Fine Dining, Fine Drinking
In my previous post I touched on why blue-collar beer drinkers shun craft beer. They aren’t the only ones. The white tablecloth troop in B.C. do so as well. It seems B.C.’s ideas of fine dining stem from the French and Italians, cultures without a strong beer tradition. (The Italians, however, are finally starting to come around.) If we had had more immigrants from Belgium, perhaps we wouldn’t be stuck on Madconomist’s Beer Myth #15 – Beer and Fine Dining Don’t Mix.
Beer is not simply lager and pale ale belted back in a bottle, mug, or pint glass and only consumed with burgers or pizza. There are a myriad of styles with which to pair with food. The Beer Judge Certification Program lists 23 different categories of beer; there will be at least one style to go with your meal. Not only that, beer shines in those “tricky” areas that challenge wine: barbecue (smoked beer), chocolate (sweet stout), oysters (Irish stout), and spicy foods (India Pale Ale).
Aside from stereotyping beer as the working man’s drink, perhaps the reluctance to consider beer in conjunction with fine dining is the view that beer is not complex or refined enough to go beyond “grub rinser” and into the realm of cuisine. Not so. (See Myth #9.)
There are many unidimensional wines that would not be found in any self-respecting restaurant. Yet, most beer consumed, unfortunately, falls into that category. Why wouldn’t one put some effort into creating a discriminating beer list as one would a wine list? As with a wine, you would look for a beer made with care and quality ingredients, not merely cleanliness of taste and consistency. There should be a selection of styles that work best with your food, not chosen strictly for their popularity or price.
Another handicap with beer in the context of cuisine is the optics. Are beer bottles and labels designed for elegance? Typically not. Furthermore, the ubiquitous mug or pint glass is designed for quantity drinking which is out of balance with a sophisticated meal. Presentation counts for a lot in fine dining. With the care one takes to serve wine or a cocktail, you can do the same with beer. Glassware is an important part of this. There are different glasses for different styles of beer that are designed to present a beer in its best light. This is not merely for show. There are practical components in glassware design, such as head retention and temperature control.
(BTW, if you want to enjoy your beer, you shouldn’t drink it out of a bottle. Smell is a major contributor to overall flavour. How much aroma are you going to get out of the top of a bottle? It’s like trying to enjoy a good meal with a head cold.)
B.C. is slowly starting to come around to the idea that there is a thing called beer cuisine. Spinnaker’s in Victoria, Canada’s first brewpub, has set the bar in the province so far. Owner Paul Hadfield wants Spinnaker’s to be an affordable Sooke Harbour House. They bake their own breads, make their own vinegars, and create their chocolates & desserts in-house. There is even a sommelier who will suggest both beer and wine pairings. The success of Spinnaker’s in emphasizing local ingredients is catching on. Canoe also has adopted that approach, as does the Alibi Room in Vancouver.
In the Vancouver fine dining pantheon, one typically thinks of Chambar for its Belgian beer and cuisine. Owner/chef Nico Schuerman crafts superb food and even incorporates beer into some of his dishes. Mark Brand created the beer list when bar manager at Chambar. He’s since opened up his own restaurant,Boneta, and maintains a respectable beer selection there. In August 2007, Boneta hosted renowned Brooklyn Brewing brewmaster and food-pairing author, Garrett Oliver, for a sumptuous beer dinner. Attendees were able to purchase autographed copies of Oliver’s book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food.
Since January 2008, FigMint has also gotten into the act hosting two elegant brewmasters dinners with Crannóg and Howe Sound. They are currently offering a beer and cheese pairing series at the bar, called “On the Wood.” Their forthcoming B.C. Day tasting on August 7 features Crannóg ales and B.C. artisan cheeses supplied by Mount Pleasant Cheese.
While The Vancouver Sun reported beer is on the decline as more Canadians choose wine, I think the real story here is that more Canadians are dropping mass-market lager for craft beer, imported beer, and wine. The increase in wine may be driven more by the fact that there is so much more information in our media about wine than beer, giving the mistaken impression that there is no dynamism or culture in beer. This is completely false.
I think for beer to get more respect in B.C., brewers need to do a better job of promoting beer culture instead of feeding a drinking culture. A lot of education will be required to undo the damage large brewers have done with their ubiquitous beer belting, frat-boy/sports-junkie imagery. This repels many women who associate beer with bad lager and juvenile behaviour. The cultivated imagery of wine seduces them away from discovering a beer that is more appealing to their palate and one that can be consumed in a mixed social context with fine food.
To get a better idea of what I mean, I recommend the following books:
- The Best of American Beer and Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer by Lucy Saunders
- The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food by Garett Oliver
- He Said Beer She Said Wine by Sam Calagione and Marnie Old