When Florida native Ron Raike was growing up, beer meant one thing: Bud, what he calls 7-11 beer. “Florida has always been a beer wasteland,” he says. As an adult Raike set out to change that bleak notion of beer in the Sunshine State. He became a certified Cicerone—one of the few in Florida—and head brewmaster at Orlando’s Cask & Larder, an establishment whose progressive regional menu and styling is more in tune with Brooklyn than Central Florida.
“Our philosophy has always been about hand-crafted, artisan products—and we obviously have a fondness for beer,” says Cask & Larder Co-Chef James Petrakis, who, with wife and Co-chef Julie Petrakis, also runs the nearby Ravenous Pig. “We wanted to do something that we haven’t seen too much of around the country: in-house, creative artisan beers that highlight and pair well with the food. [Raike] has total creativity, like a chef.”
“I like big beers, overblown Monster Truck styles,” says Raike. “But when sitting down to a meal, I want to make sure the experience is pleasant and not a palate-saturating one. It’s about trying to make sure my beers don’t overpower the food.” His current list includes a golden ale with Amarena cherries; a bright, hoppy grapefruit-y IPA; and a malt-packed 11.1 percent ABV barleywine.
Blue Crab, Grapefruit, Frisée, Peanut Purée, and Bacon-Scallion Vinaigrette paired with Olde Southern Wit
Country-fried Grouper Cheeks, Sea Island Red Peas, Ham Hock, and Charred Pearl Onions paired with Lone Palm Golden Ale
Wild Boar Stew with Egg Noodles, Pearl Onions, Smoked Peppers, and Cured Egg Yolk paired with Brown Lager
The common goal of chef and brewer at Cask & Larder is the successful interaction between the food and the beer, and even in the restaurant’s pivotal infancy, Petrakis could feel things between the kitchen and the brew-house beginning to gel. “The first six months can be a very dynamic, stressful time, but I think we’ve settled into our groove.” For Cask & Larder, that means all cooks and brewers work in creative tandem. For his part, Raike makes a habit of sticking around after the end of his official brew-day to catch the restaurant as it prepares for dinner service, “where servers sample food, hear what’s going on from the customer’s perspective, and hear the chefs describe the dishes.” And when it comes time to settle on pairings for up-coming menus, “it’s a matter of sitting down and collaboratively tasting,” says Petrakis, “getting everyone’s opinion on where we want to go, with a contrasting or maybe a like pairing.”
The possibilities are endless, as Raike tends to keep a well-rounded beer list going, not only to please “the guy who wants a 7-11 beer,” but to ensure that there are always complementary flavor profiles on hand. “The servers are trained so they can guide the customer. We don’t say ‘this dish goes with this beer,’ because [the customer] may not like that kind of beer, but we try to guide [each guest] in the right direction.”
The tasting that Raike prepared for StarChefs.com spanned the gamut from spicy Olde Southern Wit to easy-drinking Brown Lager and a surprising Creamsicle Porter, which subtly reminded us of a chocolate orange with every luscious, bubbly gulp.
While the successful pairings at Cask & Larder take skill and deliberate, thoughtful execution, the natural harmony between Raike’s beers and the Petrakis’ cuisine comes through honoring the matrimonial bliss between beer and classic Southern flavors. Raike’s brews resonate with the traditional cannon of Southern foods and lift the bold local flavors that make up the Cask & Larder menu up off the palate. Like the best modern Southern cooking, Petrakis’s cuisine doesn’t ascribe to tropes, but tends to be lighter, more nuanced, and dare we say pluckier, while still honoring great Southern traditions like the classic fish fry.
Thus we end up sitting in front of a plate Blue Crab Fingers with Charred Grapefruit, Frisée, Peanut Purée, and Bacon-Scallion Vinaigrette, reconstructing and revitalizing the blue crab platters familiar to many-a-child of the South. Raike’s Olde Southern Wit made for an invigorating pairing. The Belgian-style witbier builds a bridge between the grapefruit in the dish and the citrus in the glass, and suspends cables of both coriander and the mythical and pungent grains of paradise. “Florida is a citrus state,” says Raike, “and the Belgian-style Wit has a citrusy character that just screams Florida.” To amplify that signature scream, Raike forgoes the traditional dried citrus peel, opting instead to hand zest local citrus into his beer. Special Indian coriander adds yet another layer, “a bright presence, a real orange-y slap in the face that really adds to the character.”
The umami, burnt sugar, and char undertones in Raike’s Brown Lager converge seamlessly with Petrakis’ Wild Boar Stew, Egg Noodles, Pearl Onions, Smoked Peppers, and Cured Egg Yolk dish. “The big savory character [of the malty lager] adds a nice caramel note and a little bit of burnt toast,” says Raike. The lager yeast gives “a mild peppery note, and as the stew is cooked down you get a similar flavor profile between the two.”
It’s not all commonalities. Whether it’s texture, flavor, or aroma, Cask & Larder pairings often highlight the contrasting elements between beer and dishto prevent them from collapsing into each other. Petrakis’s Country Fried Grouper Cheeks is a prime example. Het takes charred pearl onions, Sea Island red peas, and the immortally Southern ham hock and genteelly introduces them to the delicately fried grouper cheeks. Even in a dish anchored on buttermilk-fried fish, there’s a lightness that shows deft of hand. A Lone Palm Golden Ale was called for, according to Raike, a hybrid beer that falls between Kolsch and Helles styles. It’s crisp, refreshing, and cuts through the righteous fat of the pan-fry, alongside the vinegar-spiked red peas.
While Raike may be releasing Floridians from the python coil of Big Beer,he acknowledges, “there’s still that one demographic, they want Bud, Miller, or Coors. But the craft movement has taken hold, we’re seeing that change.” Petrakis, who just rolled out a new four-course tasting menu, adds, “Honestly, I love it! It just adds another dimension.”