“The main thing is,” explains Sarah Marshall, “How do we make the food taste better?”
Since becoming wine director at Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts, early this year, Marshall has been in the process of adjusting the restaurant’s beer menu to better support the Mediterranean-style fare. Given the wide diversity among U.S. restaurants serving from that region of the world, there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution to determining a beer menu. Per Marshall, “There are so many good [choices] out there—and at some point you have to find a focus.”
Oleana, which opened in 2001, is heavily influenced by Turkish cuisine, along with elements from Greece, Morocco, Sicily, southern Spain, and Italy. “The Mediterranean diet is heavy in fish and vegetables and eggplant—and very seasonal in that way,” Marshall remarks. “So by the nature of the cuisine, we happen to be a pretty heavy vegetarian restaurant.” The restaurant also features creative fare like lamb steak with fava-bean moussaka, and nearly two-thirds of the menu is tapas-style meze offerings: small plates ranging
from baked stuffed eggplant with almond-corn crumbs to fried shishitos with almonds and rosemary.
The geographic and cultural nuances of a Mediterranean restaurant influence how a beverage manager approaches a beer list. When Marshall first joined Oleana, the beer menu was very craft-focused, albeit scattered from throughout the U.S. She’s since dialed that menu back to focus more on local options from New England—such as Pretty Things, which brews at Buzzards Bay Brewery in Westport, Massachusetts; Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts; and Cambridge Brewing Company.
Given the restaurant’s local and seasonal focus, along with its commitment to a wine list that is—as much as possible—both organic and biodynamic, Marshall would prefer for the beer list to be completely domestic. About 80 percent of Oleana’s beers are from the U.S., with Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Baltimore being among the farthest away with the exception of some larger-format sour beers featured in the “Beer For The Sharing” section of the menu. World-class options from Belgian and German breweries fill out the remainder of the menu.
The restaurant’s beer menu as a whole consists of about a dozen normal-sized bottles, up to 16.9 ounces, and half a dozen larger-format options for sharing. Everything is bottled—because maintaining a draft system for just a few selections doesn’t hold much appeal—and turnover and freshness isn’t an issue due to the modest list size and careful management of inventory. However, one disadvantage is that many newer breweries don’t have packaging equipment and only offer kegs.
Oleana has two staple beer offerings: Efes Pilsner from Turkey (“We’re a Turkish restaurant, so why not? And people love it.”) and Night Shift’s Santilli IPA, which the brewery makes readily available for Oleana. “We’re definitely starting to build a reputation for certain things that we always have,” Marshall adds. The rest of the beer list cycles about four times a year.
The meze-style nature of the restaurant means that Marshall is generally looking for beverage options that can pair well with a number of things on the menu. “I try to keep wine that is very forgiving and loose, and that goes with a lot of different things.” Ditto on the beer side. The shared-plate approach also syncs nicely with the “Beer For The Sharing” section, which allows Oleana to offer rarer, more challenging selections, in a format that encourages guests to split.
The Beer-Menu Multiverse
That’s one approach to menuing beer in a Mediterranean setting—one that’s carefully and purposefully tuned to Oleana’s circumstances. Other Mediterranean-inclined restaurants take the beer menu in a considerably different direction. Pita Kabob & Grill in central California was heavily into the craft beer scene back in 2005. The downtown Visalia location of Pita Kabob, which opened in 2014, is the first of the company’s three locations to offer full-service dinner—the restaurant’s quick-service model caters to the local lunch crowd.
“The essence of the place is Mediterranean food,” emphasizes founder Chafic Dada, whose Lebanese background informs much of the food’s direction. The focus is, of course, on pitas and kabobs, along with shawarma and varied fusions of eastern-Mediterranean fare. The restaurant also places a big emphasis on its daily specials, allowing its chefs to experiment.
But its decade-plus involvement in the craft beer scene seems to inform Pita Kabob’s beer selection more than anything else. As Dada says of the restaurant’s Mediterranean food relative to its craft beer selection: “The two are very separate in the concepts—but work well together.” The downtown location offers 31 taps and around 20 to 25 bottled selections. Nearly all—Dada estimates around 98 percent—are from U.S. breweries. “We’re pretty selective of our bottles,” he adds. “We know what sells for us, and we know what doesn’t sell.”
Unlike the U.S.–centric beer focus at Oleana and Pita Kabob, The Lazy Goat, in Greenville, South Carolina, celebrates the broader geographic scope of the restaurant’s Mediterranean fare with a number of international beers. The menu incorporates elements from just about any culture and cuisine that touches the Mediterranean: French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, North African, and so forth.
In addition to recently swapping out Blue Moon for Kronenbourg Blanc—a French witbier, which is now The Lazy Goat’s top-selling beer from the Mediterranean—the restaurant also features “Premium Mediterranean Beers” on its beverage menu, with higher-priced options from the region. Spain’s La Socarrada, brewed with honey and rosemary, and France’s malt-forward La Perle Mondiale were chosen because they pair well with the restaurant’s paellas. The Lazy Goat also offers a few beers from Mateo & Bernabé for similar reasons, as well as Estrella Daura, a popular gluten-free option.
Similarly, Bar Sajor in Seattle works across a broad range of Mediterranean cuisines—but with very few beer offerings on its menu. The restaurant features a single beer on tap—Chrome Satan, a pre-Prohibition-style beer from Hilliard’s Beer in Seattle—along with a few international selections. But where Oleana, Pita Kabob, and The Lazy Goat may feature one or two ciders (often of the sweeter variety), Bar Sajor typically has 15 to 20 ciders, most from the Basque Country and Normandy.
Cider’s recent rise is certainly in part due to craft beer’s growth, and Bar Sajor wine director Marc Papineau says the decision wasn’t specifically to move away from beer, but instead to move toward the highly traditional, “less-manipulated” qualities of the regional ciders. The natural style of production and bone-dry nature of these ciders perfectly synced with the restaurant’s food: both as pairing options and as a thematic match to the fewer-ingredient, simply expressed fare. As Papineau sums: “It’s just that those ciders tend toward a style that goes well with our food.”