Move over wine, it’s beer’s turn to shine. Operators are discovering that it’s the perfect partner for a wide-range of foods. That’s why more restaurants and bars these days are holding beer dinners and suggesting sudsy matches. The payback is an enhanced dining experience, boosted check averages and an educated customer who comes back for more.
“These days, it seems like every other place that opens is a beer restaurant and everybody is doing beer dinners,” notes Michael McAvena, beer director at the Publican, a Chicago gastropub. The Publican offers a dozen draft beers and over 50 bottles in various formats, priced from $5 to $9 for drafts; 750-ml. bottles are priced from $5 to $55.
“We’re seeing more mainstream restaurants pairing beer with food, even wine-based restaurants are getting into it,” echoes Greg Engert, beer director for ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, a tandem beer bar and beer-centric restaurant in Washington, D.C. The establishment features 50 rotating selections on tap, 500 bottles and five cask beers, priced at $5 to $12 for drafts and casks; bottles range from $5 to $15 for smaller formats, larger bottles run anywhere from $10 to $50. There is also a Reserve list of rare and often aged-in-house bottles priced from $20 to over $100.
A Moment for Beer
A confluence of factors conspired to drive the beer-and-food-pairing trend, specifically the culinary movement toward simpler, ingredient-driven food and the proliferation of beer styles available to food and beverage directors.
“We didn’t invent beer dinners over the past five years, but the growing availability of quality beer is lending increased awareness to its pairing possibilities,” notes Fred Crudder, beverage director of Tappan Street Restaurant Group. The Alpharetta, Ga.-based company operates 25 Southeast beer-centric restaurants with 100 draft selections under the Taco Mac name. “A wider range of people are enjoying quality beer. There’s a new respectability factor.”
Respectability has also come from the burgeoning craft beer movement, new products from macro producers and the increasing number of imports from all over the globe. Even the casual dining sector has taken notice of the choices available, and operators are turning profits by letting beer geeks delight in discovering new styles.
At the same time, American cuisine has evolved and that new ingredient-driven cuisine, says Engert, pairs perfectly with beer. Wine is an acid-based beverage that usually contrasts with food and acts like an additional flavor component, explains the beer director. That is why wine was thought of as the go-to match beverage for years.
On the other hand, beer complements foods and brings out more of their flavors. “Beer makes ingredients sing,” says Engert. As a grain-based beverage, beer is also relatively sweet, he continues. Instead of contrasting with food, malty beers can accentuate the caramel-toned, sweet, rich, fatty notes found in cuisine today.
Different styles of beer can offer multiple pairing synergies. Our menu, according to Catherine Pflueger, general manger of the Happy Gnome, a gastropub in St. Paul, Minn., “is not fancy but it’s sophisticated, and beer complements the flavors well.” The restaurant stocks 70 rotating tap selections and 400-some bottles, priced from $4 to $8 for drafts; bottles generally range from $8 to as much as $70. As an example, she would suggest a Bourbon-barrel aged stout to complement the restaurant’s Smoked Short Ribs, priced at $25. The stout has similar roasty, smoky notes that work with the ribs, says the general manager. Conversely, a light beer such as pilsner pairs well with light dishes like seafood and fish. “A hoppy beer has bitterness that cuts the heat in spicy foods,” she notes.
“Hops work with spicy food,” confirms Crudder. “Obviously our guests have made that connection,” says the beverage director, even though no pairings are listed. As for recommendations, Crudder likes to match dark beers like porter and stout with desserts, especially chocolate. Dark beers often have roasty coffee and chocolate notes that make that pairing a natural. Of all beers, ambers are the most versatile when it comes to matching with food, he suggests.
Beer has a wide ranges of flavor characteristics that can match up with virtually any dish, notes McAvena. “Styles can range from extremely carbonated beer to almost still, from intense acidity to sweet, from very bitter to bittersweet.” The Publican’s menu is beer-friendly, says McAvena. “One of my favorites is oysters with a Belgian saison style; it’s crisp. For our signature charcuterie plate, I’d suggest a sour Flemish red ale.”
