Wine with dessert? Of course. Beer with dessert? What?
Actually, as craft beers take the country by storm, the seemingly odd matchup works quite well. Gourmets are finding that exquisite boutique chocolates and rich, gooey desserts mate perfectly well with dark, malty porters and pale, crisp ales.
Such creative pairings reflect a growing awareness of beer as an incredibly versatile drink with flavor complexities that rival—and, some would argue, surpass—those of wine.
America's restaurateurs are also taking notice. The availability of an ever-widening variety of beer flavors and styles is leading chefs to explore beer and food pairings as never before.
Joe Barbera, owner of Columbia's Aida Bistro and Wine Bar, is among the converted. After co-hosting a sold-out beer dinner in February with Mahaffey's Pub in Canton, Barbera realized how much high-quality beers could add to his customers' dining experience.
During the four-course meal, his 35 guests enjoyed such savory dishes as braised lamb with caramelized onions paired with a Belgian pale ale and peppery bison loin served with a Belgian dark ale. For dessert, diners devoured ice-cream floats made with Bailey's Irish Cream and an imperial stout.
Aida is planning to hold another beer dinner in mid-August. "It's bringing different people into the restaurant," says Barbera.
In recent years, Barbera had received complaints about the selection of watered-down American lagers on the menu. But he figured Aida Bistro is a wine bar with upscale Mediterranean cuisine. Why worry about beer?
Now, as part of its weekly prix-fixe menu, Aida offers flights of beer or wine to accompany a meal. Barbera says he is selling just as much wine as before, but now he is able to please those who don't always want wine with their dinner.
"We're trying to stay ahead of the game," says Barbera, "because it seems a lot of people are taking a real interest in and liking to craft beers."
That's an understatement. Last year, sales of all beer were up 1.7 percent over 2006. But sales of craft beers shot up 12 percent, according to the Brewers Association, a trade association for the burgeoning craft beer industry.
Many restaurants throughout the Baltimore region are hosting beer dinners, often at the urging of Hugh Sisson, managing partner of Clipper City Brewing Co., Baltimore's largest producer of craft beers for wholesale distribution. The Red Star in Fells Point, which stocks a substantial number of craft beers, such as Troeg's and Fordham, held its first beer dinner July 1, featuring Clipper City brews and the cuisine of its chef, Bill Middlebrook. Great Sage, a vegetarian restaurant in Clarksville, also hosted a beer dinner with Clipper City and its Oxford line of organic beers on June 26.
While Philadelphia, Boston, and other big cities have enjoyed a lively craft beer scene for years, Baltimore—and the rest of the nation—is finally starting to catch on, says Sisson, a past president of the Maryland Brewers Association.
"What we're beginning to see is restaurants that speak two languages: They speak wine and beer," he says.
At SAVOR, an inaugural event produced by the national Brewers Association in May in Washington, D.C., a sellout crowd of 2,100 people paid $85 apiece to sample dozens of craft beers paired with gourmet foods.
"SAVOR exceeded our expectations, with everyone from wine lovers, beer lovers, foodies, and just the generally curious attending," says Julia Herz, craft-beer program director for the Brewers Association. "The bottom line is, people have an incredible interest in craft beer and food pairings that continues to grow."
Everyone knows beer goes well with ribs, chicken wings, and pizza. But sirloin tips with blue-cheese sauce? Crème brûlée? Surprisingly, yes.
"There's such a variety in the beer world that almost invariably, if I can find a wine to go with food, I can find a beer to go with it, too," says Randy Mosher, noted beer consultant and an instructor at the World Brewing Academy in Chicago. He cites beer's range of coloration, its ability to be made sweet or bitter, its mouthwatering acidity, and its refreshing carbonation as examples of why it is so food-friendly.
Asian and Latin cuisines with their big flavors, heat, and spiciness don't work well with wine, says Jim Koch, whose Boston Beer Co., producer of Sam Adams, is the nation's number-one craft brewery in sales. Beer is the perfect complement to those foods, he says.
Many beer lovers argue that cheese, traditionally paired with wine, is greatly enhanced by a good brew. As Mosher put it at the SAVOR event, "Beer and cheese totally kick wine's butt."
