By: Nan McCreary
Oenophiles have long known that wine dinners — where wine is selected and paired with a variety of foods based on complementary tastes and styles — can elevate the dining experience. Now, craft breweries are opening that door to customers who want to expand their culinary horizons with the plethora of flavors and styles of beers available on the market today.
“We’ve been doing beer-food dinners for years, and they’re great fun for everyone,” said Ben Edmunds, partner and brewmaster at Breakside Brewery in Portland, which opened in 2010 as a restaurant and pub brewery. “The events introduce customers to a wide range of beers, plus we have an opportunity to reach a different audience than we usually have.”
Indeed, according to the National Restaurant Association, food-and-beer pairings were listed as a top beverage trend in its “What’s Hot 2018 Culinary Forecast.” This isn’t surprising, considering that beer — with its broad range of flavors, aromas textures, and styles — offers endless possibilities for pairing with food. Whether it’s a light lager with a spicy Asian dish or an IPA with loaded fries and a decadent burger, the right pairing will deliver a flavor nirvana that far surpasses the flavors of each component. Ask any aficionado, and they will tell you: food makes beer better, and beer makes food better. It’s that simple.
Like wine and food pairing dinners, beer and food events typically go through a progression of four or five courses, sometimes more if the occasion is more extravagant. Each course is paired with a different beer, depending on the strength, flavor and style and its compatibility with the food.
According to Edmunds, each beer serving in Breakside’s dinner is five and eight ounces. The event, he said, is informal and educational. “We always have a brewery representative at the dinners to talk about the beer,” he said, “and we ask the chef to come out and introduce the food. It’s a fun way for customers to experience our beers, and from our end, we get to present our beer in an entirely different format.”
While many customers are die-hard beer drinkers, Edmunds told Beverage Master Magazine the dinners often appeal to a wine-drinking crowd. “These events offer wine drinkers an opportunity to see how diverse and food-friendly beer can be.”
Recently, Breakside featured wood-aged and acidic beers with lots of fruit flavors, components that are similar to those in wine. “It was a good way to challenge preconceived notions of what beer is and how it should be consumed.”
Breakside’s dinners may seat as few as 10-to-15, or as many as 70-plus. Prices range from $35 to $120, depending on the number of courses and the complexity of the menu. The average for an all-inclusive dinner, said Edmunds, is $65 to $85. Breakside has sponsored events ranging from introductory beer pairing at gastropubs and bars, to more elaborate affairs at fine dining establishments. This year during Portland Beer Week, Breakside paired with renowned Icelandic chef Ólafur “Óli” Áugústsson, the culinary director for Portland’s forthcoming KEX hotel. The dinner featured aged and sour beers selected to complement local seafood and produce.
Pairings, Edmunds explained, are a collaboration between brewery personnel, the restaurant’s chef, and others, such as a bar manager. “The dynamic that works best for us and leads to the best results for the consumer is for us to invite the restaurant people to our brewery and taste through a wide range of beers,” he said. “We’re lucky because we make many different styles of beer and aren’t limited to three or four options. We ask them to find the beers that inspire them, and we talk about food pairings.”
Edmunds said that the collaborations always start with selecting the beer and then choosing a food pairing, rather than vice versa. “Once a beer is done, it’s done, and you can’t modify it. It’s easier to design a dish to a beer that’s already finished than to make a beer to complement a specific dish.”
While the brewery generally does not interfere with the chefs once a menu is selected, occasionally they will use their expertise to “nudge” them one way or the other. For example, Edmunds said he is very particular about pairing desserts. “Even with a sweet beer, the dessert is likely to overpower it,” he told Beverage Master Magazine, “so I’ll ask the chef to do something with a savory element, like a cheese plate.”
For Edmunds, whose interest in food preceded his interest in beer, the pairing dinners are a natural fit. “The two go hand in hand,” he said. “We also have three locations for our brewery, plus two restaurants, and we regularly do pairings when we release a new beer. The multi-course dinner is a natural extension of that.
Not Just for Breweries
While breweries like Breakside typically collaborate with different restaurants to introduce their beers, some restaurants host regular beer and food pairing dinners to showcase the skills of their chefs. One such restaurant is the Session Room and Beer Garden in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With the theme, “Real Food, Craft Beer,” the restaurant focuses on fresh ingredients sourced locally and serves 70 rotating beer taps.
Since opening three years ago, the restaurant, under the guidance of Executive Chef Traver Lucas, has offered pairing dinners every month or two, always featuring beers from Michigan breweries, including Bell’s Brewing, Founders Brewing Company, and Perrin Brewing Company. Like Breakside’s dinners, the Session Room pairings are a team effort, where the chef meets with the brewery’s personnel and tastes the beers, then decides what to cook. The beer dinners are inspired by French cuisine, with the food selected to complement the beer.
According to Event and Marketing Director Jessica Smith, the Session Room dinners are very elaborate, with four courses and a beer to match each course. “The cost is $50 plus tax, so customers get a lot for their money. Generally, 30 to 50 people attend the dinners,” said Smith. The menus are not released ahead of the event, so the dinner is always a surprise. “That’s part of the fun,” Smith added.
As competition among craft breweries heats up, many breweries and beer festivals are upping their game with pairing events to attract more visitors. Last year, at the California Craft Beer Summit, a “Brewed for Food” event featured specialty brewed beers from 12 breweries paired with specially crafted food from as many restaurants. The objective, said the advertising, was for “teams to partner to create the perfectly balanced bite that elevates the flavor profile of the beer.” The 2019 Portland Beer Week featured four pairing events. “Bean to Bar,” was a chocolate-and-beer festival hosted by Xocolatl de Davíd chocolatiers and Ruse Brewing, spotlighting 10 local chocolates and the beers paired for each one. “Mussels From Brussels,” featured four local brewery’s takes on the classic pairing of mussels and frites.
At the “Brewer’s Burger Brawl,” four Oregon brewers served a carefully selected beer alongside a slider-sized burger to determine the best pairing. The “Nordic + Northwest” event was the event held by Breakside Brewery and Portland’s future KEX hotel.
“Culinary Brewhouses” are making waves across the country. In these establishments, brewmasters are applying culinary skills to create beers that showcase flavors and aromatics, and chefs create foods that transcend pub fare like burgers and chicken wings. Chicago’s Band of Bohemia, noted for “infusing culinary flavors into house beers and pairing them with global plates,” became the first brewpub to be awarded a Michelin star within its first year of opening.
Moody Tongue Brewing Company, also in Chicago, has classically-trained chef Jared Rouben at the helm as brewmaster. According to Moody Tongue’s website, Rouben “draws on his culinary training to forge this connection between the kitchen and our brewery, building recipes for our beers in the same manner a chef would for a dish.”
Clearly, beer pairing beer and food is a hot trend throughout the country, and it shows no signs of stopping. According to the 2017 Nielsen Craft Beer Insights, 71% of consumers look for complementary foods when choosing a craft beer at restaurants and bars, and that isn’t about to change. If anything, the number is likely to increase, as more and more beer lovers become exposed to the wonders of the beer and food match-up. Stay tuned…as the market continues to ramp up, the best may be yet to come for the thirsty consumer with a discriminating palate.