Beer gets a bad rap among foodies. Sure, a Miller Lite or Michelob may be appropriate with a hot dog or a slice of greasy pizza. But finicky gourmets turn their noses up at the mere thought of drinking beer with the finer offerings found at the nation's top restaurants.
It's not fair, though, that wine takes center stage in high-end dining rooms. Like wine, beer boasts a huge range of flavors, aromas, and characteristics, so it can match well with everything from a rich foie gras to a savory osso bucco. With more than 1,300 different breweries in the U.S. and dozens of imports, even the most discerning diners can find the right stout, pale ale, or doppelbock for any occasion.
Jim Koch, founder and brewer of The Boston Beer Co. (the maker of Samuel Adams beer), is on a mission to elevate the image of beer. Suds -- the nickname says it all -- simply don't have the cachet of wine or spirits. That's a big reason why the overall growth of the beer industry, unlike wine and spirits, has been flat of late. One of the company's commercials, which star the quirky Koch, compares the hops in beer to the grapes in wine. "We've been trying to show people that beer has all the complexity, variety, and quality accorded wine," says Koch.
Part of the way to win over wine lovers is by showcasing just how well beer can pair with food. Koch worked with Jason Miller, executive chef of David Burke's Primehouse in downtown Chicago, to create a special menu for BusinessWeek in which each of the four courses was highlighted by an American craft beer, or microbeer as they're also known. We agreed that Koch, who can do a dead-on impression of Julia Child, could select one of his own beers, but had to choose other brews for the other courses. With each course, we had a 6 oz. tasting of a different beer.
The rules for pairing beer with food are common sense. You should try to complement or contrast the flavors and intensity of the beer — be it the alcohol, malt, hops, or other traits — with the food. Lighter fare like salads or fish work well with lighter beers such as an ale. Richer or spicier foods need something bolder, like a dark, malty Oktoberfest-style brew. To sample the delights along with Koch, we gathered a group of beer aficionados and neophytes at Primehouse.
The culinary journey began with a simple salad of organic mixed greens and grape tomatoes drizzled with lemon vinaigrette. For this first course, Koch chose Pyramid Hefe Weizen, produced by Pyramid Breweriesin Seattle. An American take on the German-style, unfiltered wheat ale, Pyramid Hefe Weizen like other ales is fermented for just a few days. It's also drier and lighter than a traditional lager. The beer's citrus tones paired well with the lemon in the dressing while the carbonation helped to cleanse the palate of oil. At the same time, the malt counterbalanced the vinegar. "That's hard to do with wine," says Koch, who is a sixth-generation brewmaster.
After noshing on a warm, fluffy popover with melted butter served in individual skillets, we moved on to Burke's signature dish, the Angry Lobster. It's a sweet and spicy creation that is sauteed in chile oil and red pepper flakes, served on a bed of nails (that's why it's angry), and garnished with candied lemons and flash-fried basil. To balance the cayenne, chile oil, and red pepper in the dish, we drank Rogue American Amber Ale, made by Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore. The residual sweetness from the malt, which gives it the hint of caramel and coffee, helps to "put out the fire," explains Koch.
Each of the five of us chose from among three entrées — a bone-in 20 oz. rib eye (an organic well-seasoned steak bred in Kentucky and dry-aged on the premises) served with a blue cheese mousse; a Flintstones-size pork shank accompanied by a spicy apple sauce flavored with serrano chiles, cayenne, and Tabasco; and a light, flaky Chilean sea bass marinated in soy and honey, and topped with a watercress, ginger, and mustard sauce. With such a range of dishes, the beer has to be versatile enough to match foods with so many flavors. Koch's pick: his own, Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The sweetness of the malt goes well with grilled dishes like the steak, while the bitterness of the hops works with the Asian influences in the fish.
Of course, we all looked forward to dessert — and we weren't disappointed. There was a range of chocolate offerings, including the Slice of Prime (eight layers of chocolate cake and fudge with a graham-cracker chocolate chip ice cream) and a banana-bread sundae with a hint of almond (pretty much like it sounds). The pastry chef, Jove Hubbard, created a hot fudge sauce made with black beer specifically for us, a flavor she hopes to add to a dessert in the future. With these chocolate confections, we drank Sprecher Black Bavarian beer, a local Midwestern brew from Sprecher Brewing Co. in Glendale, Wis. The dark lager with caramel and coffee notes enhanced the flavors of the desserts.
No fine dinner would be complete without a cordial. So our evening ended with a snifter of Samuel Adams Utopias, a limited-run beer that retails for $100 for a 25-oz. bottle. We let Koch sneak another brew into the mix largely because we couldn't resist trying the distinctive Utopias, which had a 25.6% alcohol by volume in the 2005 batch. Served at room temperature and lacking carbonation, Utopias — which is fermented and aged in a combination of old scotch, bourbon, port, and cognac casks — compares to a fine port or cognac. But the Utopias doesn't have the ethanol kick at the end that is typical of those distilled drinks. The vanilla and caramel flavors surprised even the nonbeer drinker at the table, who proclaimed "this is like a dessert." Indeed, it was a meal that could convert even the most ardent of oenophiles.