There is one thing I complain about more than anything else in the dining and drinking realm: the inability of fine dining establishments to take beer seriously. I am referring to more than just the lack of craft beer on a menu – that’s fixable. And I’m not bothered if a dining theme happens to emphasize wine. The problem goes beyond wasting tap lines with terrible beer or insisting that Budweiser is “a must” (you know, because someone might order that).
It is everything about the lack of appreciation for beer that makes me nutty. The way James Beard nominees look down their noses at beer pairings, despite the fact that dozens of foods pair better with beer than any other beverage. The number of times that I have seen Coors Light on a menu but not Franzia or Phillips tells me that restaurants just don’t get it.
Let me be the first person to say that I enjoy wine. There is no question about that. And anyone who has been to my house knows that I am willing to invest in serious spirits, too. But the rapid surge in quality craft beer has not been matched with its availability in restaurants in any equitable way.
A while back, I chatted with Thomas Boemer of Corner Table and Revival about this issue. He spoke at Beer School at the Republic and the topic was charcuterie.
“It’s not that they don’t take beer seriously…restaurants want to please their customers,” he said. We spoke for long enough that we were almost the last people in the dining room. “It’s that beer has a certain image, and wine has a different one. And that’s not a bad thing.”
While I agree with the image issue, I would continue to argue that beer doesn’t hold enough weight in most renowned or decorated restaurants. There are a lot of factors at play here, and the contributing variables are a bit hard to sort out. There is a larger price margin on wine and cocktails, people are not as willing to pay for beer above a certain price point, and so on.
As I am not a restaurant owner or bar manager, let me end my rant here and instead tell you about one place that is getting it right.
Most people are aware that Surly Brewing now occupies an enormous building bordering Minneapolis and St. Paul. But what you may not have heard about is the fine dining restaurant within the brewery, called Brewer’s Table. It is literally and figuratively above the boisterous and lovable Beer Hall and presents a totally different side of beer enjoyment.
This may seem like an obvious statement to make, that a brewery which contains a restaurant knows how to pair beer with food. Right. However, the level at which they are delivering these pairs to the public is above anything I could have imagined until dining there.
First, I learned that it can be done. And I say that because although I cheer for beer-forward restaurants all the time, this model is one-of-a-kind. A chef-driven, beautifully plated and coursed meal doesn’t have to be simplified to be served with beer. On the other hand, the beer is transformed into something else. My first course, Goat cheese with green goddess, apple, sesame tuile, and endive worked perfectly with the funky Pentagram; the grassy notes of the cheese and apple were mirrored by the barnyard and cherry notes in the glass. Funky beer lovers know how excellent Pentagram is to begin with, but the food does wonders to help it shine.
I was also reminded that pairing beer doesn’t just happen magically. A recent restaurant review in MSP Mag went into great detail about pairing a specific champagne – brand, vintage and all – with a dish. At one point the author seemed to just throw out a bone by adding, “or a light beer”. Just because beer works well with many foods doesn’t mean that it takes no thought to do it right.
Servers at Brewer’s Table are exceptionally gifted in describing pairings to guests. The level of detail we received with every course was shocking and the vocabulary was spot-on. The server even asked me whether I wanted a similar or contrasting pairing for my main course. I was presented with Furious, a bitter contrast to the fatty and mildly sweet Market Fish preparation, below.
Finally, I learned the versatility of beer in its relationship with dessert. Sweet dishes aren’t always ideal to pair with anything, be it red wine, port, or a digestif. While it is often tempting to pair darker, sweeter beer with most chocolate, creamy, or fruity final courses, attempting a contrasting pairing takes guts. But when it works, it works. I was speechless after tasting the combination of Horchata Tres Leches cake with the sour Misanthrope. I had to take a bite and a sip, another sip and a bite, and was still in awe of the duo.
Surly Brewer’s Table’s executive chef, Jorge Guzman, has recently garnered some of the accolades for which his food is worthy, including taking a victory at this year’s Cochon555 event. Cochon is a weekend full of culinary spectacle featuring local chefs, bartenders, and heritage pigs. Travail, Spoon and Stable, and en Box were a few of the other restaurants represented. After professional judging and votes from those in attendance, Brewer’s Table came out on top.