Waterzooi. Moules-frites. Carbonnade flamande. Frites with a side of mayonnaise or curry sauce. It’s not like Belgian dishes aren’t well represented in the pantheon of European dishes served worldwide. But somehow, the beers of Belgium—most of which are well suited for drinking with food—haven’t made it here past the bar.
It’s puzzling to such chefs as Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Ore., who has long put beer, especially Belgian styles, at the core of his beverage program. Nearly half the beers on his extensive list are Belgian or Belgian style, with more than 35 in all. To him, it’s the overall balance and food-friendly characteristics of Belgian beers that make serving them, pairing them and even cooking with them, interesting.
“Our approach to beer always has been to focus our core list on things that we think are remarkable examples or new interpretations of a classic style,” says Higgins. “Having beer and food matches is key to our approach, and the balance of these Belgian beers as well as the range makes them great to be able to serve. And from a food perspective, they are marvelous beers to work with.”
A Case For Beer
Higgins points out that while many American craft brewers have opted for exaggerated styles in their quest to make an impact, the Belgians’ ability to integrate even intense flavors within an overall balanced beverage can provide diners with a rich food and drink experience.
“The one thing beer has over wine is the ability to match sweet and acid foods, which are problematic flavors for wine, but there’s always a beer that will suit,” he says. You can stay within one beer culture and run the gamut from light, citrusy, lower alcohol wheat beers all the way to dark, strong, rich and chocolaty beers suitable for cheese or dessert courses. You can match flavors along the way with fish or salad or heavily braised meats.
Higgins has been on the beer barricades for years, pushing the idea that classic Belgian beers are worth the energy to pair and promote. But most restaurants don’t treat beer as a beverage that can equal or surpass wine as a food pairing, whether due to lack of interest or concern that beer can’t bring in the same profit as wine.
Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at The Brooklyn Brewery, editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer and author of The Brewmaster’s Table, has been brewing Belgian-influenced beers since the 1990s when few others did in this country. “There’s been a huge transformation since those days, when, for example, the Great American Beer Festival only had two competitive categories of Belgian styles with witbier (wheat beer) and saison (pale ale), and others all lumped together. Now there are probably 15 or 20.” Oliver posits that the American craft beer movement started in many ways in the German and British idioms, with the unique Belgian styles discovered by brewers once they immersed themselves in beer culture.
He believes a lack of beer knowledge among beverage professionals often prevents restaurants from exploring Belgian beer’s possibilities. And with wine sales serving as “tent poles” of American restaurants, tampering can seem dangerous. Oliver also points out that it’s much easier and potentially profitable to be able to make great pairings with different beers at every course for every customer, especially with the smaller serving formats of bottles and drafts.
“The problem is not with the public but with the restaurants; they are leaving money on the table and are not even aware of it,” Oliver says.
That could be changing. Trendsetters like Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York City carries 20 beers on tap, 70 in bottles, including many Belgian and American interpretations of various styles like dubbels, quadrupels, saison and witbier. Paul Kahan’s The Publican in Chicago offers an extensive beer menu with special attention to Belgian and Belgian-style brews. Meanwhile, as craft brewers are developing homegrown versions of Belgian beer, some are also working to develop an American version of Belgian cuisine “a la biere.”
Pairings that Work
Take the annual HopChef competition sponsored by Brewery Ommegang, based in Cooperstown, N.Y., in which chefs from various cities compete in dish creation and beer pairings. The finals are held at the “Belgium comes to Cooperstown” summer beer fest, celebrating Belgian and Belgian-style beers, with more than 50 breweries from around the world and more than 2,500 guests.
HopChef, held in a handful of cities, is now in its third year, and it’s targeted at beer-forward chefs like Sean Brasel, chef and co-owner of Meat Market restaurants in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s part of Ommegang’s “Great Beer Deserves Great Food” program promoting their brews as a part of dining. “We feel beer is just as good if not better than wine in terms of food pairings, and we want to educate everybody about the versatility about our beers when it comes to pairing with food,” says Allison Capozza, publicity manager for Ommegang.
Brasel of Meat Market says he views beer the same way he does wine. “I look for characteristics in the beer that really make it special—maybe citrus or black pepper or cardamom or orange peel—and go from there. There are a lot of characteristics in Belgian beer, like notes of plums and raisins in the robust malty brews, that lend themselves more to fine dining.”
In the competition, Brasel got to work with Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, a dark, chocolaty beer with a roasted malt quality, and he developed a dish of vanilla and foie gras panna cotta, sous vide duck breast with cherry mustard, topped with pistachio bread crumb crust and a chocolate mole sauce made with the beer. He actually traded with other chefs to work with the darker brew, his preference when cooking and pairing with beer.
“The characteristics that I really like in Belgian beers, and in those that Americans are making like those styles, are the subtleties—the toasty palate, the finish, the foamy head that changes as it’s drunk,” he says.
Bill Wetmore, director of marketing for Brewery Ommegang and Duvel USA, says it’s not just Belgian or Belgian-style beers that are part of this trend of pairing beer with food. “What we’re seeing today is people are looking at beer differently, and it’s about ‘How good is the beer?’ and ‘How well does it pair with my dish?’ rather than where it’s from. That reflects the increasing recognition of the quality of American craft beer and the diversity of it as well.”
Better Beer, Better Food
Of course, beer-focused restaurants have long been working to upgrade pub food, introducing American diners to classic dishes from Belgian cuisine “a la biere.” At Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, for instance, there’s duck confit, stout-braised lamb shanks, celery root au poivre, and eight varieties of steamed mussel preparations (two examples: Red Light, made with Hoegaarden, toasted spicy chile de arbol peppers, chervil and garlic; and De Koninck, with De Koninck ale, apples, Gruyère, caramelized leeks and garlic).
Some adventurous operators have brought Belgian-style food and drink to diners outside major cities. Says chef Matt Hicks, who oversees the menu at Café Bruges in Carlisle, Pa., bringing Belgian-style cooking to small-town America has been surprisingly successful, in part because the beers are so appealing.
“We need to be able to appeal to a range of customers. This is a college town as well, so they’re important, as are the people who are looking to try something new,” says Hicks. “But there’s such a vast array of styles and flavors, acidity levels and sweetness in Belgian beers. All that makes working with them very easy and extremely interesting to me as a chef.”
With a menu that focuses on classic Belgian dishes, Café Bruges has done increasingly well. They now sell more than 200 pounds of mussels per week, and with food sales, interest in the beers has steadily increased; Café Bruges started with 70 bottled beers with four on tap and now pours 150 bottles and eight drafts. Hicks also cooks with Belgian beers, making, for example, gueuze-based vinaigrettes.
So, too does Higgins, who uses beer extensively, making beer bread, mixing beer in pilafs, and crafting beer-butter reductions to serve with fish. “People love them. They may not know exactly what we’re doing but they get the integration between the principal item on the plate, the sauce and the beer they’re drinking,” says Higgins.
Which is after all the main attraction of Belgian-style brews: how well their flavors work with food, making their place at the American table long overdue. “In better restaurants, beer has the advantage of being surprising, even for customers who feel they know food and drink well,” says Oliver. “So many people don’t know that beers like these can taste like chocolate or bananas. We simply have a much wider range of flavors to choose from with beer.”