In culinary circles, beer is taken a lot more seriously than it used to be. Operators are just as likely to be judged for their craft-beer offerings as their wine lists. If a customer walks in and sees a menu with macro, commonplace choices, they’re inclined to think the same about the food—before it even arrives. Plainly speaking, how can you be a great restaurant with great food and have a terrible wine list or a mediocre beer list? It just doesn’t mesh with today’s consumer demand.
Before craft beer saturated the market, chefs and diners didn’t spend an ample amount of time thinking about the two beverage staples in the same conversation. Wine reigned with food pairings, while beer was more likely to be found at a sporting event than poured from a tap at a white-tablecloth establishment. There’s no question, however, that things have changed. Some of the most upscale venues pay exhaustive attention to their draft and bottle lists, and debate flavor profiles next to refined dishes in search of perfect complements.
This movement helped inspire the formation of The Brewery at the CIA, a facility created in partnership with craft-beer powerhouse Brooklyn Brewery. In addition to producing four kinds of beer for the Hyde Park, New York, campus’ public restaurants and student-dining facility, the three-vessel, steam-fired stainless steel brewery also serves as a classroom for students taking a course titled “The Art and Science of Brewing.” Here students learn about the ingredients, equipment, and techniques behind the brewing process. Whether these students go on to open brewpubs, work directly in the craft-beer industry, or continue on a path to land jobs in front- or back-of-the-house positions in a restaurant, this kind of knowledge is becoming a necessary part of an operator’s arsenal.
In many cases, adding an in-house beverage program can signal a boon to the restaurant’s bottom line. Guests will clamor for the authentic feel, and, if done correctly, creating synergy between the brewery and the kitchen will elevate the entire operation.
We plan to work with the chefs at two of the CIA’s restaurants, American Bounty and Bocuse, to produce a Belgian-style saison. We’ll split the batch in half and have the chefs from each restaurant help find some aromatics and flavors that we can add as a dry hop in the process to craft a beer that fits perfectly with the menus. For a brewer and a chef, opening that line of conversation is ideal. It’s also important to consider the timing. The quality of a beer can depend heavily on the ingredients, and it’s key to consider what’s available, what’s cost-effective, and how that will limit the choices. Don’t focus too much on one variety. One of the great things about beer, like wine, is its diversity.
Coming from a background as a brewer, I’ve really enjoyed watching students bring their culinary instincts into the brewery. Having the ability to taste and identify flavors is a very notable skill in brewing when it comes to pairings. Typically, I’ve always focused on the classics, like a nice IPA matched with spicy food. At a beer dinner last semester, the students paired a spaetzle salad with our IPA. I thought it would be a disaster, but it really, really worked. I also like listening to the students talk about beer after the tastings. They pick out flavors, like soy sauce in an English porter, that I never would have considered. This speaks to the evolving culinary professional. There was a time when wine was the only fine-dining beverage operators had to consider. But as the craft movement continues to accelerate, restaurants will be wise to educate themselves on all fronts, and find a way to capitalize on a field that has boundless possibilities.