Saturday, March 21, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to (Beer) Dinner

One very welcome trend on the rise recently in urban culture is the event known as the beer dinner, often also called the beer-pairing dinner. Print, broadcast and online media love the idea, as it provides a simple and cheap human-interest piece, all the time showcasing such image-friendly items as fine dining and craft beer.

Many restaurants and pubs are just now becoming aware of both the appeal of and business opportunity for pairing craft beer with food. The concept is terribly simple, yet subtle: a multi-course meal is prepared, and each course is paired with a specific beer or beer style. Sometimes it is in conjunction with a local or regional brewer or central theme, and sometimes it is simply composed of a thoughtful mix of commercially available craft beers.

It may be easier to simply list what a beer dinner entails than attempt to expand the concept or rules any further. A recent local beer dinner included the following menu (the beers are usually served in smaller 4- or 6-ounce samples instead of full pint servings):
  • First course: Lamb medallion with a kriek glaze and white asparagus puree, paired with a schwarzbier.
  • Second course: Chilled cucumber soup with fried lotus root, paired with a light helles lager.
  • Third course: Blackened salmon with citrus coulis and arugula, paired with an English-style pale ale.
  • Fourth course: Slow-roasted beef with spring vegetables and garlic cous cous, paired with an American amber ale.
  • Fifth course: Berry cheesecake with chocolate crust, paired with a maibock.
The intent of the beer dinner is to show how the flavors of each dish can be matched, complimented or fortified by selected beer styles, often in much better ways than wine is able. After all, craft beer derives from the same ingredients as bread and herbs, not fruit. It is only natural for a malt-based beverage to accompany dishes made up of grains, spices and meats.

The subtlety comes in finding craft beers to compliment the food, and sometimes cooking food that specifically compliments the beers. A properly designed beer dinner should not be a random match, feature only crowd favorites or be a showcase for rare beer styles. Strong flavors are acceptable only so much as they can be augmented by other strong flavors, either from the beers or the food.

The greatest benefit from events such as this is to re-introduce the idea that beer is food. For too long, beer has been relegated merely as a beverage of cheap convenience and refreshment by large corporate breweries, something only the working class swilled to quench their thirst during sporting events. Modern craft beer is as complex and sophisticated as any wine or spirit, and presenting it to the consuming public in this manner elevates it to a more suitable level.

Most beer dinners are well within the affordable range for most diners, and it is a great method of presenting craft beer to an underinformed public while also educating those already fans about some flavors and styles with which they may not be familiar. And as it seems to be quite profitable for many merchants and provides promotion for smaller, local brewers, these dinners will hopefully only develop and grow in popularity.

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