Features The New Affordable Luxury: Pairing Beer with Your Food
The New Affordable Luxury: Pairing Beer with Your Food
March 2009

Wine snobs look out—beer has arrived. No longer relegated to pubs and pizza parlors, beer is showing up in restaurants of all culinary persuasions across the country. With the economy in mind, diners and beverage directors alike are turning to drinks with a lower cost for all. The Brooklyn Brewery makes a beer exclusively for Thomas Keller’s restaurants. Megu in New York offered not only wine pairings for their recent Restaurant Week meals, but beer pairings as well. And we’ve seen an increase in the number of craft and artisanal beers on many restaurants’ beverage lists.

At Resto, a Belgian-influenced restaurant in New York, owner and beverage director Christian Pappanicholas and chef Bobby Hellen offer themed beer dinners one Monday a month. Diners pay around $55 to sit communally and enjoy a multi-course meal with beer pairings. A recent dinner revolved around Trappist ales, with seven courses, each paired with a beer from one of the seven beer-producing Trappist monasteries in the world. An upcoming event will focus on their house-made charcuterie served with Belgian brews, including Pappanicholas’ favorite charcuterie pairing, sour Rodenbach.

This increased interest in serving beer with food can be attributed largely to the proliferation of microbreweries, combined with the beer culture imported from countries like Belgium and Germany, which have opened up the world of beer to many chefs, sommeliers, beverage directors, and consumers. “Microbrewing has helped of lot of beer culture in the US,” says Bart Vandaele, executive chef at Belga Café in Washington, DC. “It’s not just Budweiser and light beer anymore.” Jim Clarke, beverage director of Megu, echoes this, saying that “the variety of beers is so great now. You couldn’t do beer pairings 10 years ago because you didn’t have the variety.” Now, restaurants have added beer pairings to tasting menus, are advertising beer sommeliers (as predicted in our 2008 Culinary Trends feature!), and are happy to suggest brews to go with customers’ grub, from burgers to foie gras.
So, how does one go about matching a beer to the food they are serving? At RM Seafood in Las Vegas, beverage director Jeff Eichelberger pairs beer for diners on request. He explains that “food usually drives the pairing for us, because we are responding to the guest selection. I think of beer in the same vein as wine when approaching pairing. Texture and complementary flavors and aromas are key to look for. Beer is usually easier to pair with food than wine as it tends to be broader and more forgiving on the palate.”

Vandaele says that in the case of choosing beers to go with food, “knowledge is power.” He likes experimenting with different temperatures (not all beers have to be served ice cold) and different glasses, which can have a major impact. Vandale also says that the more you know about both aspects of the pairing, the better equipped you will be. For example, he suggests a sour red ale to complement his smoked and poached foie gras; since the ale has been aged in casks, it has similar characteristics to balsamic vinegar, which is in the dish. Similarly, Pappanicholas serves sour Rodenbach with chef Hellen’s charcuterie platter at Resto , which manages to pair equally well with duck sausage as it does with head cheese.

Although beer advocates argue that beer is easier to pair with food than wine, there are still some things to steer clear of. “Aside from the obvious clashes, I look to avoid the ‘football tackle,’ a pairing where either the beer or the food are wiped out. It should be more like a dance,” says Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver. Microbreweries have a tendency to produce particularly hoppy beers, and Eichelberger notes that “two styles of beer that need to be treated with care around food are older vintage beers and strong IPAs.” It is fairly simple to follow your instincts on this one, just look out that nothing is overwhelmed.

With beer pairings, you can also often go two ways, either matching the textures and flavors or contrasting them. Jim Clarke likes to pair oysters with dry stouts because he enjoys the way the stout matches the richness of the oysters. But you could also go along similar lines to a classic wine pairing and serve oysters with a crisp, hoppy pale ale. One dish, two ways to pair.

Beer doesn’t have to be confined to drinking with dinner, either. At Belga, chef Vandaele demonstrates the extreme versatility of beer. He serves beer as an aperitif, and particularly enjoys Belgian Gueuze for this purpose, which is produced in the same way as Champagne and is served in a flute. There are beer cocktails, such as the Peach Martini that is finished off with peach beer. Beer appears often in his dishes, as with his signature Belgian beef stew cooked with Leffe Brown. Vandaele pairs beer with his desserts, saying that any beer with fruit has an instant affinity. He even uses beer in some of his sweets, such as the ice cream float that is made with Hoegaarden ice cream and topped off with—you guessed it—Hoegaarden.

The response, say those we’ve spoken to, has been great. Although beer pairings are still not as popular as wine, they are definitely gaining ground. Clarke says that about 15 to 20 percent of customers who opted for a beverage pairing during Restaurant Week chose beer, and the response was fantastic. Guests are “usually pleasantly surprised and excited,” says Michael Shearin of Drago Centro; “I mean, beer is delicious!”

And it’s no revelation that in this economy people are turning to beer. With a lower price point for customers and a lower cost with better margins for the restaurant, there are more options available for less money. “Especially in this economy, people should realize that many of the world’s best beers are wonderful with food and cost less than a latte at Starbucks,” notes Oliver; “craft beer is the new affordable luxury.”