Engert also draws useful parallels between cooking and brewing. In the malting process, grain can be lightly toasted and thus a match for lightly cooked food. Beers made with slightly darker caramel malts pair with foods that are also caramelized like fried and sautéed dishes. And dark beers brewed with roasted grains are an obvious match for roasts, chops and grilled items. And just as a chef creates seasonings and sauces, brewers season beer with hops and often spices, fruits and even vegetables. “That’s an easy way to look for parallels,” says the beer director. Fermentation is a flavor factor too; yeasts produce different flavors. English ale yeast typically gives beer a butterscotchy, red apple flavor, for example, and Belgian yeast produces spicy, fruit flavors; each offers obvious link-ups with food.
The Big Event
As operators experiment more, their customers are learning about these nuances and more during beer dinners and becoming more comfortable with pairings. These are usually evening-long, multi-course events with pre-set food and beer. The most common format features the portfolio of a single brewery, often with the brewmaster in attendance.
“Our customers love the interaction with brewers who know their beers intimately,” says Pflueger. The Happy Gnome hosts five-course Tuesday beer dinners monthly that cost $65 to $85. In the restaurant, the events are advertised on a chalk board and on the tap list. Upcoming beer dinners are also featured on the website and Pflueger sends out a monthly email. Plus, she says, “We get a lot of repeat customers.” She estimates that 85 percent of attendees at beer dinner events have also enjoyed drinks or dinner at the restaurant.
Birch & Barley regularly also holds large-format beer and food pairing events. “Breweries will bring in rare beers that you can’t often get to taste,” says Engert. “The brewmasters speak about the beers and I discuss the nuances of the pairings.” The events are publicized via the restaurant’s website, social media and email blasts.
The best promotion for beer dinners is via word of mouth, believes McAvena. The Publican also plugs events on social media, facebook, twitter and blogs. In-house, they are noted on the beer menu. In Chicago, there is so much competition offering beer dinners, that McAvena has taken things up a notch. A recent dinner featured a one-off beer from Michigan’s New Holland Brewery’s made with freshly harvested Michigan hops. In preparation for that event, the Publican’s chef and beer director toured half a dozen farms in Michigan to create a Michigan fall harvest tasting menu. Next up, says McAvena is a dinner featuring black and white truffles with beers from North Coast Brewing.
The Taco Mac chain has actually cut back on the number of beer dinners, tastings are now bi-monthly. “Single-format dinners are a dime a dozen,” notes Crudder. A recent deluxe beer and cheese pairing, priced at $65, featured three breweries–Dogfish Head, Victory and Stone–and a one-off ale the three collaborated on. Another Taco Mac dinner featured Rogue Brewery’s beers and its Gin used in a cocktail. Also on that menu were cheeses from Rogue Creamery, paired with the brewery’s flagship Dead Guy Ale.
Taco Mac’s beer dinners are held in units with private room space; they are publicized by flyers in host restaurants, but most promotional efforts are through the chain’s website and Crudder’s popular blog. Email blasts are also directed at the chain’s Brewniversity rewards club members. There is no cost to sign up and the club boasts some 90,000 active members. By sampling through Taco Mac’s selection, members can earn awards and have their names engraved on bronze plaques commemorating tasting achievement levels. “We have a lot of repeat guests,” adds Crudder.
Matches on the Menu
Opinions are mixed on whether to print beer pairing suggestions directly on food menus. Taco Mac for one doesn’t feature them on its menus. “We have such a huge selection and beers change in and out frequently,” explains Crudder. The Publican doesn’t suggest specific pairings on its menu either. “We want to encourage interaction with the guests,” explains McAvena. All of the Publican’s servers are Cicerone certified (a beer-focused program similar to the Master Sommelier for wine directors). In-house training is intensive, with frequent pre-shift pairing discussions and follow-up exams. “When discussing the food menu with guests, servers always have pairings in mind to suggest.”
Training is less formal at the Happy Gnome. The general manager has written beer matching guidelines that she gives to staffers. On weekends, pairing suggestions are offered on a separate chef’s tasting menu. Customers can order the multi-course menu matched with appropriate beers for a $15 upcharge.
Birch & Barley offers a frequently changing tasting menu with suggested beer pairings. The number of diners who select the beer option varies according to the night; it’s a more popular option on weekends. Engert and his staff also offer pairings with à la carte courses on an ad hoc basis.
“Now people who would never have thought about pairings are getting into the idea,” says Engert. “They enjoy trying new things, thinking about what they are eating and drinking and why and how they interact–or don’t. We’re offering a full dining experience,” posits the beer director. “That’s kind of fallen away in even the wine-based restaurants.”