Amazing beer and great food are two things near and dear to my heart, but it’s often hard to find both at the same place. I find that pub food is generally OK, maybe the best restaurant in town serves Guinness and gastropubs are headed in the right direction.
But what about those times you want olive oil poached salmon with a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA? Where are those restaurants?
If you’re a wine drinker, you cannot relate to this. Food and wine have shared an incredibly long and successful run together and it’s time to give beer the same respect. A good restaurant cannot survive, or even have relevance, without a great wine list. But as patrons we’ve largely ignored the short shrift restaurants give to beer.
All is not bleak in the world of fine dining and great beer, though. There are establishments all over the country that are doing it very well. San Francisco’s Monk’s Kettle has pairing for years and chef and owner Adam Dulye is the beer world’s unofficial chef de cuisine. Recent James Beard Awards finalist, Stephanie Izard, has given craft beer its proper place at the table at her renowned restaurant Girl and the Goat in Chicago.
On a recent visit to New York I had an incredible meal at Hearth and the highlight of my meal was grilled octopus with a Cantillon Fou Foune. Denver’s ChoLon has taken a more local approach with chef Lon Symeson and business partner Jim Deters serving beers from local brewery (and one of my personal favorites), Great Divide.
Decatur, Georgia’s, Cakes & Ale takes the beer and food relationship official with chef and owner Billy Allin even naming the restaurant after a Shakespeare quote that nods to both. I recently spoke with Allin, a 2012 James Beard Awards semi-finalist, about his thoughtful approach to beer and food.
Nathan Berrong: What made you start Cakes & Ale with a focus on serving good beer?
Billy Allin: My knowledge of beer was limited until we opened the restaurant four years ago. The craft beer movement was basically in its infancy in Atlanta, and when the laws changed concerning alcohol content it was like the flood gates opened.
This opened the market to so many great producers and allowed the consumer to taste beers they never had before. The Decatur market, in particular, was already very beer savvy and it seemed natural to really make an effort to offer some of the exciting beers available.
NB: Does food pair just as well with beer as it does wine?
BA: I think it does pair equally as well and better in some cases. Beer can be extremely complex and be more likely to have several taste aspects that go well with a particular dish where a wine may have only a single element and in many cases deals with its level of acidity.
NB: Why are there so many great restaurants in America that neglect beer but focus so heavily on wine?
BA: Beer, though not for that much longer, is viewed as less a special occasion drink than wine. With the number of breweries offering special releases and more complex options I think more restaurants will look at beer as a special occasion drink.
NB: Any parting thoughts on the relationship between food and beer?
BA: As more and more breweries push the flavor profiles of beer and rethink the ingredient list things can only get better. I think right now it is almost in the mad scientist and experimental stage and that is great for the industry and consumer. The next stage is where the producers take a step back and look for balance and the brewer that finds that level consistently will be at the forefront of the next stage. My whole goal as a chef/restaurateur is to offer what tastes great and sparks interest in a guest and beer is very quickly catching on as an alternative to wine in dining .
My plea to restaurateurs
Chef Allin gets it. My hope is that others in the food world soon will too and start exploring the possibilities that beer can bring to the dinner table.
So, to the accomplished chefs, restaurant owners, restaurateurs, and all the ones just now coming onto the scene, here’s my plea: put the same effort, dedication, and money into the beer you serve, as you do your wine program. If you do, I think you’ll be astounded at the results.
As a restaurant patron, experiment with different beer styles and find out the ones that go best with your favorite foods and then go from there. If your favorite restaurant in town isn’t serving good beer, politely ask them to.
Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite dishes and a beer and style I think goes well with each one. Cheers to eating and drinking well.
A few of my favorite pairings:
Raw oysters and Harpoon Island Creek Oyster Stout (Oyster Stout)
North Carolina style pulled pork sandwiches and Russian River Supplication (Wild Ale)
Brisket enchiladas and Victory Hop Devil (IPA)
Seared duck and Ommegang Three Philosophers (Quadrupel)
Pork belly steamed buns and Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier (Hefeweizen)
Charcuterie and Samuel Adams Cinder Bock (Rauchbier)
Lamb korma and Saison Dupont (Saison)
Poutine and Westmalle Trappist Dubbel (Dubbel)
Stinky bleu cheese and Great Divide Old Ruffian (Barleywine)
Mexican chocolate macaron and Southern Tier Choklat (Imperial Stout)
Do you have a favorite beer and food pairing? If so, I’d love to hear about in the comments.