The buzz about quality beer is so pervasive that even Wine Enthusiast magazine succumbed to the interest, publishing a beer-pairing chart in its March 2008 issue
The Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon has been at the forefront of the craft-beer movement since opening in 1996. It brews more than a dozen varieties of Belgian-style beers on the premises, many of which are so popular—including the best-selling Resurrection Ale and Ozzy—that other restaurants in town also serve them.
Along the way, beer drinkers have also become much more sophisticated. "Our [beer] bottle list 10 years ago was considered exotic," says Steve Frazier, a co-owner of the restaurant who oversees the brewery operation. "Now people come in and say, 'What else do you have?'"
The Brewer's Art chef, John "Tip" Carter, often cooks with beer. He braises meats in it, steams mussels in it, and adds it to barbecue sauce. He has even used the restaurant's Proletary black ale in a flourless chocolate torte.
The restaurant also maintains a substantial wine selection and offers wine dinners as well as beer dinners. Servers are prepared to suggest specific beers and wines to complement menu items.
"For the most part, people who do drink a lot of wine will readily switch to beer if the occasion arises," Carter says. "With beer, the food can be a little more bold."
The hospitality industry's beer-versus-wine debate started out as friendly sparring and led to the March 2008 publication of a book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine, co-authored by Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, and Marnie Old, a wine sommelier and director of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute.
In the May 2008 issue of All About Beer magazine, Calagione and Old continued their debate in an article called "Food Fight." Calagione points out that some foods, like asparagus and chocolate, don't adapt to wine. On the other hand, beer has enough variations to pair with any dish, he says.
Old counters that beer might work for everyday eating, but when it comes to fine dining, wine is the better choice. She asserts that beer can often overwhelm our palates.
It's a discussion that's engaged others, too. In a commentary in the June issue of Santé, a trade magazine for the restaurant industry, columnist Evan Goldstein took Boston Beer Co.'s Jim Koch to task for daring to suggest that beer was a more versatile accompaniment to food than wine.
Fortunately, consumers don't have to choose. They can enjoy a bold Chianti with spaghetti and meatballs or a hoppy India Pale Ale with Thai curry.
As Clipper City's Hugh Sisson told his audience at the SAVOR event, "You should always experiment. You are your own best judge of what works for you."
|COOKING WITH BEER|
Braised Duck Legs
4 whole duck legs
In a large braising pan or heavy casserole dish, place the duck legs skin-side down. Place braising pan on low heat and render the fat from the duck legs about 15 minutes, or until the duck skin is golden brown.
Add the carrots, celery, onions, black pepper, bay leaves, thyme, and enough water to cover the duck legs. Add Lindeman's Kriek Lambic beer. Cover the braising pan with a lid or foil and place in a preheated 350-degree oven; cook for approximately two hours or until the meat is falling off of the bone.
After the duck legs have cooked, remove them from the braising pan using a slotted spoon; reserve and cool under refrigeration. Strain the liquid from the braising pan and reserve.
In a saucepan, reduce the duck braising liquid by two-thirds. While the braising liquid is reducing, knead the butter and the flour together to make a paste.
Reduce the heat on the braising liquid to a simmer. With a whisk, add the butter-and-flour paste to the braising liquid a little at a time, whisking constantly, add dried cherries, and simmer for 15 minutes.
To serve: Heat duck legs in a hot oven to an internal temperature of 155 degrees. Bring sauce to a boil and serve over the duck legs. Serves 4.
—From The Brewer's Art
Seared Scallops and Caramelized Grapefruit with Über Sweet Onion
For the scallops:
Heat small skillet until hot, then add clarified butter. Season scallops with salt and pepper and place in hot pan. Let scallops cook without moving for at least 1 minute or until nicely browned. Turn and cook to desired temperature.
After peeling and halving the onions, remove top and bottom to produce a flat surface.
Heat small pan and add butter. Place onions, middle down, into pan and cook till brown, about 2 minutes. Turn onions and add beer. Finish in 400-degree oven until onions are soft but not mushy.
Place all ingredients except butter into sauce pot, cook on low heat, and reduce by half. Remove from heat and whisk in butter, little by little, placing back on low heat if needed. Do not melt butter; incorporate chunks into liquid. When finished, strain sauce and check to see if salt is needed.
Peel fruit and remove segments without pith. Dry one side of fruit with paper towel and coat with sugar, then caramelize with torch.
Arrange onions around plate, place scallops on top. Drizzle with sauce and garnish with grapefruit. Serves 3 as an appetizer.
—From Red Star