It’s been commonplace for years for restaurant meals to be paired with wine—both on the menu and more casually by waiters and sommeliers.
But the growing interest in beer, coupled with the increasing number of craft breweries and styles, means more restaurants across the country are pairing their dishes with beer.
The two opened in October 2009. Church Key is a high-end beer bar and Birch & Barley is a modern American restaurant. Both have 550 rotating beers—cask and bottled offerings.
“When I started doing this there wasn’t a boom about beer and food pairing,” says Engert. “But I knew beer was as noble and complex as wine and the natural extension was it could accompany really great cuisine. I had to study food and wine pairings to study what was distinct about beer and food and how it was the same, how it was different.”
But he’s also trying to give consumers what he believes they’re looking for.
“We’re reacting to the desire for experience and the theatricality of going out. I think people are looking for more than slaking of thirst and satisfying hunger. People want this kind of drama, they want theatrics, they want to see something. Beer can be so much more than they ever thought. This is a new chapter that works because it’s reacting to the essence of why we dine out in the first place.”
Regular menu items aren’t paired with beers because Engert doesn’t want to pigeonhole the two establishments and wants them to be as much about the experience as the food and drink.
But staff at both are trained to be able to suggest pairings and a five- or six-course tasting menu is offered nightly at Birch & Barley, with pairings for each course.
“It’s one of the coolest experiences that I’ve had when someone says they don’t like a certain beer but they like it when we pair it with a food,” Engert says.
The tasting menus are a collaboration between Engert and his chef. Either the chef creates the menu and Engert pairs beers, and sometimes the chef will even add notes to the dish to complement the beer even more. Sometimes they start with the beer and work backwards to the food.
An entirely different type of operation, Sweet Revenge in New York City, pairs cupcakes with both beer and wine.
Owner Marlo Scott is frank about why she started doing pairings:
“I needed patrons to treat my place like a wine bar and to be drinking so I could make money. I needed them not to come in and have a cup of coffee but I needed them to have beer or wine. It was a cross sell tool and I did it out of necessity.”
Scott has mostly developed her pairings through trial and error, she says, adding that business would have suffered if she hadn't done them.
Sweet Revenge serves a full menu of breakfast, brunch, and lunch, plus light bites in the evenings. The cupcakes are available all day, but the beer pairings mostly happen at night.
Doing the pairings makes her more of a destination restaurant, she says.
“This is what makes me successful, and it’s what brings in money—having a quirky little spin on my business concept. Nobody had ever done alcohol with cupcakes before and in New York it’s so competitive from block to block, from concept to concept. You need to be really in your game and create something that’s amazing.”
At first the pairings were done verbally but now they’re officially on the menu. Some examples are The Dirty cupcake (dark chocolate truffle, Valrhona chocolate cake) paired with Kopparberg pear cider from Sweden; and the Tuscan Savory cake (roasted red pepper, caramelized shallots and Parmesan cheese cake served warm with roasted red pepper dipping sauce) is paired with Kwak from Belgium.
The beers Scott serves are all boutique and her prices are reasonable. The cupcakes are mostly $3.50 to $5 and beers range from $7 to $12. During the week, customers can get a pairing for $8.50 during the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. happy hour.
Brewster's Bar & Grill at the Four Points by Sheraton, at Los Angeles International Airport has 16 tap beers and over 100 bottles of beer.
The beer program, which was designed by the hotel’s general manager, Phil Baxter, is a primary driver of the hotel’s Comfort Restaurant business and is also a significant driver of the hotel's business for overnight stays.
And Brewster’s itself features tapas that were created to pair with specific beers. One example is smoked salmon paired with Stone Smoked Porter; another is Schneider Aventinus and lamb.
Pairing beers with foods encourages people to try meals and beer they wouldn’t ordinarily try, Baxter says.
“Because our beer list is so large we like to encourage our customers to move out of their comfort zone and not go to their ‘everyday’ beer. The more they try new flavors, the more interested they are in what else is out there.”
Baxter works hard on the pairings.
“[It’s important to] taste the beer and then think through what it would go well with,” he says. “When working out the final recipe as you’re cooking, taste the beer and tweak the recipe accordingly. Also, some pairings are complementary and some are contrasting. Both work, but think through it.”
But not everyone thinks beer pairings work. Dave Witzel, beverage blogger at feistyfoodie.com and a certified beer judge through BJCP (Beer Judge Certified Program) isn’t keen on them.
“I think more is made of beer and food pairings than needs to be made. Sure, there are classic pairings, but more important are a couple of basic premises: Don't let the beer's flavors overwhelm the dish (and vice versa), and just as important, drink what you enjoy. If you like the beer you're drinking, chances are it'll go well with the dish you're eating with it.”
Far better, he points out, is a restaurant that can curate a wide variety of well-chosen beers to satisfy diners' palates, and to have on-hand someone who understands the taste profile of each beer.
By Amanda Baltazar