Classic Belgian pub fare, such as moules-frites (mussels and french fries), is a house specialty at Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar, where the dish makes a worthy accompaniment to Belgian ale. Photo courtesy of grant kessler for hopleaf bar. Gastropubs make the most of a good marriage by combining craft brew with a culinary focus
By Robin Schempp
Be they brew-centric brasseries or cuisine-centric taprooms, beer-focused restaurants bring together the drinking of good beer and the eating of good food. The combined focus on local, casual food at the bar and the craft-beer movement has created a phenomenon of hybridized drinking and eating locales. National chains are refining roadhouses, regionals are relaxing restaurant concepts, and celebrity chefs forgo white tablecloths in favor of joints that no longer dodge the draught. There has even been a notable shift in food festivals — many of which have added “brew” to their “food and wine” event titles.
This adaptation has emerged in part due to the crusaders of craft beer and to the U.K.’s gastropub movement — as manifested by the 2006 British import, The Spotted Pig, which elevated the gastronomic status of both the pint and porcine-rich provisions. To be fair, the Brits weren’t alone in needing a gastronomic makeover to their pub scene. American brewpubs centered around the craft of the beer often seemed to abandon the food as an afterthought.
As a growing list of national, regional and independent brewpub concepts are finally taking food as seriously as they take beer, culinary destinations are determined to treat beer with the same thoughtfulness as wine or cocktails. Meanwhile, at new craft-beer-focused restaurant ventures, chefs seem to be popping up with increasing frequency. These are places to which foodies flock, yet the food is fuss-free enough to appeal to non-aficionados.
And while wine becomes more laid back, beer snobs give rise to a new attention to everything from the proper glassware to the perfect pairing. Meanwhile, more chefs realize the easy and often superior counterpart that beer is to current flavors — spicy, salty, porcine, pickled, barbecued and bitter — many of which falter with wine yet flourish with beer.
OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE
When the ’90s spawned independent, regional and even national brewpubs, the norm was pretty good beer with oft-forgotten fare of rib-sticking standards, fried fodder and worn American staples. And for awhile, enthusiasm for the beer and egalitarian atmosphere permitted craft quaffs to be consumed alongside characterless cooking. Eventually, the same drinkers of better beer became unwilling to condone cliché-ridden cuisine. Survival of the foodiest won out, and the tired genre was reinvigorated.
Not to say that classic brewpub fare — fish and chips, pot pies, bangers and mash and, of course, burgers and fries — is no longer part and parcel of a brew-focused bistro. It’s just that they are deserving of the same care as the specially brewed, caringly selected tipples. By definition, pub food is comfortable, but in a way that is reassuring, uplifting and convivial rather than stale and lethargic. A collection of carefully chosen classics is easily elevated to meet the challenge.
Haven Gastropub in Pasadena and Orange, Calif., does just that by transforming tired mac-and-cheese with a trifecta of Gruyère, Fontina and Parmesan cheeses and black truffles. Haven also renovates a routine shepherd’s pie to include both lamb and beef, hearty root vegetables, and cheesy rosemary mash. As well, a standard poutine gets a lift from red wine-braised beef cheeks and creamy Port Salut.
• A Higher Standard •
Be it the food or beer menu that differentiates the location, each requires equal attention to detail. Inject new energy with reinterpretations, small translations and adaptations.
Here are a few ideas:
• Prepare pies — hand pies, meat pies, pot pies, shepherd’s pies — with less-than-usual meat and stuffing combinations.
• Embellish baked and gratinéed pastas, casseroles or stews with a crunchy topping.
• Stock up on sausages.
Easy-to-prepare, regional and ethnic specialty sausages of almost every meat (seafood and veggie, too) and spice level exist, so even if your operation cannot make its own, why not menu several?
Interest in artisan quality has propelled not only the culinary focus on kitchen ingredients and technique, but the craft-beer movement as well. Driven by drinkers’ demands, craft brewers have demonstrated that beer can be just as finely made and as distinctive as wine. Now, clever operators are treating the grain like the grape: populating, tapping, cellaring, casking, matching and generally building a program around regional craft beers and cuisine. Beer descriptors often include common culinary terminology and are even brewed with what we consider traditional kitchen ingredients. And just like with food, beer runs the gamut in dining schemes, from tap pours served in highbrow stemware to lowbrow cans served atop culinary tasting tables.
Beer lists are growing more comprehensive, encompassing a variety of styles, varietals and locales, tastings and flights, and meticulously matched food-and-course pairings. Since every region in America now sports a local beer concern, a complement of homegrown beers is both accessible and manageable. And with worldwide interest in beer, it is possible to further specialize in one or many global beers or styles, such as concentrating on the brews and foods from Belgium or the British Isles. Some operators are transforming outdoor dining to beer gardens reminiscent of those in Germany, Austria or Italy. Yet others focus on stylistic categories of beers, from ales and IPAs to lambics and cask-aged or hand-poured selections.
• List Management •
Food-friendly beers are much like the food itself — they have appellation, seasonality, thematic bonds and most importantly, range. An array of styles, weights, formats (tap, bottle, can, large format), prices and alcohol content makes for the best beer menu.
An assemblage of six to ten diverse selections should work for most initial food-destined craft lists. Look for a heavier emphasis on session beers (lighter/lower-alcohol styles which are consumable in a successive “session”), with only one or two that might substitute a menu part, such as a bourbon barrel-conditioned ale for dessert.
