When some restaurants pair beer with food, they don’t think beyond pizza and wings. But coupling craft beer and simple dishes offers a world of exciting culinary possibilities that can keep customers coming back.
“The best way to build a loyal following is to help people discover something excellent and outside the norm when they go out to eat,” says Adam Dulye, co-owner and chef of San Francisco’s popular Monk’s Kettle and Abbot’s Cellar restaurants. “It’s an experience they’ll seek to repeat.”
For Dulye (pronounced Doo-lee), this means pairing clean and simple foods with well-crafted beers to take his diners’ taste buds to new and interesting places.
Dulye is widely known for his beer and food pairing skills. Aside from having the beer program front and center at his two restaurants, Dulye also serves as a consultant for the Brewers Association, handling the culinary duties for events like SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience as well as the Farm to Table Pavilion at the Great American Beer Festival.
“There’s a parallel happening right now with food and craft beer—brewers and chefs are honoring their simple ingredients,” Dulye says. “This makes them a natural fit for one another.”
Pairing by Flavor, not Brand
At the Monk’s Kettle, this union takes the form of farm-fresh tavern fare that works in harmony with 24 constantly rotating taps of beer, each chosen for its flavor profile and not the name on the label.
“We have six taps dedicated to Belgian beers, four reserved for hop-forward ales, two for pilsners, etcetera—but none are reserved for a particular beer,” Dulye notes. “We choose beers based on what flavors they can deliver, and we change them once or twice a week—it’s rare you’ll find the same beer twice.”
What you will find on every foray to Monk’s Kettle are beer pairing notes below each dish on the menu—and these notes reference words like “bready, stone fruit, floral, and roasty” instead of specific brands or styles of beer.
For instance, the Roasted Mushroom Risotto with aged white Cheddar and fine herbs comes with pairing recommendations of “earthy, malty, nutty, roasty, highly carbonated.” Diners can choose a beer that delivers these flavors based on their own experience and preferences, or ask their server for a recommendation that will deliver the desired experience, such as a Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale.
Pairing by flavor instead of by beer name or style opens up exciting possibilities, and this is particularly true when the menu is constantly changing to accommodate the best local produce and proteins.
“You’re not limited to certain breweries or set menu items for creating an experience; you do everything based on how it tastes or how those flavors work together,” Dulye says. “Walk in with flavor ideas in your head, and we’ll make you happy.”
Of course to make this happen, your staff has to know their stuff. “We train our servers to know all the beers, our menu items, and the stories behind them, and we taste everything,” Dulye says.
Balance and Progression
While there are many wonderful nuances to pairing beer and food, Bertrand Bouquin, executive chef at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, says it starts with balance.
“You don’t want the beer to overpower the dish, or the dish to overpower the beer. We want them to complement each other, to pull the best out of both,” he says.
Bouquin hails from the Burgundy region of France, a province synonymous with fine wines, but says he’s impressed with the array and quality of beers in the U.S., and in Colorado in particular.
These well-crafted beers have found a home at Summit, a French-American brasserie on the Broadmoor property that specializes in well-executed dishes featuring simple ingredients, such as Lemon Poached Dayboat Cod and Crispy Duck Leg Confit. The restaurant has 10 beers on tap, all from local brewers, supplemented with numerous bottles.
A chef’s tasting is available upon request, with each of five courses paired with a different beer. “We typically start with the light and citrusy beers, and then move to heavier ones, the same as we would do with wine,” Bouquin says.
Bouquin favors lighter styles of beer like Kölsches, wheats, pale ales, and lagers—as they work better with a variety of foods.
“Heavy beers are harder to pair with food,” Bouquin says, noting that bigger flavors from the beer require bigger flavors from the food, an escalation that would push the menu at Summit in a direction the chef doesn’t want to go.
“At Summit, we start with the food,” Bouquin says. “The beers we offer have to pair with what’s on the menu—the cuisine comes first.”
Pair with Purpose
Back at the Monk’s Kettle, Chef Dulye says it’s important to start with a goal for any beer you’re coupling with food.
“You have to ask yourself: ‘What does the beer need to do?’ Does it need to cleanse the palate, or enhance a flavor, such as smoke?” he says. “Understanding the function a beer serves in the pairing makes it much easier to choose the right combination.”
If a dish has a lot of fat, Dulye suggests looking for hoppier beers or ones with a higher alcohol content, as they do a better job of cutting the palate. If a dish is spicy, avoid beers with higher protein levels like wheats and oatmeal stouts, as their viscous nature holds capsaicin oil on the palate longer, intensifying the heat of the dish.
Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer is a great place to find more insights into the do’s and don’ts of beer and food pairings, along with a treasure trove of useful information about the history and gastronomical qualities of beer.
If you’re thinking about adding beer and food pairings to your restaurant’s offerings, Dulye says it’s best to start simple. “Introduce yourself and your staff to pairings slowly, starting with a few basic and balanced combinations,” he says. As everyone becomes more comfortable, more complex offerings can be worked in.
Hosting a beer dinner is a terrific way to showcase beer and food together without disrupting the daily menu, and a good way to start is by featuring a local brewery.
“Local is big in food right now, and you can usually get great support from a smaller brewery in your community,” Dulye says. “Have the brewer come talk about the brewery’s philosophy, culture, and attitude on taste. Have him walk guests through the meal, course by course, beer by beer.”
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet with a small brewery, you’ll have the beer dinner chops to work with larger, regional breweries. “When you’re hosting a beer dinner, it’s important to remember that the beer comes first,” Dulye advises. “Shape your menu to bring the best out of the beers you serve.”
But Dulye says the most important thing for beer and food pairings is to follow your muse: “Create dishes you like and pour what you think is good—don’t try to guess what people want or copy what others are doing. Honor your ingredients, stand behind what you pour, and you’ll do well.”