A Look at Beer and Food: Recent Events and Upcoming Books…

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For Charlie Papazian, founder of the Brewers Association, inspiration struck twice in remarkably similar ways. In the late 1970s, Papazian traveled to London, England, to attend the British Beer Festival. While sampling stouts, porters, and cask conditioned ales from around the United Kingdom, Papazian, an avid home brewer, started thinking about beer in the United States. When Papazian wondered aloud about whether Americans could host a similar festival, famed beer writer Michael Jackson famously quipped, “Yes, but where will you get the beer?� A few years later, Papazian welcomed eight hundred attendees at the first Great American Beer Festival, offering them forty beers from twenty-two breweries.

Fast forward two decades and travel to Italy, where local supporters of the Slow Food movement host several large international events dedicated to “good, clean, and fair food.� Founded in 1986, Slow Food has grown to more than 80,000 members in 120 countries. As part of its mission statement, Slow Food espouses that “everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.�

The Birth of SAVOR – Pairing American Craft Beer with Fine Food

It was in this environment, while enjoying wine and cheese pairings, that Papazian began wondering again whether such an event could work in the United States, only with beer. The resulting event, SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, was held May 16 and 17 in Washington D.C at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Tucked just behind the National Museum of American History, just steps from the National Mall, the auditorium provided a fitting and picturesque venue for an event that sought to elevate the public image of beer. Considered one of the finest classical structures in America, the auditorium was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District on October 15, 1996.

The event served several different purposes for the Brewers Association. SAVOR was the cornerstone event for this year’s American Craft Beer Week, which was held from May 12 to 18. Recognized by Congress in House Resolution 753, the event changed to a week long event in 2006. Celebrated annually, the week gives craft brewers a chance to highlight their industry and to promote their efforts. The event also gave craft brewers an opportunity to step up their legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. The Brewers Association, along with many of its top members, spent more than a week in the nation’s capital, where they attended the National Beer Wholesalers Legislative Conference and met with legislators from several states to press issues important to smaller brewers. As the culmination of their efforts, SAVOR gave craft brewers a chance to showcase their products to congressional staffers, many of whom attended the opening session on Friday night.

Beyond politics and legislation advocacy, the event gave the association the opportunity to raise public and media awareness of craft beer by associating it with upscale food. SAVOR offered its 2100 attendees the chance to taste ninety six craft beers from forty eight breweries from around the country. Each beer was specifically paired with a sweet or savory appetizer selected by the brewery and made by Federal City Caterers.

At eighty five dollars per ticket, the event was not an average beer festival for interested consumers. The price tag, which did not fully cover the association’s expenses for even the food portion of the event, was an area of concern for some brewers and attendees. Beer enthusiasts and well-heeled novices slowly roamed around the auditorium, stopping at the center table for the event’s main supporters, which included the Brooklyn Brewery, the Harpoon Brewery, Rogue Ales, and several others. Smaller breweries from around the country offered an eclectic assortment of beers at crescent shaped tables lining the outside walls. Late in 2007, the Brewers Association opened a lottery system for the selection of most of the forty eight slots for the event. While SAVOR offered many familiar names, including Avery Brewing Company and Deschutes Brewery, the association also sought to offer geographic diversity from some smaller names. These participants included the Blacfoot River Brewing Company of Helena, Montana, Free State Brewing of Lawrence, Kansas, and Heiner Brau Microbrewery of Covington, Louisiana.

The pairings, which were offered either at an individual brewer’s table or from passing servers, included a number of interesting options. The Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered its Pub Brown Ale to match pan-seared pilsener sirloin tips with shiitake blue-cheese sauce. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California, suggested its Summerfest Lager and lager steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings. The Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, presented its Ruination IPA with either Peking duck purses or Christopher Elbow citrus spiced artisan chocolates.

