Beer Roams the Pairing Frontier

Jeffery Lindenmuth / September 2007

Jeffery Lindenmuth scouts promising sudsy horizons.

The time is right for beer, says executive chef/wine director Steven De Bruyn, of Polo Res­taurant at The Garden City Hotel on Long Island, New York, citing trends like the un­stoppable inroads blazed by ethnic cuisines in America's professional kitchens. "In the past, fine dining was based strictly on French cuisine. But with today's international influences—especially the spicy and garlicky flavors of Thai and Mexican food—it's getting harder to find the right wine. Even many of my fall meat dishes will do better with beer pairings."

De Bruyn is a native of Belgium, the European nation known among malt beverage devotees as the Disneyland of beer for its engaging array of blond-hued Trappist tripels, cherry-infused kriek lambics, and bracingly tart Flemish brown ales. Yet, as chef and wine director, De Bruyn has never offered beer at the dinner table—until now. "This is a fine dining restaurant, and in Belgium you rarely see beer served on a white tablecloth, only wine. Growing up, we never thought of beer for a special occasion because it was just a part of life," he says.

Bouyed by a successful tasting of beer and house-made pâtés—with provocative couplings that range from antelope, pine nut, and sun-dried cherry pâté en croûte with an ageworthy bière de garde to rabbit with pistachio in savoy cabbage teamed with a Belgian-style white ale—beer will debut on De Bruyn's beverage list this fall. "The beers' carbonation lifted the pâtés' strong flavors off the palate like no wine ever could," he says with no small amount of national pride.

Also in beer's favor is its generally lower alcohol content, at a time when moderation is the mantra and sommeliers bemoan the vertiginous alcohol levels of many wines. "I've attempted to create a wine list that is food-friendly, but the new styles of wine are fighting with food more and more. With beer, the lower alcohol is a welcome change," says De Bruyn.

One of his favorite places to introduce a beer is with the cheese course, when a white wine ordinarily would excel but might seem out of order following a main course with red wine. Affordability is another factor: 750 ml bottles of fine Belgian beer will start around $20 at Polo Restaurant versus $50 for an entry level wine. This, De Bruyn believes, should hold special appeal for younger diners.

Michael McCaulley, wine director for Tria, a "wine, cheese, and beer cafe" with two locations in Philadelphia, says Tria's intent is to put these three "fermentables" on equal footing. "It used to be if you wanted a good beer you had to go to a divey beer-driven place, and if you wanted wine you had to go somewhere more expensive," says McCaulley. As they both go well with food, Tria gives them equal billing. McCaulley concurs with the common belief that traditional French and Italian food have a greater affinity for wine, while Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and other popular ethnic cuisines are more beer disposed.

At Tria, wine bar bites go beyond the mandatory Mediterranean snacks to include crab stuffed piquillo peppers with spring onion aïoli ($6.50) and mole spiced salami with honeyed almonds ($5.50). The 25 beer list, updated daily, takes a page from wine lists with creative category headings: Allagash White from Portland, Maine, for example, falls into the "Invigorating" slot, while Belgian golden ale Duvel is filed under "Profound."

The old notion of the beer dive bar is rapidly being undone by gastropubs, which have trickled from the United Kingdom through Canada and deeper into the States. Prior to the June opening of TAP in Atlanta, partners Bob Amick and Todd Rushing toured England and Ireland to evaluate the sea change in pub grub. "In London you traditionally drank in the pub but went somewhere else to dine. Now you can get foie gras and roasted oxtail and small plates that change daily," says Amick. "We made a similar commitment to do all those things that make pubs a great neighborhood place but with an emphasis on a higher grade of food."

This includes the hiring of Todd Ginsburg, formerly of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York City, as executive chef and a chic makeover of the standard blue collar beer bar, using dark wood, steel fixtures, a soapstone bar, and red leather stools by Atlanta designer John Oetgen.

At TAP, however, the bar remains the center of attention, with a suspended barrel room housing 21 beers and 16 wines on tap above a glass ceiling. "There is no neon, no collateral stuff," explains Amick, "so it's more sophisticated, and the beer and barrel room really speaks for itself. With 72 barrels above you, you know where you're headed."

TAP also seeks to elevate beer by figuratively raising the glass. The producers of every beer poured at TAP have been challenged to adopt the Belgian tradition of offering a distinctive proprietary glass for their beer. From small cult brewers like Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to regional brewery Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams brand, brewers have re­sponded by stocking TAP with 42 different beer glasses in the shapes of cylinders, goblets, and tulips. As further testament to this trend, even big hitters like Heineken USA's Star Brand Imports and Anheuser-Busch are promoting glasses specifically designed for their brews.

