Driven by the explosion in beer quality and variety and the consumer's unquenchable thirst for new flavors, beer-and-food pairings are bringing an uptick in business to some restaurants, bars and hotels.
At Gramercy Tavern, part of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City, a small but knowing crowd eagerly antes up $14 to $47 for esoteric vintage beers to sip with chef Michael Anthony's seasonal American cuisine.
"These beers are bringing in people who otherwise would not have come," said assistant beverage director Kevin Garry. He has amassed one of the nation's deepest aged beer collections at Gramercy, with 30 choices and a 2,000-bottle inventory. Word is out on the street: "There's a huge beer-blog community that gives us press."
Aficionados prize aged brews, which are generally robust and heady and often presented in cork-finished, 750-milliliter bottles, because their flavors become more complex over time. Gramercy's selection includes local favorites like 2001 Brooklyn Monster Ale, priced at $18, and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, 2003 and 2005, priced at $18 and $16, respectively. Also featured are rarities like 2005 Cantillon Gueuze Lou Pepe Kriek, a spontaneously fermented and cherry-flavored Belgian brew priced at $47, and three variations of 2003 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, an English barley wine matured in sherry, Calvados and single-malt Scotch whisky casks, each priced at $19.
At the Red Drum Gastropub in Mount Pleasant, S.C., specialty beer is the main focus of food pairing, reported general manager and co-owner Charlie Chance, even though the upscale pub-style eatery also has a full bar and ample wine list. "I'm seeing great beers like Chimay and La Fin du Monde go into the dining room with our Wisconsin artisan cheeses," noted Chance. Executive chef-owner Ben Berryhill's matches have included tangy Belgian saison ale with goat milk Cheddar and nutty British brown ale with rich farmstead mascarpone.
Everywhere you look, beer seems to be rising in esteem at the table. When the National Restaurant Association asked more than 1,000 American Culinary Federation chefs to rate what's hot in food and beverage last fall, they ranked craft beer as the sixth hottest trend. Blogger Erin Zimmer called beer "the new wine" in the Serious Eats Newsletter, adding, "It's the liquid you want to learn more about — its origins, its aromas, its natural flavors highlighting specific foods." What's more, pairing beer with food is something one must know to become a Certified Cicerone, a professional credential the Chicago-based Craft Beer Institute awards to experts in beer knowledge and service.
And this month an estimated 2,000 attendees will pay $85 a ticket to attend "Savor: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience," slated for May 16-17 in Washington, D.C. The key attraction is a tasting of 96 American craft brews matched with savory and sweet items, like Crostini with Figs & Prosciutto, Peking Duck Purses and Spiced Artisan Chocolates.
"Beer-and-food pairings are really what's on the radar now," says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for Savor's organizer, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. Also on the agenda is an educational salon called "Cross Drinking Without Social Stigma" in which well-known wine journalists discuss how they like to put beer and food together.
What's driving it all? For starters, Herz noted the increasing quality and diversity of the U.S. craft beer industry, with more than 1,400 craft breweries making 75 styles of beer. Couple that with a flavor-hungry public and a new generation of chefs that has grown up with good beer. Finally, in a time of economic uncertainty, even the priciest suds remain relatively affordable.
Also tapping the trend are the four Boscos restaurant-breweries, part of a Memphis-based chain. They offer daily chef's specials with both beer and wine suggestions. For example, Boscos Squared in Memphis recently touted its house-brewed Famous Flaming Stone Beer with its Pineapple Grilled Salmon. Choosing to order the suggested beer with the special "has become second nature for a lot of people now," said head brewer Chuck Skypeck.
At the Four Points by Sheraton hotel chain, a well-chosen slate of U.S. craft and import beers and an appealing front man have helped the Best Brews program boost food and beverage sales.
Precise data is scant because Four Points is largely franchised, according to Sandy Swider, vice president of brand development for the White Plains, N.Y.-based hotelier. But topline indications are that sales have risen as a result of the program. Participating properties promote a minimum of four drafts and as many as 20 bottled beers.
"We're really happy with the results," said Scott Kerkmans, who became the public face of Best Brews last year when he was named Four Points' first chief beer officer. This year he plans to work on new beer-and-food pairings for the hotels in addition to training staff in better beer service. "We've gotten positive feedback from guests as well as better profit margins on beer, because that's how craft beer works — it has a better profit margin."