by Gregg Glaser
The Belgians call it "Cuisine à la Bière." Many others simply call it tasty food – with beer, not wine, both in the food and on the table.
“I love to cook with beer,” said Tim Shafer, aka The Beer Chef, and the chef-owner of Tim Shafer’s Cuisine in Morristown, NJ, and Tim Shafer’s at Lake Norman in Sherrills Ford, NC. “Beer is integral to the food I cook. It adds spice, backbone and herbaceous qualities.”
Beer in the Kitchen
Until recently, beer has not had much of a place in the American kitchen, both professionally and at home. Beer was usually relegated to use in a batter, bread, stew or soup. Cooking with beer was almost unknown in America. One standard American cookbook, "Fannie Farmer," lists just one recipe using beer.
This non-savvy beer attitude has begun to change as the American craft beer renaissance continues. American chefs, both professional and amateur, have discovered the myriad number of beer styles being produced by America's 1,300-plus craft breweries and brewpubs and the best of the imports. These chefs now cook with beer in ways they hadn't dreamed of just a few years ago. Menus including dishes made with beer and special beer dinners are being offered all over the country.
“More chefs are educated with beer,” Shafer said, “and there’s a more beer-educated clientele.”
Greg Higgins, the chef-owner of Higgins Restaurant in Portland, OR, arguably America’s most beer-savvy city, said he’s been cooking and pairing beer with food for over 20 years. “I treat beer as seriously as wine,” Higgins said. “It’s a food beverage. I’ve built a beer list on quality.” Higgins carries the best of the internationally recognized beer styles, both with domestic and imported beers.
Wine, of course, has long held a preeminent position in the kitchen, as well as on the table to accompany a meal. But beer's place in history is just as old and noble – perhaps older and nobler than wine's place. Archaeologists theorize that civilization may have developed out of mankind's desire to cultivate grains for the brewing of beer. Since beer has been with us for so many centuries, it's logical to assume that cooking with beer has been around for just as long.
The Belgians have had a marvelous beer-based cuisine for well over a century. One Belgian cookbook lists the "300 best recipes" for dishes made with beer. Bart Vandaele, the Belgian-born chef-owner of Belga Café in Washington, DC, is a huge advocate of cooking with beer and serving great beers (Belgian, of course) at the table. “Beer is the wine of Belgium,” Vandaele said.
When it comes to cooking with beer in the kitchen, most beer chefs adhere to what beer cookbook author Jack Erickson has written of restaurateur Dane Wells' “Three Cs" system of matching beer with food -- Cut, Complement or Contrast. A tart or bitter beer, for example, can be used to cut the flavor of a rich creamy sauce. A spicy or hearty food can be complimented with an equally spicy or hearty beer. Finally, bland food can be contrasted with full-flavored, full-bodied beer.
“I don’t sell beer I don’t like or that won’t go with the food I serve,” Shafer said. He believes that pairing beer with food is easy. “I’m looking for balance – not overpowering the food,” he said. “It’s a matter of knowing which beers go well with food without being too filling. There’s a great similarity between the brewer and the chef. It’s all about the flavor.”
Higgins said that there are some foods where beer works much better than wine. “Spicy foods and Asian cuisine,” Higgins said, “as well as salads, often work best with beer.”
At Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas, manager Michael Shetler said: “We first taste the beers to discover their aromas and flavors, and then we pair our foods to them. We look for complex, well-crafted beers. We’ve found that women enjoy these meals and discover beers they didn’t know existed, especially after thinking they didn’t like beer.”
At Rosemary’s, Shetler said that he promotes beer like wine. “We want to turn our customers on to new things, to branch out with beer and fine food. We see ourselves as educating people that there is more out there than regular beer.”
Rosemary’s lists both beer and wine suggestions on the menu for each entrée. “This takes the stuffiness out of a fine dining experience,” Shetler said. “Many people are beer drinkers rather than wine drinkers, so they feel more comfortable knowing that they can order a beer in a fine restaurant and not have to order a wine. It makes them feel at ease.”
Most European brewers have a special glass with their brewery name and logo for their beers. The glasses aren’t chosen randomly, but are meant to compliment specific beers, such as wide-rimmed glasses for Belgian ales, which allow one to best enjoy the unique aromas of these beers.
“Appropriate glassware showcases beer,” Higgins explained, “and it promotes a ritual around the service of these beers.”
Beer dinners, from a simple three-course meal to five-course extravaganza, will pair a different beer (or two) with each course, as well as incorporate beer into most or all of the food. These dinners might focus on beers from a specific country, region or the beers from a brewer’s or importer’s portfolio. A guest speaker – the chef, a brewer, an importer or a beer writer – often introduces each course and discusses the beers and how and why they have been paired with the food.
Shafer said a good ground rule is that light food and light beers pair well, just as heavy food pairs well with heavy beers. He mentioned seafood with lagers and wheat beers; pork, chicken and veal with Vienna lagers; tuna steak with hoppy ales; sauces created with beer reductions; and even beer pancake syrups.
In his kitchen, Higgins said he’ll make a beer sauce marinade, barley smoked seafood, a carbonade braised with dark ale and salmon with a Belgian framboise lambic ale reduction sauce.
Belgian chef Vandaele talked of fois gras with Duchesse de Bourgogne (a Belgian red ale), rabbit with Affligem (a dark Belgian abbey ale), salmon with Duvel (a strong Belgian golden ale), Asian mussels with Hoegaarden (a spicy Belgian wheat ale), shrimp with Rodenbach (a sour Belgian red ale), fish with Hommel ale (a hoppy Belgian ale), sherbet with lambic (a spontaneously fermented, tart Belgian ale) and crème brulée with Petrus Old Brown (a Belgian brown ale.)
At Yamashiro's in Seattle, bar manager Macey Heppner said the chef likes to pair sushi with Ayinger Ur-Weisse (a German dark wheat beer) and honey glazed sirloin with Celebrator (a strong, malty German dopplebock.) “We push better beers through our daily Fresh Sheet,” Heppner said. “We also include beer suggestions on our menu.”
The Drafting Room, a beer destination bar and restaurant in Springhouse, PA, has a cheese board that changes every six weeks, and beers to pair with the cheeses are listed, said bar manager Steve Hayden.
“I can always find a beer that works as well as any wine with any menu item,” Higgins said. “Sometimes better.”
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