On the menu, British invasion meets South­ern rock in dishes like Salmon Creek double-cut pork chop with fresh corn ravioli or Alaskan halibut with creamed peas and spaetzle. Rushing prefers to pair the halibut with a German-style hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer that re­mains cloudy with yeast and is known for its aromas of apple, banana, and clove. With a slightly tart flavor, this style is perfect with delicate fish, acting like a squeeze of fresh lemon, which indeed is occasionally served with the beer in America.

Mindy Segal, chef/owner of Chicago cafe/restaurant Hot Chocolate, says unequivocally, "I enjoy drinking beer more than wine with my food. I find the pairings are better." Hot Chocolate's list of 13 eclectic beers offers ample opportunity to explore, with quirky styles like a spicy rye beer from Founder's Brewing Company in Michigan, Hitachino Ginger Ale from Japanese Kiuchi Brewery, and Apple Éphémère from Canada's Unibroue.

Segal says that Hot Chocolate's cheese selection, as well as cheese focused dishes, are favorites with beer. Taking a cue from the classic pairing of apple and cheddar, Segal pairs Apple Éphémère, a fruit beer using spring barley, wheat, and apples, with an aged cheddar melt featuring five- to seven-year-aged cheddar on toasted pumpernickel brushed with honey syrup. The tart Granny Smith apple flavor, light body, and frothy white head is a fresh and crisp contrast to the sharp cheddar. "It doesn't get better than that," says Segal. Trained as a pastry chef, Segal also enjoys dark beers in the style of porter and stout paired with desserts harboring toffee, nuts, smoked almonds, salted nuts, and caramelized cream. The use of roasted malts imparts these beer styles with flavors of coffee, caramel, and nuts that marry well with similarly flavored desserts.

About once a month, Segal invites a brewmaster to visit the restaurant and participate in a beer dinner, pairing a beer with each course. In many respects, brewers have far more in common with chefs than winemakers. Rather than sculpting a specific vintage, brewers work to develop and refine recipes, choosing the roasting levels of their malt, the variety and quantity of hop bitterness, and whether to use any adjuncts like fruits, herbs, and spice. "I take a month or two to spend time with each beer maker before a dinner. I've come to identify with their thought process in creating beers, and that has made beer very exciting to me," says Segal.

Michael Adams, executive chef at The Farmhouse, a fine dining destination set on idyllic grounds in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, has been creating cuisine to pair specifically with beers for over 15 years. "From 1992 to 1994, when craft brewing came on the scene, we were selling out beer pairing dinners for three consecutive nights with 80 people at each. They would buy tickets for the next dinner there and then," says Adams. Following a lull around the millennial turn, beer dining, Adams declares, is becoming fashionable once again: "On a typical night, about half of our beverage sales in the dining room are beer. But just like everything, there's a cycle to beverages, and beer for the last two years has been staging a comeback."

With over 100 beer themed evenings to his credit, Adams says memorable pairings include chilled peach soup with poblano peppers and crème fraîche teamed with Dentergem Wit, a Belgian white ale. "Balanced with the wit beer's acid, the really ripe sweet peaches and slightly hot poblanos, along with the creamy mouthfeel, just stimulated all the taste buds," says Adams. Belgian beers like Affligem Tripel, which is light amber in color, but quite potent (8.5 percent alcohol) and rich in flavor with dried fruit, peppery spice, an abundance of sweet malt, and a drying herbal finish, demand equally complex cuisine. Adams has previously paired this beer with a mustard, savory, and juniper braised pork shank with pickled onions over a parsnip/celery root puree.

In June, The Farmhouse began offering Third Thursday Beer Tastings. For two hours, starting at 6:30 p.m., diners in the bar area can enjoy for $24 three beers selected from the six draughts or 150 bottle list by bar manager Stephen Pekarik, paired with three hors d'oeuvres.

According to Kevin Garry, assistant beverage director at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, beer has always played an important role at the restaurant, with seven American craft beers on draught. But the latest venture, a vintage beer list, nudges beer toward wine status.

In order to acquire previously released vintage beers like Victory Brewing Company Golden Monkey Tripel 2003 from Pennsylvania ($28) and Thomas Hardy's Ale 1992 from England ($23), Garry worked with specialty importers and contacted brewers directly. He says that vintage beers share many qualities found in aged tawny Port or oloroso Sherry, making them great choices with chocolate desserts, cheeses, and grilled meats.

Section captains at Gramercy are also encouraged to offer a beer as part of their tasting menu, perhaps pairing rabbit loin sausage with a spritzy Saison Dupont Belgian Ale, a classic Belgian farmhouse ale from Brasserie Dupont, with its rocky white head, white pepper and orange aromas, and crisp, refreshing palate. Of course, not all beers improve with age. Garry only cellars beers with a relatively high alcohol content and bottle conditioning, which leaves yeast in the bottle.

"In the past couple of years wine has been more popular, so the knowledge of beer is not what it is with wine," says Garry. "But I see something going on. When I start to talk about beer, people's eyes light up."