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Luke McKinley
No Anchor pairs parsnips with Holy Mountain Brewing Company’s Demonteller.

How Plant-Based Can Balance Brews

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Gastropubs taking advantage of the plant-based trend are elevating vegetables beyond pub food sideshows.
By Sam Nelson March 2019 Beer

Bar food has a reputation: meaty, heavy, fried, and no utensils needed. Vegetables usually don’t come to mind, unless it’s the celery stick idling by the chicken wings. However, according to a keynote report by food industry market research group Datassential, almost a third of its surveyed consumers are limiting or eliminating meat from their diets. Restaurants and gastropubs taking advantage of this trend are elevating vegetables beyond pub food sideshows placing them at the center of a dish—rich, flavorful, and perfectly accentuated by local craft beer.

At plant-based gastropub The Beer Plant in Austin, Texas, owner Ray McMackin says the team wanted to undo the stereotypes associated with vegetarian food like that it is bland and not very filling. So, the restaurant serves recognizable bar food with a twist like the Buffalo Cauliflower Wings. The cauliflower is fried and tossed in Buffalo sauce and served with blue cheese dip. “That’s the entry-level drug. They’ll try that and come back for more,” McMackin says.

To pair with the 40 brews on tap, The Beer Plant also has the expected salads and pickled veggies, but it doesn’t shy away from heavier dishes like a pot pie that uses celery roots and parsnip instead of meat alternative proteins, or its Nashville Hot and Crispy sandwich, which uses local king oyster mushrooms instead of chicken.

McMackin estimates 75 percent of its taps are from Texas on any given day. He works often with Austin’s Jester King Brewery, which specializes in sours and farmhouse ales, to plan set dinners with beer pairings at both the gastropub and brewery.

No Anchor beer bar and restaurant in Seattle also uses mushrooms to create beer-friendly, plant-based food. “We don’t really understand mushrooms,” says Chris Elford, owner. “A lot of them are like chameleons. There are so many kinds, and they can be cooked in so many different ways.” This benefits No Anchor’s concept—to not be anchored in any one style or idea. The restaurant serves seafood, meat, and many plant-forward options to ensure that there is a good dish for anyone who walks in with an open-minded appetite. Mushroom dishes could include deep-fried hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, wild mushroom hash with eggs, or whatever can be locally gathered from the fungi-friendly Northwest climate.

As far as beverages go, No Anchor staff is trained to recommend beer pairings for anything on the menu—including set multi-course meals—and diners are encouraged to ask. “We kind of look at harmony or dissonance,” Elford says. “We find a flavor in a beer that cognitively matches a flavor in a food or a beer that contrasts well.”

For vegetable dishes, Elford loves farmhouse styles like saison because of their flavors and acidity. Two of his favorites are Holy Mountain Brewing Company’s Demonteller and Stillwater Artisanal’s Extra Dry, which is brewed with rice and barley and carbonated to feel like a sake. “That pairs well with almost everything,” Elford says. “The bubbles lift the flavors off your tongue.”

At Retreat Gastropub in St. Louis, one of the most popular dishes is a meatless mushroom poutine. “We get pounds and pounds of mushrooms every week, and do a mushroom stock with lots of umami,” says Jack McGinn, general manager.

It might seem counterintuitive to pair brown with brown, but McGinn champions the local American Brown by Civil Life Brewing Company to complement the poutine. “I think it’s maybe the best brown ale in the country, maybe the world,” McGinn says. “It’s flavorful with a lot of brown sugar on the palate, but it finishes dry. … It’s hearty enough to stand up to the poutine.”

Root vegetables are also favored at Retreat and No Anchor because they’re substantive enough to star in a meatless dish, like No Anchor’s Beetroot Vareniki Dumplings. Head chef Jeffrey Vance mixes clarified beet juice into the flour and stuffs the dumplings with homemade cheese, potatoes, and root vegetables.

To pair with these mushroom and root vegetable dishes, McGinn, McMackin, and Elford all like sours for their food-friendly versatility.

“[Sours] have acid that goes really well with big flavors in a way that non-cultured beer wouldn’t be able to,” Elford says. “It’s one of those things that can compete with wine on the table.”