Once considered a low-brow cohort to simple pub fare, today, beer is finding its way onto gourmet tables nationwide. The shift is largely due to the increase of craft and artisanal brews now available to the general public, as well as the current American passion for creative beverage-and-food pairings. Add to this efforts by food-and-beer pairing proponents like Jim Koch, founder of craft brewing company Sam Adams, and the impact of the shift is sealed. In addition to hosting various beer pairings dinners around the country, Koch has launched a new section on the company Web site dedicated to educating readers about the topic with the help of Partner/Executive Chef David Burke. Wine Enthusiast chatted with the two recently about the broadening American palate and why good beer deserves a place on every connoisseur’s dinner table.
Wine Enthusiast: The recent facelift of the site with the addition of the food and beer pairing section—was that in response to more recent trends in the American market that you’ve noticed?
Jim Koch: Yes. It’s been fascinating to see the evolution. I’ve worked with chefs over [the past 20 years] and I think about 10 years ago there was a passing of the baton to a new generation of chefs that were clearly eager to transcend the five mother sauces. They brought a much broader palette of flavors and ingredients; the cuisines were more fusion. The classical French and northern Italian cuisine is very wine-friendly. But the universe has now expanded to [include] what are essentially tropical cuisines, and those are beer cuisines.
WE: Do you think this new generation of chefs is what’s causing the increasing demand for better food-and-beer pairing?
David Burke: I got out of culinary school just over 20 years ago and everything to me back then was very focused on French food, and it was wine-driven. The flavors back then were salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Now you have chilies, cerachas, curries; salsa has surpassed ketchup as the preferred condiment of the country, so it’s telling you that we like spice. And with spice, beer is a very good accompaniment.
WE: What is the next step for the craft brewing industry to promote more appropriate pairings?
DB: I think that the public is just becoming more quality-driven. I don’t know where that comes from, but I think when it comes to food and beverage it has become very stylish to understand what wine and food is. Beer is just the next step.
WE: There’s a wave of new titles popping up in the beer and food realm, such as beer sommeliers, Chief Beer Officers, etc. Do you think that’s the first step in the food and restaurant industry recognizing the cry for more knowledgeable beer pairings?
DB: You’re seeing a lot on that to a certain degree; it’s really nice when the sommelier comes up and pours you a beer with one of the courses. It’s refreshing, delicious, it’s got some body to it but it can also be a palate cleanser; there’s a lot of advantages to it. I think you’ll probably start to see a lot more with higher-end quality beer. The consumers these days, if they can afford it, are looking for a better product.
JK: Absolutely. It’s also an acknowledgement that beer drinkers have now discovered this big world of flavors and taste in beer. It’s not just pale, crisp, dry, refreshing beers. Beer drinkers have moved beyond drinking beer simply for refreshment to drinking beer for flavor and taste. Craft brewers are making beers not for refreshment but for flavor; you don’t chug a Sam Adams anymore than you chug a Cabernet Sauvignon, and that’s okay.
WE: So, in the future we’ll start seeing beer menus provided alongside wine menus?
JK: We’re starting to see them now. Beer is starting to find a place at the table. Beer is never going to replace wine; what it’s going to do is expand the diner’s choices so that you can find good pairings with a broader range of dishes. My hope is in 10 years people will realize that many dishes go better with beer than they do wine, and that people just expand their understanding of food and beverage pairings.