickling into the U.S. in the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the category really began developing.
“There was the boom in craft beer in the 1990s,” Lloyd recalls. “Part of that was fueled by raspberry wheat beers. When the boom was over, we were left with some great classic products that now are shining through.” These products just now are expanding beyond the consciousness of beer enthusiasts to entice mainstream consumers.
A rotating tap of Lindemans fruit lambics is part of the soon-to-launch menu at ESPN Zone. “You can introduce people to flavors, and that opens door after door to other products,” Lloyd says, noting the role that dessert beers can play in expanding connoisseurship. “The two basic flavors in beer always are going to be sweet and bitter, and for the average consumer, sweet is more recognizable. The extreme flavor of the fruit leads them to the other flavors.”
Lambics are a good place to start. “Nothing balances fruit better than that tart, acidic, complex character of a lambic,” says Craig Hartinger, marketing manager for Seattle-based Merchant du Vin, importer of Lindemans. “That balance is great.”
Balance can go out the window on the other side of sweet beers, the dessert beers that drink more like a glass of port. Belgian dubbels and tripels, barleywines, imperial stout and wild, steroidal creations like Samuel Adams Utopias are almost meant to be overwhelming in their intensity, much like a chocolate dessert. “I don’t want a liter mug of Munich lager at the end of the meal; I’m already full,” says Hartinger. “I want a smaller serving of something with a lot of flavor.”
Don’t think these are beers you can’t get if you happen to operate a national chain. Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for 81-unit Morton’s The Steakhouse, based in Chicago, not only sourced craft dessert beer last year—he scored a beer coup in the process.
“We were one of the only restaurants that got Utopias,” he says. The aged, blended, very limited edition beer retails for about $120 a bottle. “We got a couple hundred bottles and put it on our after-dinner drink list in all of our restaurants. It sold out within a month. It was a real boon for our guests.” Morton’s diners were happy to pay $25 for a two-ounce pour of the port-like beer served in a Cognac glass.
Field puts his finger on a great reason to add fruit or dessert beers to your program: prestige.
Others are catching on. “It’s part of an upgrade in our beer program, which is streamlined, because beer definitely is third place in sales,” says Sandy Block, vice president of beverage operations for 34-unit, Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. Block wanted to bring Legal’s beer variety up to that of the wine and spirits offerings, but ran into the perishable nature of beer.
“Every time I brought a beer in on draft that I thought was pretty cool, people didn’t know about it, so it would go stale,” he recalls. “So, bottles looked good. We’re doing Ommegang Abbey, Duvel and Julius Echter Hefe, and I thought we had to do Lindemans. The Framboise is in last place [in sales], but there’s a lot of passion for it and it classes up our beer program to have it.”
Gordon Dinerman, general manager at Barclay Prime steakhouse in Philadelphia, agrees. “I have Chimay Blue, Duvel and Saison Dupont on the menu,” he says, noting that they’re all in large-format bottles. “Beer’s not a large part of our sales, but these complement the menu; they are high-quality products.”
For ESPN Zone, dessert beer is a way to keep the concept fresh. “We have huge facilities and we’re sports-driven,” says ESPN Zone’s Lloyd. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do different things; we just can’t pigeon-hole ourselves one way or another. Part of everyone’s responsibility is to give people the chance to try new things.” Things like a taste of sweet beer.
Laws of Attraction
Jack Joyce is the founder of Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., a craft brewer that has national distribution by virtue of a striking range of beers, including Hazelnut Brown, Chocolate Stout and Mocha Porter. He sees the inclusion of dessert beers as part of craft beer’s maturity. “It’s clear now that if you’re going to be full-service as an operator, you have to have craft beers, and a range of them,” he says, “or you’re not credible. You won’t have the same turnover with us as with the commodity beers, but you need that customer.”
Don’t sweat attracting customers who go for dessert beer, either, recommends Joyce; they’ll find you. “We don’t target a segment, a particular consumer and then brew a beer to fit her,” he explains. “We brew a beer for our own pleasure, or as an experiment, and then we find out, ‘Hey, that’s who likes that one.’ That approach will work for restaurants, too; it will probably work even better.”
“The main appeal for an operator is the value compared to the ring,” says Merchant du Vin’s Hartinger. “Not that many people are going to buy a $200 bottle of sauternes. But people can buy the best fruit beers in the world every week. It’s easy for a server to recommend it and feel confident that someone will enjoy it.” That lower price makes it more feasible for servers and chefs to sample the beers, too.
As with any beer style, selling dessert beers to a new crowd does require a little training. “It can be just a list of words,” says Hartinger. “If a server can own three words per beer, they’ll have confidence. If they say something that’s not blatantly wrong, it gets a customer thinking positively.”
The prospect of adding another $8 to $25 to the dining check should get operators thinking positively, as well.
Lew Bryson is the author of three brewery guidebooks, including Pennsylvania Breweries (Third Edition). He writes and consults on beer and spirits from Bucks County, Pa.
Tasteful Evening Ender
“There is probably no dessert pairing more simply perfect and decadent than a roasty stout and dark chocolate,” writes Dogfish Head brewery founder Sam Calagione in He Said Beer, She Said Wine (DK Publishing, 2008), a head-to-head beer and wine food pairing guide he co-wrote with sommelier Marnie Old. The pairing, which Calagione offers when he samples his brewery’s Chicory Stout, is a solid go-to for beer dinners and a surefire way to entice customers into experimenting with dessert beers.
The secret, Calagione says, is dark, heavily roasted malt, “beer’s secret weapon when it comes to pairing with sweet foods.” The dark malt emulates chocolate, but with the bitter edge of baker’s chocolate. Any chocolate dessert, any dessert that could be dressed with chocolate—cheesecake, peanut butter, bread pudding—will roll decadently into the embrace of a stout or a porter, or simply swoon in the dark, rich depths of something like a Belgian dubbel.
Or you can deal with the real thing. “Part of the fun in being a craft brewer is discovering that the surprising combination of beer and chocolate creates a beer as delicious and complex as Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock,” says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company. The brew has real chocolate in it—dizzying amounts—and the metal-clad bottle is a striking presentation.
Not every dessert is chocolate, of course—it’s not a perfect world—and desserts other than chocolate call for different beers. If you’re menuing lighter pastry, such as cookies, shortbread or gingerbread, put a lighter touch of those dark malts with something like Newcastle Brown, which is sweet but subtle. Fruit desserts may respond to a light, fluffy wheat beer like Schneider-Weisse, or you may want to try accenting the fruit with the Lindemans Framboise or Pêche lambics.
Like things plain and simple for dessert? It doesn’t get much plainer than a scoop of vanilla ice cream—until you drop it into a wide-mouthed glass (try a classic English “nonic” pint, or have fun with an ice cream soda glass) full of Deschutes Black Butte Porter, shaving a bit of dark chocolate on top. You even can add whipped cream and a cherry if you want for a root beer float, without those nasty roots.
Drop off a mixed six-pack of dark, fruity, big beers as a holiday gift to your pastry chef. You might just find something new on your menu come January.