It’s a howling-wind fall evening in Brooklyn, New York, vicious weather that keeps people homebound and heating up cans of soup. But instead of hunkering inside, tonight dozens of thirsty, hungry Brooklynites have braved the cold to visit Beer Table.
Welcome to the Table
These are good days to be a craft beer. After decades of being dwarfed by macrobrews, microbreweries are filling taps nationwide. But while that counts big at the bar, the dinner table is a different story. At most restaurants, the drinks program remains dominated by wine. Filet mignon? Allow us to recommend the Cabernet Sauvignon. And madame, for your pan-seared scallops, a Viognier? It’s true, red and white have their place—but what about brown? It’s coming to a dinner table near you.
Home cooks and restaurant chefs are discovering that beer’s flavor spectrum—from bitter IPAs to chocolaty stouts—combined with its low acidity and palate-cleansing carbonation are perfect matches for food. They’re using brews as both an ingredient and an accompaniment, creating multicourse beer-pairing dinners of surprising depth and complexity that go far beyond pub grub.
In San Francisco, Bar Crudo hosts a dinner series coupling fresh-caught seafood with microbrews and Belgian ales. Over in Astoria, Oregon, the Fort George Brewery and Public House’s monthly, multicourse brewer’s dinners include pairings like cranberry-almond-caramel tarts with Hopworks’ Noggin’ Floggin’ Barleywine. Meanwhile, Longmont, Colorado’s Pumphouse Brewery’s five-course events feature delicacies such as shrimp-and-crab croquettes with saffron aioli served with Left Hand JuJu Ginger.
“We’re using beer as a culinary tool,” says Jerry Hartley, owner of Birmingham, Alabama’s J. Clyde, which hosts a monthly beer-pairing dinner. Since launching his series in August 2007, Hartley has seen crowds swell to 35 or 40. Dishes like crawfish gumbo opposite Abita Turbodog draw them in. “There’s no better way to educate people about beer and change its image than to pair it with food,” he says.
While restaurants and bars host numerous food-pairing events, there are plenty of private dinners, too. In New York, beer-industry veteran Samuel Merritt’s Civilization of Beer creates pairing dinners, while San Francisco–based “beer chef” Bruce Paton curates beer banquets at the local Cathedral Hill Hotel. Want to create a beer-food feast at home? Follow Garrett Oliver’s book The Brewmaster’s Table and learn to pair barleywines with cheddar cheese.
Still, few enthusiasts treat beer as reverentially as Sonoma, California’s Sean Z. Paxton, a.k.a. the “Homebrew Chef.” Since the mid-’90s, Paxton, a trained chef and photographer, has spread his gastronomic gospel with evangelical fervor. Whereas most beer-pairing zealots mimic sommeliers, matching a meal’s flavor to a particular brew, Paxton goes a step further.
“His name’s Ray Turner, and he catches eel, trout and other fish and smokes them,” Justin says of Turner’s Hancock, New York operation, Delaware Delicacies Smoke House. Locally sourced, indeed. Justin then presents Germany’s Aecht Schlenkerla Helles. The light lager, he explains, was crafted by a brewery specializing in smoky rauchbier, and the lager definitely picks up an ambient smoke flavor.
Crisp, sparkling Schlenkerla evokes campfires in aroma and taste, an ideal companion for the trout salad. Crunchy apples and celery root provide a perfect contrast and temper the trout’s woodsy blast, further accentuated by the lager’s gentle, smoky essence. “It’s like the beer was brewed for this dish,” says one guest, forking up some trout and taking a long drink.
After I clean my plate, Justin delivers the classic boiled French dish, pot-au-feu. It’s presented with in-bone marrow, fall-apart beef chunks and tender potatoes and carrots. On the side, there’s salt, horseradish and coarse-ground mustard for dipping and a double-walled glass brimming with savory beef broth.
“You can either pour it on top or drink it,” Justin says. He also pours me a wine glass full of ambrosial Cuvée des Fleurs, which Long Island brewery Southampton makes with edible flowers. I sip the rich, savory broth, then the hazy, amber beer—like a liquid scalpel, the Cuvée’s spicy sweetness cuts through the broth, tempting me to drink it like water. I dribble a bit on the pot-au-feu and then follow the lead of several boisterous Australians, ravenously scooping out bone marrow. On its own, the marrow is too much. But the Cuvée’s alchemic magic scales back the decadence.
“I take it you liked dinner,” Justin says, scooping up my empty plate and glass.
“Mmhmmm,” I mumble, mentally scheming to sneak into the kitchen and steal an armful of marrowbones and Cuvée.
“Ready for dessert?”
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, preferring a warming, post-dinner scotch. But this dessert is too tempting to pass up: carrot cake painted with ginger-spiked cream cheese, the plate decorated with blood-orange sauce. Justin fills a wide-mouthed snifter with Dansk Mjød Old Danish Braggot, a malty beer blended with sweet mead. “Wow, this cakes melts into the beer,” gushes a middle-aged woman with curly brown ringlets. I fork up some cake, then take a sip of Braggot. She’s right. The beer’s candy sweetness is a perfect match for the cake.
“It was a perfect ending to a hearty meal,” says Bec Death, 32, a member of that boisterous Aussie party. She typically favors beer over wine but had never tried a beer dinner. Curiosity brought her to tonight’s meal, which left her pleasantly surprised and hankering for another. “Each course built up to the next,” she says. “The pairings always complemented, not overwhelmed, the food.”
One of her dining companions, eco-friendly clothing company owner Billie Paris, is equally impressed. “We tend to have beer with snacks like wasabi peas and chips, but we hadn’t thought to experiment with beer-and-meal matching,” says Paris, who’s eager to sample another pairing meal and switch up her usual dinner protocol: beer when perusing the menu, then wine to accompany the food. And she’s excited by beer’s myriad matching capabilities. “Who would have known that there was a dessert-type beer?”
Related ContentRead chef Sean Paxton's tips on how to host your own beer-pairing dinner.