Consider other brews, such as cider, mead and non-alcoholic draft root or ginger beers.
RAISING THE BAR
You may have thought you’d heard it all when it comes to small, shareable plates and bar food, but the combination of beer and food is its own art and science. This isn’t just stale old happy-hour food; it is thoughtful, intentional and very beer friendly.
From house-made pretzels and Scotch eggs to mini corn dogs and newfangled sliders, there are lots of new beer-friendly foods. Options appear on skewers and in snackable, shareable bowls of everything including warmed olives, cracklin’s, house-roasted nuts and cheese spreads.
At Little Bear, a Los Angeles Arts District cafe featuring Belgian-style pours, the kitchen showcases both updated and traditional Belgian bar bites. This includes mini menus within the menu, such as a list of varietal grilled cheeses stuffed with extras like house-smoked salmon or pastrami; meatloaf; fruit and unique condiments; fried pies and empanadas enveloping everything from short rib to veggies. To authenticate its Belgian roots, a list of moules-frites (mussels and french fries) ranges from classic to curry.
And at Birreria, the Batali-Bastianich biergarten atop New York City’s Italian mega-food mecca Eataly, they know how to keep it both simple and satisfying, yet still encourage a sense of adventure and communal feasting. Birreria suggests pairing its own unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales with eight or ten well-chosen cheeses and the same number of house-cured salumi.
• Take Flight •
Regardless of your propensity to offer flights of brew, consider specializing in mini menus of signature dishes that make guests feel as though they can customize to suit their grog, occasion or appetite. Aside from the obvious cheese/ploughman’s or salumi/charcuterie collections, consider these simple ideas:
• Frites: Offer fries (including sweet potato, chickpea or vegetable varieties), chips and tots with a choice of your own sauce, such as aïoli (flavored mayo, gribiche rémoulade), sweet or hot chile sauces, special ketchups, pestos,chutneys and spreads.
• Toasts: Less precious than tartines, toasts can be served open-faced, hand-held or fork-and-knife style. They can be topped with party-sandwich-type salads, pimento cheese, pâté, radishes, butter and salt, eggs, cured fish or “bubbling” cheese.
CULTIVATING A TASTE OF PLACE
Beer, like wine, has a strong connection to its place of origin. Unlike wine, which requires and celebrates certain terroirs, beer can be made nearly anywhere and is more likely to laud local-tradition style and ingredients.
The beer-and-food-pairing continuum may be a product of the macro trend of local sourcing. Restaurants like the idea of menuing dishes using locally sourced ingredients, naturally pairing them with local craft brews — now brewed in all 50 states.
Chef Tom Bivins at Crop Bistro & Brewery in Stowe, Vt., features local-only cheeses, meats, produce and condiments to complement its revolving list of local tap heads in a state as known for its beer brewing as for its cheese making, sugaring and specialty food industries. His indigenous Squeak & Squeal is a robust mash-up of customary tavern fare: creamy mac and Vermont cheese with aromatically braised local pork, all enveloped in a coarse-grain mustard jus.
• Pub Pals •
Yet another reason to proclaim what grows together goes together. Here are some quintessential international dishes that find kinship and affinity with their companion beers, whether prepared traditionally or with a twist:
• American wheat beer with salad and local goat cheese
• Oysters with cream stout
• German brats with German Märzen
• Strong English cheeses with strong English ales
• Moules-frites with Belgian lambic/gueuze.
• Buckwheat crêpes with Brittany-style hard cider
• Goulash with Czech-style pils
• Spicy curry with India pale ale
• All-American barbecue with smoky American porter
Haven Gastropub’s housemade potato chips are “soaked” in beer and served with garlic aïoli; the menu recommends pairing Humboldt hemp ale. Photo courtesy of Haven Gastropub. GREEN AND SEASONAL
Fully ignited food consciousness, eco-eating, sustainable, slow and seasonal sourcing — all the fashion in fine dining — naturally mate with laid-back, beer-focused locales. It is no coincidence that regional artesian brewers were among the pioneers of green, slow and sustainable production. Finding local, regional and international brewers whose principles and practices are in tune with the flavors and fundamentals of sustainable cuisine is a comparatively effortless project even for a national concern.
As for seasonality, the massive growth of special-release or recurrent beers marry well with their seasonal gastronomic equals.
In Providence, R.I., Cook & Brown Public House calls itself a “modern New England-inspired version of a European gastropub.” Cook & Brown eschews pigeonholing its cuisine other than to note a focus on procuring the best seasonal ingredients from local farmers, fishermen, ranchers and food artisans for its affordable rustic, country-style fare — fit to be accompanied by small-batch beer (as well as old world wines and handcrafted cocktails).
• Tis the Saison •
Seasonality guides both beer and food menus and is a perfect way to accentuate the fleeting flavors of each season.
As those rich, dark, barrel-aged ales decline, make room for a new batch of sours whose tart appeal marries well with the more oily fish of summer.
An upswing in German Kölsch beer might indicate how well people are enjoying summer corn and fried clams.
The arrival of a fresh slew of wheat or witbiers reminds us to bring on the shellfish and toss the salads.
A new batch of Bock says update those tired chicken wings, roast a chicken or fry some thighs. Serve them with all manner of sweet, savory or spicy accompaniments.
The convergence of casualization with a culinary emphasis and an energized craft-beer movement has opened up opportunities for operators to tap into the natural companionship of food and beer. Those who take this craft-culinary lead will find a following among Americans eager for and appreciative of an elevated pub experience.
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