Each fall when I attend the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, there’s always a point when I stop whatever I’m doing, gaze across the hall of the Colorado Convention Center, and marvel at just how far beer has come. But at last October’s edition, a similar sentiment—this time about food—began to dominate my reverie.
No, this isn’t another state-the-obvious assertion about how the American culinary scene is the most exciting it’s been in history. I’m talking about two very specific kinds of food: pizza and burgers.
Think about it. The journeys that those two gastronomic staples have been on very much parallel that of American craft beer. Before the craft revolution, beer had been commoditized to the point that it generally was considered a down-market beverage of little or no sophistication. The same could be said of burgers and pizza, which had become more about price than quality, cheap snacks that often accompanied—you guessed it—a bottle of cheap beer. But today, they’re benefiting from the same sort of stylistic renaissance that the fermented beverage has enjoyed. The idea of “pizza and beer” or “beer and a burger” now has a bit of cachet, and restaurants have been working rapidly to elevate those experiences.
For the past two years, Red Robin has been a major sponsor of GABF, coinciding with the national chain’s “Gourmet Burgers and Brews” rebranding—its previous tag was “Gourmet Burgers and Spirits.”
Red Robin even partnered with Fort Collins, Colorado, craft brewing icon New Belgium Brewing on a brew that the latter developed to pair specifically with one of the restaurant’s burger creations. At its GABF booth last fall, Red Robin poured samples of Grilled Pineapple Golden Ale, designed to replicate some of the flavor elements of the chain’s Banzai Burger (a beef burger with cheddar, grilled pineapple, lettuce, tomato, and mayo).
“There are a lot of analogies between the two industries,” notes Cody Reif, new product development coordinator for New Belgium. “People in general are just more willing to try new things and get out there on the edge of it. In the world of craft beer, you can see how we are trying to move more into gourmet territory. A lot of time beer was an afterthought, and now it’s [seen] more like wine was thought of 10 years ago, where we’re trying to find flavors to compare and contrast with it and it’s a lot of fun.”
Hearing the Red Robin team use the word “pairing” in the context of burgers and beer is remarkable in itself—this would not have been part of the national culinary conversation just a decade ago.
“We want [guests] to be able to find which beer complements their burger perfectly,” says Red Robin beverage development manager Katie Burkle. “Burgers are the hero at Red Robin and we want to make sure our restaurants have a wide variety of beers so that guests can find anything to pair with their experience.”
Pairing is also part of the appeal at Jersey City, New Jersey’s Razza Pizza Artigianale, known for its innovative handcrafted pies and an intense focus on local—a focus that includes its beer selection, which is more about quality than quantity. Of its roughly dozen brews, most are from the Mid-Atlantic or southern New England, with the exception of an upscale Italian import or two (it’s pizza, after all). A recent beer lineup included Blackhorn Lager from Bolero Snort Brewery in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey; Ol’ Factory Pils from Stratford, Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing; and Bengali IPA from Brooklyn, New York’s Sixpoint Brewery. These match with any number of Razza’s pies, including the classic Margherita (with handmade fresh Mozzarella), Bosco (tomato sauce, fresh Mozzarella, cremini mushrooms, and Fontina), and Panna (tomato sauce, fresh Mozzarella, grass-fed Pennsylvania cow’s cream, arugula, and Parmagiano).
Just looking at that small slice of the menu, it’s easy to glean that Razza is aggressively pursuing its stated mission “to elevate” pizza, which pretty much has been the ongoing goal for craft brewers and their products.
“When you think about it, pizza and beer are almost exactly the same thing—really bread and beer are the same thing,” says Razza owner Dan Richer. “You have your water and your yeast. And in bread baking and pizza making we use salt for flavor, where in beer they use hops. Those who know how to make pizza and bread have a fundamental understanding of how to make beer.”
One of the keys to both, Richer explains, is fully understanding the fermentation process. “Everything hand-made is in high demand now,” Richer says. “It’s not just limited to pizza and beer, but those two things just naturally fit so well together because they’re the same ingredients. The essence of pizza is bread that has some type of condiment baked on top of it, but pizza dough is the star of the show.”
And it’s a show for which guests are willing to pay top dollar. Personal-size pizzas range between $12 and $18 at Razza; beers range from $7 for a can of craft pilsner to $32 for a large-format, 750-ml bottle of an Italian craft import.
There’s a similar price range for artisanal single-serve pies at Alexandria, Virginia’s Rustico, well known in the Washington, D.C., metro area for its vast, well-curated beer selection and pizzas like its Butcher’s Block pie (San Marzano tomato sauce, pepperoni, Italian sausage, capicola, salami, picante Provolone, pickled garlic, and scallions). It’s also well regarded for its burgers, which are priced from $15 to $18. Those prices are nearly identical to those at chains 5 Napkin Burger and Umami Burger, both known for their extensive craft beer selections and pairing suggestions.
Not so long ago, a restaurant that asked that much for a single burger or a pizza that didn’t feed a family of four wouldn’t have lasted a week. And few would have imagined that drinkers would be equally willing to pay $8 to $10 for a pint of beer. But American consumers are more clued in to how their food and beverages are made, which ingredients are used, and where and how those ingredients are sourced than they have ever been at any point in history. And their palates, for both food and drink, have gotten a lot more experimental because of it.
Razza’s Richer uses Milton, Delaware–based brewer Dogfish Head as an example. Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA and 90-Minute IPA pay the bills and enable the company to take more adventuresome flights of fancy, like its recent release, Seaquenchale, a session beer brewed with lime peel, black limes, and sea salt, or its 120 Minute IPA, with a hefty ABV that ranges between 15 and 20 percent.
“People not only understand the 60 Minute, the standard product, but they also want to go along on that journey for what happens next,” Richer explains. “And when we cultivate that trusting relationship with our guests, people want to come along on that journey with us. They’re paying us to go on that journey—that’s why I’m lucky as hell that our guests really demand it and allow me to really push things.”
And wherever such a journey takes guests, it’s a long way from Domino’s Pizza and Big Macs.