On Wednesday, Marika Josephson, head brewer at Scratch Brewing, got a call from a journalist at a local food publication asking her how she felt about being a James Beard Semifinalist. Slightly stunned, Josephson asked if there had been some kind of mistake.
“I said, ‘I don’t believe you. I need to see if this is for real,’” Josephson says. “We’re still processing. It was a wonderful validation of what we’re doing here.”
This year’s James Beard semifinalists announcement contained many of the usual suspects, but with one crucial difference: a number of the country’s most ambitious breweries earned nods in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer category. Although in the past, the category has heavily favored the former two beverages, the nominee lineup for 2020 includes Tired Hands, Border X Brewing, Jester King, and Cloudburst. In addition, multiple breweries cropped up in other categories: Cultura is nominated for Best New Restaurant, Novare Res Bier Café for Outstanding Bar Program, Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden for Outstanding Baker, and Ruth Gresser of Pizzeria Paradiso for Outstanding Restaurateur.
Hopefully, this will elevate beer in people’s minds and let everyone know that it does deserve a seat at the table along with wine and spirits.”
“Hopefully, this will elevate beer in people’s minds and let everyone know that it does deserve a seat at the table along with wine and spirits,” Josephson says. “I think it’s totally unacceptable to walk into a fine restaurant and have a great wine list and find nothing but Bud Lite on the menu.”
The beers that Josephson and co-founder Aaron Kleidon are making are a far cry from macrolagers. On their farmhouse brewery deep in the woods of southern Illinois, they emphasize hyper-local, seasonally driven offerings like their Oyster Weiss, a spin on Berliner weisse made with foraged oyster mushrooms and farm-grown turmeric. Their menu is as intensely focused on terroir and as carefully considered as anything coming out of Noma, yet this is the first time they’ve received this level of recognition from the mainstream food media.
Farther south in Austin, Texas, Jeffrey Stuffings, founder of Jester King, got the news via text message. Jean Broillet IV, founder of Tired Hands, which scored a nomination for its beer menu inspired French and Belgian farmhouse breweries, sent him a text message.
“I’ve always been a little frustrated with beer not always being treated with the same level of seriousness as wine and spirits,” Stuffings says. “I think over the last half a decade, you’re starting to see more respect for beer, which has been a mission of many people in our industry.”
Much like Scratch Brewing, Jester King has long focused on creating beers with a sense of place, both through its ambitious coolship experiments in highlighting Texan microflora and by growing an increasingly large percentage of its own ingredients on its surrounding farm. And as with many of the other nominated brewers and chefs, the team is deeply committed to sustainability.
I think over the last half a decade, you’re starting to see more respect for beer, which has been a mission of many many people in our industry.”
In order to help rehabilitate the degraded land on the ranch, they’ve incorporated more environmentally sound farming techniques, including using goats to help rehabilitate the soil. Some day, the goal is to have the herd produce milk for cheeses that will end up on the menu at Jester King. For now, the latest generation of newly born kids can be seen munching on wild grasses and milling around during sessions of doom metal goat yoga.
“You see more and more chefs these days who get it,” Stuffings says. “I’ve heard it said that beer is an extension of cooking and I’ve really latched onto that concept. There’s so much crossover between the two disciplines in terms of the focus on high-quality local ingredients, recipe development, and creativity.”
While that view might have seemed radical a decade ago, in 2020, craft beer and elevated, locally focused cuisine are finally being recognized as an intuitive match. Not only does this acknowledge the reality that some of the best new restaurants are already attached to breweries, but it encourages others to keep combining great beer with great food. Let’s hope this leads to greater recognition that giving brewers a seat at the table benefits everyone.