Alexandra Grablewski
At Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Madagascar vanilla marshmallows are layered with pecan/walnut caramel, smothered in dark chocolate and toffee, then frozen and skewered to accompany Rogue chocolate stout.
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Brew, Ahah!

Jeffery Lindenmuth / December 2007

From traditional European styles to American crafted brews, Jeffery Lindenmuth explores beer's menu pairing versatility.

Collectively called cuisine à la bière, peasant-style dishes enjoyed with—and often cooked with—beer by Belgians include mussels and frites, rabbit with prunes, and braised partridge. In America, ballpark franks with sauerkraut and mustard or cheeseburgers are a more traditional stand-in. But with the continued spread of boutique beer styles, both American craft-brewed and formerly elusive imports, nearly every cuisine in the American melting pot is finding a malted companion, including some that have roots that run as deep as those of grape vines.

At Rustico, in Alexandria, Virginia, executive chef/partner Frank Morales III says he finds a beer to match every dish with the help of Greg Engert, beer director. "I'm classically French trained at The Culinary Institute of America and worked with Rocco [DiSpirito]," says Morales. "For me, Rustico implies simple and not overly prepared, but reflecting every American culture. I'm Spanish, German, Irish, and you'll find all those influences in the menu along with French and Italian."

Engert responds with a list of about 300 bottled beer selections and 30 on draught, a program that accounts for about 70 percent of beverage sales, outselling wine and spirits by a wide margin. Rustico's beer list is organized according to beer style with a special section devoted to seasonal offerings. "The first thing I strive for in matching the food is to represent a spectrum of styles, so we have about 70 different ones," says Engert. "We also want to represent the historically important beer of each style, so for dopplebock we'll have several versions, including an original German Ayinger Celebrator and also an American one."

The Morales-Engert collaboration reaches its apex in the Mosaic menu, a listing of small plates trios with a 4-ounce beer serving paired to each item. "The Mosaic menu has given me a lot of gray hair because it changes almost completely with every season," grimaces Morales. "They are intense flavors and intense to prepare, because each dish is meant to be a meal in two or three bites."

With a $17 duck trio that includes confit with pea tendrils and pickled rhubarb, foie gras spring roll with strawberry balsamic vinegar, and "Ham I Am" (sliced house cured duck with favas and elderflower), Engert pairs a Belgian strong ale, Gouden Carolus Grand Cru; a slightly sweet raspberry infused Belgian lambic, St. Louis Framboise; and the robust, intensely bitter Victory Hop Wallop ($8 for three).

One of the duo's favorite Mosaic menu pairings comes in the carefully orchestrated flavors of Celis White, a Belgian-style wheat beer from Michigan, paired with big eye tuna carpaccio, rosemary sea salt, citrus/browned butter jam, and cilantro. "That dish was a defining moment," says Engert. You don't normally think beer with tuna, but the tartness and citrus freshness lifts the fatty tuna off the palate. Then, Frank added the citrus/browned butter jam and cilantro, which play off the orange peel and the coriander found in this style of beer."

Even on the conventional side of the menu, there is no missing Morales' passion for beer; over half the dishes include beer in some creative form, whether a beer bouillon, cream, foam, salt, or jelly.

Taking a page from the masters, Bill Catron, beer specialist at Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C., has assembled an all-Belgian list of about 130 beers, including 11 on draught, a feat that recently earned him a knighting from La Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs, descendants of the original Belgian brewers guild. "Beer pairs with food much better than wine in my opinion," says Catron. "I think the first thing you notice about Belgium is the spectrum of beers. Other countries have maybe seven types of beer; in Belgium, there are more like 700."

Beer and wine happily coexist at Brasserie Beck, and all tables are supplied both a beer list and a wine list. Catron and his grape-pushing counterpart, Thor Cheston, both work the floor, approaching tables depending on which list they're perusing. "I try to touch every table in some way. We have an amazing wine list as well, with about 120 wines, but when I ask people if they would like beer paired with food their faces light up," says Catron.

With an entrée of chicken waterzooi Catron suggests Cor­sen­donk Abbey pale ale from Belgium. "This dish has a cream-based sauce, which could be easily overpowered by a brown ale. This beer has the right body and alcohol and a little sweetness that goes beautifully," says Catron. With a pear tart, he suggests Duchesse De Bourgogne ($8), an oak-aged Flemish red ale with a sweet and tart balance and "hints of passion fruit and chocolate." Catron also relies on the food-friendly tartness and Balsamic vinegar flavors of this beer style for some of his most challenging pairings, including salads and soups.

According to Charlie Deal, chef/owner of Jujube in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the South, beer will rise again. Beginning in the early 1990s, when the microbrewery revolution reintroduced obscure styles of beer like imperial stout, old ale, and saison, North Carolina was among the states left out of the party due to a restriction on beers with an alcohol content of over 6 percent by volume. "It was the anti-beer geek law. You could not get beer over 6 percent, no funky Belgian ales, no barleywine," Deal recalls.

