BY ED MURRIETA
Beer: It’s what’s for dinner.
If that doesn’t sober up diners who favor wine,
consider that craft beer – the non-Budweiser brews for
which the Pacific Northwest and other rogue brewing
capitals are savored – enjoyed a 13.5 percent increase
in restaurant sales last year.
While boosted beer sales – touted at the Craft Brewers
Conference in Seattle last week – might be a drop in
the barrel compared with wine sales, it underscores a
Beer is finding a place – and respect – among chefs
and diners, not just at brewpubs but at fancy
restaurants, where $4 pints of IPA rub elbows with $80
bottles of Barolo.
“As wonderful as wine is, it does not have as wide a
range of flavor as beer does,” said Garrett Oliver, a
New York beer-maker and author of “The Brewmaster’s
“That gives beer big advantages when it comes to
matching food. You can have caramelization flavors.
You can have roast flavors. You can have chocolate
flavors. You can have strong smoked flavors.”
“Wine’s flavor range is tight,” Oliver said. “You have
to look for smoke in Pouilly fume. But porter or
stout? The smoke finds you.”
Except for oak notes from barrel aging, wine lacks
cooked foods’ prime quality: caramelization – that
smoky edge of a charbroiled steak, that savory bite of
grilled vegetables, the golden sweetness of roasted
Chili? Cumin? Chocolate? They can distort, even
destroy, wines’ flavors. But beer, from lightly hopped
pale ale to heavily malted imperial stout, contains
those flavors. Where wine contrasts, beer complements.
“If you go from the lightest white wine to the
heaviest red wine, you will never find the range that
you can find in beer,” Oliver said. “That’s not a
failing of wine but a talent of beer.”
At the Craft Brewers Conference, Oliver hosted
“Thanksgiving in April,” the industry’s push to get
people to drink beer, not wine, with holiday meals.
“There are few things that are less convincing than
ham with wine,” Oliver said.
Trying to convince reporters, Oliver paired ham with
New Belgium’s Skinny Dip, a light ale whose citrusy
Cascade hops and kaffir lime leaves drew out ham’s
saltiness. Its maltiness played to ham’s nuttiness.
Oliver was less convincing with turkey. Dark meat
meshed with heavier beers, but white meat begged for
REFRESHING VS. DULLING
Oliver, a member of The New York Times’ wine panel,
was careful not to bash wine, but he noted how beer is
better with food. While both cut through fatty foods,
wine’s tannins coat and dull the palate; beer – thanks
to carbonation’s “scrubbing bubbles” – cleanses and
But not every pairing pleases.
“If you drink a really hoppy beer with something
that’s more delicate, the hops are just going to
destroy the perception of a lot of things,” said Dick
Cantwell of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co.
“They’re good, but cumulatively, they can be ruinous
to the palate.”
In a beer dinner at Seattle’s white-tablecloth Union
Restaurant last week, chef Ethan Stowell paired Totten
Virginica oysters, roasted squab and chocolate terrine
with beers from Quebec’s Unibroue. But he stopped
short of cooking with those beers.
“I took three of them, and I reduced them down,” he
said. “It would have changed the food completely. It
wouldn’t have been my food. I opted not to do it.”
Sean Quinn, chef at Asado, Tacoma’s Argentine-inspired
steak house, uses Deschutes’ Mirror Pond pale ale to
braise pork butt and brisket.
“I’m looking for the barley flavors, the real
yeastiness to give it a different flavor level than
the sweetness in the wine,” he said.
DRINKING UP, BUYING UP
Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, said
craft beers sell better in restaurants than in
supermarkets and convenience stores.
“When people are in restaurants, they tend to buy up,”
Gatza said he’s seeing more beers in 22-ounce bottles,
which offer the perception of expense and allow diners
to share, a la wine.
“If you want to try new things, it’s so much easier to
spend $5,” said Warren Steenson, the self-styled
“breuvagier” at Higgins, the Portland fine-dining
restaurant that features more than 150 beers. “But to
experiment in the wine world, where you’re going to be
spending 50 bucks, sometimes you win, sometimes you
don’t. With beer it’s a little easier.”
With a menu that includes Northwest, Belgian and
Canadian beers, Union Restaurant has one of the better
selections in Seattle (along with Dhalia and Ray’s
Boathouse). Stowell believes fine beer pairs with fine
“I think it’s unfortunate, but people are trained to
look for a bottle of wine to go with food,” Stowell
said. “The problem is all the pubs out there. Even the
higher-end places that are serving good beer are
training their customers to drink it with crappy food
– pub grub.”
Chris Bolan of Florida’s Orlando Brewing Co.
understands beer’s downscale perception. He’s a former
marketing executive for Gallo, the jug wine giant that
made respectable inroads with its upscale brands by
marketing directly to high-end chefs. Gallo got a big
boost when New York’s Ritz Carlton drank up its 1979
“Any image objection at that time was completely blown
away,” Bolan said. “If you don’t educate the chefs
first, you’re never going to get beers paired with
Orlando Brewing, barely a month old, already has beer
dinners lined up with one luxury hotel, the Westin
Alan Moen, editor of Northwest Brewing News, blames
beer’s image problem on wine-centric food media.
“My sister-in-law is the food editor of Bon Appetite
magazine,” Moen said. “They never wrote about beer. A
few years ago she called me up and asked what beer
would be appropriate with a dish. I thought, ‘Wow.
Things are changing.’ ”
Ed Murrieta: 253-597-8678
CHART: A BEER for every meal – even dessert
Pilsner, blond ale, cream ale, bitter or
“extra-bitter” ale, brown ale
Brown Ale, imperial IPA, dubbel, porter, amber lager
Pale ale, India pale ale
Wheat beer, pilsner, fruit beer (baby greens, etc.);
India pale ale, extra special bitter (bitter greens)
Porter, stout, Scottish ale
Pale ale, India pale ale, Belgian tripel
Porter, oatmeal stout
India pale ale
Pilsner, pale ale
British pale ale, India pale ale
British pale ale, India pale ale, dubbel, Scottish ale
Wheat beer, British bitter ale
Amber lager, porter, stout, brown ale
Grilled pork chops
Amber lager, doppelbock, pale ale, India pale ale
Amber lager, porter, Irish stout, pale ale
Amber lager, pale ale
Brown ale, dubbel ale
Pilsner, dry stout
Black-eyed peas, gumbo, jambalaya
Mild blue cheese
India pale ale, stout, porter
Strong blue cheese
Imperial IPA, barley wine
Aged cheddar cheese
India pale ale, brown ale, stout
India pale ale, imperial IPA
Sources: “The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the
Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food” by Garrett
Oliver; Brewers Association; beercook.com.
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Ed Murrieta, The News Tribune
Originally published in the Tacoma News Tribune, April 19, 2006