Despite the initial bumps and hurdles to be expected at a new event, consumer response to SAVOR has been generally positive. In keeping with the general theme of the event, the Brewers Association asked attendees to “dress to impress,� which resulted in some interesting choices by beer enthusiasts, ranging from tuxedos to tuxedo t-shirts. Some attendees felt that the event was overpriced and complained about the relative scarcity of all the advertised pairing by the end of a session. Other attendees believed that SAVOR was underpriced considering the presence of otherwise difficult to find beers and the opportunity to speak with some of the most recognized small brewers in the country.

One clear failure for the event was its SAVOR Salons, a forum in which brewers, journalists, and other beer luminaries spoke in smaller, tutored tasting sessions to attendees. The Brewers Association designed the salons to “deepen ones [sic] appreciation and understanding of beer and food pairings.� The events included brewer Garrett Oliver pairing American artisan cheeses and craft beers, Boston Beer’s Jim Koch discussing how people can get started with beer and food, and Clipper City Brewing’s Hugh Sisson discussing the nuances of pairing beer with seafood from the Chesapeake Bay.

Limited to approximately seventy people by the venue’s tight space, the salons were poorly marked and proved too popular for the auditorium. Originally advertised as first come, first serve, the association quietly switched to a ticket system. As people approached the forum before it was supposed to start, security had to bar their entrance to the room and explain that the salon was unavailable for attendance. The venue’s limitations, combined with the popularity of the offerings and the lack of communication, left many people disappointed by their inability to attend.

Two years of preparing for the event left the staff of the Brewers Association, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, a bit strung out. The economics of the event are challenging and despite its popularity and its utility in promoting and improving the public image of beer among legislators and media on the East Coast, it is unclear whether SAVOR will be repeated next year. The association’s staff has also discussed the possibility of moving the event from the capital to New York City in future years.

Anheuser-Busch Pushes the Concept of Beer and Food

As part of its efforts to promote the public image of beer, Anheuser-Busch has also seen value in reconnecting beer with food. As part of its Here’s to Beer initiative, A-B hired ‘celebrity chef’ Dave Lieberman of The Food Network to host its Beer Connoisseur segment of its website. In this online video section, Lieberman teaches visitors about beer and about pairing foods with beer. The Here’s to Beer website (www.herestobeer.com) offers an excellent tool for consumers to select the best matches for their particular dishes or drinks. The site allows consumers to pick from dozens upon dozens of entrées, desserts, or cheeses, and the program will then suggest a recommended match, as well as a complementary and a contrasting match. The offered styles are then described in detail and suggest other food pairings. Alternatively, consumers can select the type of beer they are drinking and the program will suggest a suitable dish for pairing.
The Here’s to Beer website also leads consumers on an educational tour of food and beer pairings, with storage and pouring techniques and how to start pairing food with beer.

Anheuser-Busch has also taken its food and beer pairings into the real world. During its recent St. Louis Heritage Festival, a second annual event promoting the local brewers of St. Louis, Missouri, Lieberman also hosted a five course beer pairing dinner, along with brewmasters from the city. Lieberman has hosted similar dinners in cities around the country on Anheuser-Busch’s behalf.

Anheuser-Busch also kicked off the year with the release of its own cookbook, appropriately titled, The Anheuser-Busch Cookbook: Great Food Great Beer. Produced in conjunction with Sunset Books and released in January, the softcover book offers 185 recipes for pairing with specific styles of beer. The brewery worked with brewmaster George Reisch and Brent Wertz, executive chef at Anheuser-Busch’s Kingsmill Resort and Spa, to create the pairings. While the book avoids mention of specific brand pairings, opting instead for generalized styles, it does offer an entry level user the opportunity to progress to a new appreciation of the available possibilities. The recipes include offerings such as Spicy Shrimp Cakes with Corn Salsa, Tuna Ceviche with Cumin and Chile, and Fallen Chocolate Cake with Cherries