Deal's first beer dinner was a fund-raiser for Pop The Cap, a grass roots organization that succeeded in repealing the alcohol cap in North Carolina in August 2005. This May, a similar law was repealed in South Carolina, leaving only Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia with stringent post-Prohibition alcohol restrictions on beer, according to Sean Wilson, who lobbies from Pop The Cap's Web site (www.popthecap.org).

The first Jujube beer dinner celebrated several North Carolina breweries and their medals awarded at the Great American Beer Fest­ival, with an all-Tar Heel dinner. Now, Jujube offers beer and wine dinners once a month, including an occasional late night one that begins at 10 p.m. on Friday evenings. "I've lived in the Bay Area and New York City, and I've never seen a market where people are so excited about beer. People here are beer crazy. Our dinners sell out immediately," says Deal, who also counts himself among the beer converts.

Jujube continues to support local brewers and fresh product with a predominately American beer list of about 15 rotating microbrews, to partner with Deal's Chinese and Vietnamese influenced cuisine. "In terms of ease of pairing I would say the list goes beer, then sake, then wine. Beer, honestly, is so much more forgiving in terms of pairing. For instance, you could not find a dish that works with both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet, but you can pair two very different beers," says Deal.

To that end, Deal says he prefers not to overthink his pairings, but lets his chef's intuition guide the way: "I drink the beer and think about what I wish I was eating." Among his favorite pairings are Victory Prima Pils with zucchini/prawn fritters and ginger/green tomato coulis, observing how "the acrid green tomato needs the slight sweetness of this bigger style pilsner." To complement smoked beef short ribs with toasted chiles and black vinegar, Deal reaches for Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale.

Scott Kerkmans, chief beer officer for Four Points by Sheraton, which numbers 125 properties worldwide, is keenly aware of the potential for wider beer appreciation. "We've seen that around the U.S. some areas have embraced beer and some are just getting the seed. Portland, Oregon, and Denver are probably the most savvy, sort of the Napa Valley of beer. But the South in general is starting from scratch. Just five years ago craft beer was almost insignificant there," says Kerkmans.

By assigning a "beer ambassador" for each hotel in the Four Points by Sheraton group, all of the U.S. properties now offer a custom list of 12 bottled beers, including both imports and local craft brews. Kerkmans is responsible for the training of the ambassadors and also acts as consultant on matters of selection and food pairing. "Each hotel has a different food menu, so we offer a lot of flexibility to let them pair the correct beers to the correct food. I think that's how craft beer will continue to grow, by offering something that makes food taste better," says Kerkmans.

Not only esoteric beers are disposed to pairing with food, according to Joe Maynard, executive chef for the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans. At an October dinner, organized by the National Association of Catering Executives, Maynard teamed with Anheuser-Busch, considering everything from Bud Light to their Belgian imports Leffe and Stella Artois as accompaniments for customized cuisine. "Even a well recognized beer like Bud Light can pair well with foods. For the first course, we paired it with several triple cream cheeses, including the local Fleur-de-Teche from John Folse," says May­nard, noting how the crisp, carbonated beer lifts the buttery cheese from the palate. For the fish course, a bronze speckled trout, served blackened, found its companion in Michelob amber bock, a lager-style beer with the low bitterness and malt sweetness to stand up to Cajun spice. Encouraging the 150 professional attendees to add beer to their own event arsenals, Maynard noted that beer dinners are "educational, fun, and easy to market."

Even chocolate, which has become a darling of wine matchmakers of late, is a great partner for beer, according to Amy Chan, events coordinator for Chicago-based chocolatiers Vosges Haut-Chocolat. For the debut of their July 2007 collection, Vosges paired chocolate with beer at their in-store tasting party. For $30, guests were able to sample beer and chocolate pairings including Siam Citron (a truffle with jasmine tea, wildflower honey, lemongrass, fresh coconut, white chocolate, and mari­gold flower) paired with Hoegaarden, a Belgian wheat beer with flavors of orange peel, clove, and honey. Blues, a milk chocolate truffle with hickory-smoked bacon, found its match with a Louisiana favorite, Abita Turbodog brown ale, offering complementary flavors of chewy malt, toffee, and roasted coffee.

Vosges' wattleseed ice cream, made with Aboriginal wattleseed and Australian maca­damia nuts, was served as a beer float in a glass of Rogue chocolate stout. "We choose wine, or beer, or cheese as a theme, according to the flavors of the season and the collection," says Chan. "October also suits itself to beer because the Zion collection features Rastafarian flavors that pair well with the pumpkin ales and Octoberfest beers."