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Beer and Food Pairing: Look Who’s Coming to Dinner

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.

Tables is more accurate, with three long, communal perches crammed inside the diminutive woodsy tavern. It’s decorated with rough brick walls and shelves bursting with bottled suds and enough pickled vegetables to rival your granny’s root cellar. Tacked above the bar is paper scrawled with the evening’s draft beers—including Hitachino Espresso Stout and cask-poured New England Sea Hag IPA—that are dispensed from taps topped with disassembled meat-grinder parts.

The mix of food and beer goes beyond the bar paraphernalia, as I discover when a lanky, bearded server delivers a menu. It lists a snack-food smorgasbord of dehydrated watermelon chips, spicy green beans and a three-course dinner of smoked trout, rich pot-au-feu and spiced carrot cake. Most impressively, each flavorful dish is matched to an equally flavorful beer. “We’re trying to go beyond burgers and steak and pair nontraditional food with beer,” says Beer Table co-owner Justin Philips of his Tuesday Night Dinner series. “Wine should not rule the dinner 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.

“Beer is an ingredient,” he says. “And there are thousands of flavors to choose from.” Paxton uses beer with deft, painterly strokes, in dishes that go far beyond a beer-can chicken. Last April at San Francisco’s lovably divey Toronado Pub, he produced an 11-course meal featuring hop shoots blanched with Delirium Tremens and Flemish red-ale-marinated foie gras torchon topped with Duchesse de Bourgogne foam. A few months later, at Ebezener’s Pub in Lovell, Maine, Paxton debuted 11 Belgian-influenced courses, including dark-chocolate-dipped strawberries injected with oaky, fruity Cantillon St. Lamvinus. “To be considered a beer dinner, you should cook with beer,” enthuses Paxton.


Dinner’s Served
When Justin Philips, a former beer importer, and his wife Tricia, both 30, opened Beer Table last February, they wanted to place equal emphasis on food and beer. In addition to quirky pickled veggies and butter beans with country ham, chef Julie Farias has devised a Bavarian-style brunch consisting of crispy, fruit-topped Belgian-style waffles served with plump weisswurst and light, wheaty Schneider-Weisse. But sausage-beer is kid’s play compared to her Tuesday Night Dinner series.

Farias, her pulled-back black hair shaped into Princess Leia buns, retreats into a tiled kitchen smaller than a mop closet. With a couple of pots and one burner, she devises dishes rooted in locally sourced, New American cuisine. One night, there’s a lentil-lemon soup. The next, quince cake or braised lamb. “Julie has total freedom,” Justin says. “After she makes the menu, I match the beers.”

To test their skills, I take a seat at Beer Table one Tuesday night for dinner. While couples chatter and the sound system hums with gentle jazz, Justin and Tricia attend to customers, delivering pints of froth-capped Smuttynose Farmhouse and reciting delicious dinner details. “I can’t believe you cook in there,” says one patron, motioning toward Farias furiously working the Lilliputian kitchen.

After taking my order, Justin—who shares waiter duties with Tricia—delivers crisp bread crowned with shriveled, pickled oysters. The crunch balances the oysters’ slippery brininess and primes my palate for the first course: a tangle of tangy, crunchy julienned celeriac and Empire apples studded with pinkish smoked trout and vivid-green parsley. “That trout was smoked by the Eel Man,” he says. Wait—the Eel Man?


“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?”

And that’s what it comes down to. Pint by pint, entrée after entrée, bars and restaurants are deviating from decades of standard operating procedure, and Beer Table is happy to join that march. “Many people see us as more of a drinking place,” Justin says, clearing my empty plate. “But we’re really a tasting spot where people happen to drink.”

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