“Beer is one of the most versatile, moderate alcohol beverages in the world, and pairs well with a range of cuisines by complementing, and not overpowering, complex flavors,� said Wertz in a press release. “Beer adds pizzazz to any menu and with Great Food Great Beer we want to help provide culinary enthusiasts with a fun, creative twist when preparing dishes. As detailed in the book, beer should be paired carefully with the right dish to bring out the best of both.�

The Future of Beer and Food in America

While in the past most Americans have limited their idea of beer and food pairings to American light lagers and burgers, fries, and nachos, the increasing popularity of better beers, combined with the general consumer trend of trading up, has led to a radical shift in the popular perception of beer. Once cast away from the table and relegated only to life near the grill, flavorful beer is pushing forward to once again regain its place. On any given day in any major city around the country, consumers ranging from beer enthusiasts to complete novices can attend a beer dinner led by a brewer or interested restaurateur. Beer and food events can be found in package stores, where store staff or brewery representatives offer cheese and ale pairings.

The opportunities to mix food and beer are only limited by the mind of the creator. When considering possible matches, try matching beers and foods that enhance one another and call specific attention to one or the other’s particular attributes. Consider the aroma, bouquet, and taste of particular beers and the accompanying flavors found in your selected foods. Great pairings need not always blend seamlessly and strongly contrasting selections can also provide an enjoyable and palate expanding experience.

A number of resources exist for individuals, restaurants, or package stores interested in leading friends or consumers on a tasting tour of food and beer. Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery published his ‘Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food,’ which takes consumers on an upscale journey through world beers and cuisines. For a more literary experience, Chicago based author Bob Skilnik wrote ‘Beer & Food: An American History,’ beer cook Lucy Saunders released ‘Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer,’

2008 will also see the release of several new volumes related to beer and food, including Fiona and Will Beckett’s ‘An Appetite for Ale: 101 Ways to Enjoy Beer With Food.’ Brewer Sam Calagione and wine writer Marnie Old have published ‘He Said Beer, She Said Wine: Impassioned Food Pairings to Debate and Enjoy – From Burgers to Brie and Beyond.’

–Article appeared in June 2008 issue of Beverage Magazine.

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A Good Beer Guide To New England Update – Owen O’Leary’s To Close

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Back with more news from around New England. Affable brewer and beer lover Dave Thompson, assistant brewer at Owen O’Leary’s brewpub in Natick, Mass recently informed the Beer Advocate crowd that the pub was closing down and the 10-barrel JV Northwest brewhouse was being removed. Tucked into a corner of a local hotel chain, off the beaten path, I managed to miss Owen O’Leary’s, both in terms of travel and in reputation, during the first five years I traversed the area in search of good beer. It was only when brewer Dan Kramer, of Opa Opa Brewing and the Brewmaster’s Tavern in Western Mass, took over that I started to take notice. Frankly, we aren’t losing much in terms of the pub itself, which I describe this way in The Good Beer Guide to New England.

From the outside, O’Leary’s does little to draw your attention. It looks like a typical chain restaurant with its white brick exterior and simple signage. Moving beyond the front entryway, the rest of the pub resembles a rundown, underground sports bar, complete with lottery ticket systems and a multitude of flickering televisions. Patrons quietly sit at the bar, sip Budweisers, and watch life go by. As a cross between a Bennigan’s and a neglected Irish pub, there was little to be said about Owen O’Leary’s.

I don’t envy the guys in having to tear out that brewing system. Again from the book:

The pub’s layout is disjointed, with the large main bar area feeding off into several smaller, distant feeling sections, including a pool and video game room. The vaguely Irish theme comes and goes throughout the place, giving way in the back room to gloriously cheesy décor including a funny wooden beer keg. The brewing setup is sizable, but blocked off from any real public view by the clumsy layout.

There is some suggestion that the brewing operation may be relocated to one of the chain’s other locations, such as in Southboro or Brockton (both places decidedly lacking in local brewing outfits). Dave reports that the pub managed to make a respectable 550 barrels of beer last year and that the owner plans to seek out contract brewing operations when the final kegs run out.

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