The aha moment for Matthew Poli, beverage director at one of the Nashville’s most famous fine dining destinations, Catbird Seat, was when he tried the restaurant’s sunflower seed risotto. At the time, it was paired with wine. “It was super nutty, creamy,” he says. “Upon tasting it, I was like, ‘This was a dish that would benefit from drinking beer.’” A malty, effervescent beer, he thought, would be perfect for cutting through the richness of the risotto.
That’s when Poli started taking a closer look at how beer could play a bigger role in his beverage program. He started tasting sour beers from Europe, yuzu lagers from Japan and whiskey barrel-aged brews. For a long time, he says, beer was something “for the masses—you drank it at a baseball game or low-brow bar.” But now, as the craft beer industry matures, the beverage has made its way into some of the country’s highest-end, fine dining restaurants, and in many places is now treated with equal reverence as wine and cocktails.
An early pioneer in the beer and fine dining wave is actually one of the most famous restaurants in the world: Eleven Madison Park in New York. In the summer of 2011, the restaurant added a robust beer selection to its wine list, including two collaborations with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver—Local 11, a Belgian-style dark ale, and a barrel-aged beer called Nine Pin Brown Ale.
Chris Dooley, the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, will often ask guests if he can add a beer to the beverage pairings, “and a lot of the time, their eyes will perk up,” he says. For the kind of food served at three Michelin-starred restaurant—bright and creative yet elegant in its simplicity—Dooley is drawn to clean, refreshing beers, such as sours, because of thier tartness and brightness. “There is a cleansing quality—they don’t sit on your palate for a long time," he says. "That wave of acidity keeps you fresh.”
At the similarly acclaimed Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, the team was so interested in incorporating beer into the farm’s restaurants that, in 2014, a brewery was built on premises. There, brews are made according to old-world European traditions and designed to specifically pair with food.
“I love the pursuit of wine,” says managing partner Roy Milner, “But I can tell you that with beer, from a diversity standpoint, there are so many flavors and compositions that you can come up with based on the key ingredients of malt, hops, yeast and different water sources.” Beer’s complexity and effervescence, he adds, “gives you the ability to pair with different types of foods, where wine can be more difficult. In beer, you can go spicy, sweet, herbaceous, woodsy, nutty.”
The beers’ ingredients are often sourced from the on-site farm—the same place where the Blackberry Farm Barn’s executive chef Cassidee Dabney finds the elements for her dishes. “There is a great connection in that we are fighting for the same resources, and what grows together goes together,” she says.
“I remember going down to the garden to get cherries and the brewery had picked all the cherries for a cherry beer,” she recalls. “But then we had this great cherry beer, so I picked the thyme under the cherries.” The herb was used in another dish that paired with the cherry beer. It’s a symbiotic relationship that demonstrates the truth behind the adage, “if it grows together it goes together.”
Dabney also does beer dinners at the restaurant, where she actively steers away from the stereotypical “beer foods” such as sausage and cheese “Why can’t it be a more elegant dinner with light flavors?” she says. “Why can’t we have really interesting beers to pair with these?”
It’s an interesting thing to see a can in a three Michelin star restaurant.”
The biggest challenge for a lot of these restaurants is that, as much as people love beer, there is still a stigma among some diners against enjoying it in a fine dining setting. “It’s an interesting thing to see a can in a three Michelin star restaurant,” says Dooley, with a chuckle.
“It’s this primal memory of having your cheap Corona on a drunk night, and also the availability of beer—even the higher end beers don’t cost a fortune to buy,” says Jhonel Faelnar, the sommelier and beverage director for Atoboy and Atomix, high-end Korean restaurants in New York, where you can find complex lagers from South Korea, as well as a killer kolsch from South Carolina’s famously creative brewery, Westbrook Brewing. “You don’t have the rarity factor that you find with wine sometimes.”
In addition to simply offering great beers, many beverage directors find that the key to getting guests to accept beer in a fine dining setting is to apply the same care, equipment and language as they would with wine or cocktails.
At Eleven Madison Park, the beer list is ten pages long; and when someone orders a bottle of beer, servers bring out a tray and credenza, and offer a taste just as they would with wine. Milner serves many of the beers at Blackberry Farm out of a champagne-style bottle with a cork and cage, and he uses special stemmed tulip glasses intended to showcase the aromatics and color of the beer.
Even if a restaurant sources the right bottles and serves them with the appropriate amount of flair, can beer obviate wine as the fine dining beverage of choice?
Not likely, according to Dabney. But, she adds, beer certainly deserves a more significant place within tasting menus. “Sprinkling in a very special beer somewhere toward the beginning of the dinner or after two courses breaks up that transition from white into red,” she says, “As long as you have a great beer with a great story.”