When the snow flies and the days grow short, it’s only natural for diners to crave the rich and robust flavors of comfort foods. But that’s only part of the dining experience—many people also long for “comfort beers,” dark and hearty brews that pair wonderfully with sturdy cold-weather dishes.
Ryan Dorchak grew up in the restaurant business and knows what beer lovers want as well as anyone. Dorchak is the third generation in his family to run the Cloverleaf Tavern, a family-style restaurant in Caldwell, New Jersey, that has recently been voted the best craft beer bar in the Northeast by the readers of CraftBeer.com.
“We’re very seasonal,” says Dorchak. “We always go for darker, higher-alcohol beers in the winter.”
Dorchak creates a seasonal beer list every quarter, consisting of 18 beers, a handful of which are made available on draft and the rest offered in bottles. He finds inspiration from reading beer magazines, surfing the Web, and talking to sales reps from his distributors. “Since 2007, we’ve never repeated a beer on our seasonal list,” Dorchak notes.
Of course, the beer is only one side of the equation. Cloverleaf Tavern is also known for its solid selection of well-crafted tavern fare and a menu that, like the beer list, changes with the seasons.
“Heavy or light, you can always find a pairing for a beer; it’s just a matter of matching intensities,” Dorchak says. “For winter, we look to heavier, spicier dishes to complement the bolder flavors of our winter beers.”
Cold-weather favorites at the Cloverleaf include comfort foods like pork loin stuffed with apples and cranberries, or roasted short ribs, which pair wonderfully with one of Dorchak’s wintertime staples, North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. The restaurant also offers four weekly dinner specials inspired by the season, each paired with a different winter beer.
While the names on the labels of Cloverleaf’s winter beer list change every year, the seasonal beer styles Dorchak chooses for the colder months generally remain the same.
Topping the list are stouts, inky dark beers that have rich and roasted notes of chocolate, coffee, and sometimes sweet hints of dried dark fruits. Stouts pair equally well with hearty stews, braised meats, and even desserts like caramel-covered brownies. Nice examples of the style include Sierra Nevada Stout, Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout, and the aforementioned North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.
Porters are also seasonal mainstays, dark brown in color and smooth and balanced in flavor, this traditional English style boasts notes of vanilla and bittersweet chocolate. Often brewed with smoked malts, porters pair well with smoky treats like sausage, pork dishes, and anything with bacon. Samuel Smith’s “The Famous” Taddy Porter is a classic English-style porter, and notable American offerings include Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, and Stone Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter.
The Cloverleaf Tavern also toasts the season with spiced holiday beers, which are typically enlivened with holiday staples like cherries, candied oranges, ginger, brown sugar, and cinnamon. These beers shine with dishes that complement their spice-enhanced nature, such as rosemary-rubbed roasted pork, sharp cheeses, and baked seafood. Tröegs Mad Elf Ale is a must-have holiday treat, and other festive favorites include Schlafly Christmas Ale, Southern Tier 2XMAS, and Boulevard Nutcracker Ale.
Imperial IPAs take on a seasonal twist as well, with amped-up versions of the warm-weather favorite that boast hearty malt backbones and boosted ABVs. These hoppy delights pair wonderfully with roasted ham, spicy chicken dishes, and grilled salmon. Russian River Pliny the Elder is a longstanding benchmark for the style, and Bell’s Hopslam Ale, Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, and Avery Brewing Company’s Maharaja are all hop-bombs worthy of seeking out.
Belgian Quadrupels and Belgian Tripels are among the heartiest seasonal picks. With their deep ruby-brown color, generous alcohol content, and tastes of dark fruit, brown sugar, and molasses, Belgian Quadrupels were made for sipping by the fire as the winter winds howl. Quads pair wonderfully with roasted chicken, broiled steak, and smoked Gouda cheese.
Trappistes Rochefort 10 and St. Bernardus Abt 12 are two excellent Old World examples that are fairly easy to find in the States, and Boulevard Sixth Glass and Brewery Ommegang Three Philosophers are two domestically produced standouts.
And the Belgian Tripels, effervescent and golden in color, have a sneaky way of hiding their high-alcohol content. Featuring fruity flavor notes ranging from grape and green apples to oranges and cloves, these beers pair well with rich and spicy foods like gumbo, and creamy pungent cheeses such as Gorgonzola. Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Allagash Curieux, Chimay Cinq Cents, and Westmalle Tripel Trappist Ale will all warm your chest with their sparkling personalities.
Other rich seasonal choices are American black ales—dark, winter-friendly wonders that marry a richly roasted malt profile with the hopped-up finish of an IPA. American black ales pair well with charbroiled Cheddar cheeseburgers, and spicier fare like Thai coconut curry chicken or a jalapeño-laden platter of nachos. Worthwhile examples include Laughing Dog Brewing’s DogZilla Black IPA, Uinta Brewing Company Dubhe Imperial Black IPA, Victory Yakima Glory, and Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s Wookey Jack.
Rounding out the seasonal beer menu are brown ales: Sweet and toasty with hop profiles that range from pumped up to subdued, brown ales go well with beef ribs, shepherd’s pie, and barbecue. You can’t go wrong with Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, Big Sky Brewing Moose Drool, and Avery Brewing Company’s Ellie’s Brown Ale.
Along with a robust selection of these seasonally appropriate styles, Dorchak also works in a few lower-alcohol session beers and a handful of hopped-up offerings, effectively making sure the tavern’s winter beer selection has something for everyone to enjoy.
While the Cloverleaf Tavern finds an eager audience for darker winter beers, its best-selling brew during the colder months remains something decidedly light: Allagash White, a crisp and refreshing Belgian-style wheat, a reminder that while it’s fun to change the beer list with the seasons, you still have to take care of the basics for those diners who find something they like and prefer to stick with it.
The Cloverleaf Tavern is as busy as it’s ever been in its 80 years of operation, thanks in part to the growing beer culture that the tavern has fostered via clever promotional vehicles.
In addition to his seasonal beer menu, Dorchak and his team have created beer-centric loyalty programs that keep patrons coming back, like their MBA program—short for Masters of Beer Appreciation—which allows customers to work their way through a list of 45 craft beers, refining their palates and earning credit toward Cloverleaf Tavern gift cards with every new beer consumed.
Many beers on the MBA list are seasonal, ensuring that dedicated pupils keep coming back all year round. As the craft beer boom continues, places like the Cloverleaf Tavern raise the bar on how to engage customers with well-selected seasonal flavors.