Craft Beer and Its Place in American Cuisine

America is seeing a rebirth of pre-prohibition, micro culture exhibitions by and through the local beers and spirits being produced by modern day artisans known as brewers. A back to basics approach. This, all while obliterating the idea of simplicity of what is generally associated with the word "traditional".  Alongside the artists, chefs, local bakers, and cheesemakers, brewers are finding ways to express the history of their region, the cultural identity of the people who influence them, and their locale's "terroir" through beer.  Playing on traditional European styles and techniques, ultimately making them bigger, at times more aggressive, and in turn - inherently "American".  After all, nothing is ever big enough for us Americans anyways.  Still, some of the world's most nuanced and food-ready beers are coming out of America these days.  Through the use of local ingredients, local yeast strains, grains, hops, and fruits, the American craft brewer is touching on the essence of the make-up of his or her hometown.  It's a thing of beauty, people.  

Jeffrey Stuffings (far left) Founder of Jester King.  Photo Credit: Jester King Brewery

The ability to understand purpose, time, and place, when putting your nose in a glass, enjoying the view of the liquid in the glass, and finally being overcome by the attack on your palate when it hits your tongue is only becoming more common.  Brewers are not only taking more time with their products but they're showing more restraint (when needed) to ensure the ever important quality of balance.  It's this balance that will continue to elevate the product so many in America are starting to love, appreciate, and enjoy.  What good is an IPA that rips the enamel off of your teeth if it destroys your palate and leaves you unable to enjoy that dinner you paid $50 for?!  The focus on balance and food is becoming more important to the craft brewer and will continue to be a driving force in ensuring the craft beer rebirth is here to stay.  I believe it's craft beer's availability in fine dining restaurants and its ability to be paired more easily with more kinds of foods that will truly bring craft to the forefront and keep it there.  Restaurants will be forced to adapt.  Cicerones will join sommeliers in the ranks at these restaurants and hold positions of respect and prestige. 

Craft beer is a natural fit on the American table.  Don't get me wrong, I love wine.  I love it alone and I love it with food.  It just has its shortcomings at the dinner table - shortcomings that craft beer is ready to and more than capable of filing.  Jeff Stuffings, founder of Jester King Brewery believes "it makes sense for beer to be at the dinner table because, in many ways, it's an extension of cooking.  Brewers strive for balance and depth of flavor through ingredients and technique, much like a chef.  In fact, several of Jester King's beers are inspired riffs on various dishes we've enjoyed.  Through process and ingredients, beer can have all the complexity and pairing potential of wine, despite the fact that grapes naturally have more complexity than grains."  Beer is a blank canvas.  It's subject to more experimentation than wine, more diversity than wine, and in the end can be made to pair with anything.  Yeast, fermentation temperature, hops, grains, oak, all in different proportions make beer the best beverage for the American diner.  Yet, most still don't see it this way.  Soon, they will.  

Cory King, Founder and Brewer at Side Project Brewing.  Photo courtesy of Tim Bottchen and Side Project Brewing.

Jester King Detritivore. A wild ale fermented with wild yeast and bacteria native to the Texas hill country and collected by Jester King.  Fermented on second use cherries (first use of the cherries was on a beer called Montmorency vs. Balaton). 

Cory King, founder and brewmaster at Side Project Brewing and "director of oak" at Perennial Artisan Ales, says he feels "fortunate when the discussion of beer/food vs. wine/food pairings comes up. For beer, there are no restrictions, in the ingredients we can use in the beer and to the diversity of flavors we can develop.  With this, a beer can often hit on notes in a dish that a wine may not be able to achieve.  Moving forward, I believe that many more high end restaurants and more prolific chefs will be adding beer to their pairing repertoires in order to best showcase flavors and pairing to their guests."  And that's just it.  It's not that having craft beer accessible in more lower price-point restaurants is not helping the cause, because it is.  The more that people have the ability to understand the complexity of this diverse product only helps improve its status in the market.  The point is the level of respect for craftsmanship that has accompanied wine for decades has kept it in the forefront of the conversation when talking about food and, in turn, has allowed wine to maintain prominence and grow is its admiration at the fine dining establishments of the world.  This is the stability that craft beer needs.  Brewers like Cory and Jeff are helping it get there.  The day of drinking beer at a tailgate party only need to be days of the past. 

But what about terroir?  What about wine's ability to speak to a time and place?  Its ability to be compatible with other foods associated with a certain region? Craft beer has that covered.  Breweries like Jester King, Side Project, and Plan Bee Farm Brewery are achieving the same level of complexity and character through local and house yeast strains.  Breweries like Cantillon have been doing it for decades.  "It has been suggested that terroir or sense of place in wine comes in large part from the particular microorganisms living on the skins of the grapes in various geographic locales. This is equally as valid for wild or spontaneously fermented beer from different regions.  The microbes unique to a specific location create complexity and a sense of place in beer during fermentation, just as in wine.  Therefore, I believe it's fair to say that wild beer in particular stands up to the complexity of wine when it comes to food pairings," says Jeff.  And it's true.  Put your nose in a glass of his beer and there's just something there, a distinct characteristic that lets you know "this is Jester King." 

Eileen Andrade, Founder and Chef, Finka Table & Tap.

The signs that this transformation is occurring are out there.  NOMA, considered the world's best restaurant by many, partnered with Mikkeller in 2012 to feature world class, creative beers along side it's world class cuisine.  And call it what you will, but Estrella Damm's Inedit, created with the genius of Ferran Adria,  for the purpose of serving at the table alongside food like what was served at El Bulli, was something that certainly helped move this idea of beer and food forward.  

Giorgio Rapicavoli, founder/chef at Eating House Miami and winner of Food Network's Chopped.

I'm not suggesting that beer drinkers need to start drinking with their pinkies out just for beer to survive what many who don't get the upsurge of craft beer call a fad.  The point is, that craft beer is more suited than anything else right now to be served alongside the most variety of tastes and textures.  Better with cheese.  Better with spice. It's the stigma that needs to be broken down.  The idea that American beers are bland.  The idea that craft beer is nothing more than a way for adults to start up a new collection until the next "cool thing" comes around.  It's creating an appreciation for complexity and experimentation with the understanding that the foie gras you just had to order would go great with an imperial stout or maybe even an earthy, yeast driven farmhouse ale.  Eileen Andrade, chef and owner of Finka Table & Tap in Miami, thinks "beer is an incredibly versatile drink.  It pairs so nicely with so many different kinds of foods.  Our restaurant serves food with Caribbean and Asian influence and the craft beers that we order go so well with the heavily seasoned and spiced foods. I like pairing foods with a drink that is similar to the flavor profile of the dish and craft beer is making it easier for us to do that." The possibilities are endless.  Giorgio Rapicavoli, founder and chef at Eating House in Miami, says "beer plays an integral part of the beverage program at Eating House.  In my opinion beer's diversity in flavor and intensity play off our foods better than wine."  Craft beer must continue to work it's way up the chain into these restaurants.  Restaurants that know how to play off the nuances and subtleties of beer and provide their patrons with an enhanced experience.  

At the end of the day, money rules.  The craft beer drinker must demand these beers at the restaurants.  Change the traditional wine-only thought process.  That day will come - you just need to do your part.


Craft Commander