Ordering from the Fancy Beers list at posh Chicago steakhouse RPM Steak is almost exactly like ordering wine. After choosing from among the 75-bottle rare brew list—with prices that top out at $148 for a 2015 Goose Island Brewing Co. Bourbon County Brand Rare imperial stout—a server in a crisp white jacket presents the bottle to the table, then cracks it open to pour a taste into the accompanying snifter or wine glass.
“I don’t want to single out beer drinkers as an afterthought,” says RPM sommelier Kyle Tarczynski, the mind behind the beer menu. “I want them to have as much excitement and fun selecting a beverage as someone who orders wine.”
The 800-bottle wine list undoubtedly commands the spotlight at this four-year-old chophouse. But beyond the sheer geekiness factor of drinking rare, one-off beers from handsome stemware, the brews pair startlingly well with the food. A single-release American wild ale from 18th Street Brewery in Hammond Indiana is clean, bright, and acidic. It matches sweet lobster claw meat doused in drawn butter and briny oysters with jalapeño mignonette presented on a lavish chilled seafood tower. Peppery, barnyardy Belgian farmhouse saison mirrors the mushroomy funk of hand-cut beef tartare topped with shaved black truffle. A figgy, charred 2010 bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout is a match in hedonism for seared, richly marbled grass-fed ribeye.
“I think, honestly—and we don’t like to admit this as wine guys—but beer is a more versatile food pairing than wine, just because there are so many styles out there, and you have a little more certainty with beer than wine,” Tarczynski says.
The problem with beer
Steakhouses remain a beloved, enduring temple to celebratory American fine-dining, where decorum is aplenty and everything from the menu to asparagus spears is oversized. Wine is all but built into this construct, because nothing complements a hulking slab of seared bone-in beef quite like a full-bodied Napa Valley cabernet or tannic Bordeaux blend. Yet even as more modern steakhouses shrink portion sizes, take a more casual approach to service, and embrace fresher, food-friendly wines and cocktails, beer lists have been slower to evolve.
“I think that may be because the steakhouse itself is so traditional,” muses Steen Bojsen-Møller beverage director of F10 Creative, which owns upscale retro steakhouse Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs, California. “People want to start with martinis, then they go into wine—that’s very much the steakhouse way. Beer doesn’t have that same celebratory, special-occasion feel. I might crush a couple pilsners because it’s thirst-quenching.”
Bojsen-Møller oversees the beverage program for the restaurant’s multipart dining areas—the white-tableclothed salon, relaxed conservatory, private dining room, and sexy craft cocktail lounge. Aside from the avant-garde lounge, beverages lean classic—impeccably stirred Manhattans and wine-lovers’ Rhone reds and Napa cabs. In an older-skewing market that loves vodka sodas, Bojsen-Møller couldn’t get too esoteric with the beer list, filling it with food-friendly pilsners, session IPAs, and black lagers. Pilsners far outstrip all other beer orders. He won’t even run a draught line into the space, saving extra storage room for wine, since the ratio of beer sold is so low (3 percent to liquor in the lounge alone).
He’s not surprised given that broader market buy-in for craft beer simply isn’t there, though that’s slowly changing.
There weren’t as many food destinations with heavy beer programs in 2012—Gramercy Tavern had only just started to take their beer program seriously—so it took some time to convince people.”
“Palm Springs is a small market, really,” says Bojsen-Møller, who moved from Los Angeles three-and-a-half years ago. “In L.A. you can open a place that’s only doing Japanese beers for instance, and there will be a market for you. Out here people are like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It is about listening to them and finding what they like.”
Easing beer into the spotlight
Even in Chicago—which houses almost as many craft breweries (67) as neighborhoods (77), and where beer geeks wait hours for Binny’s Beverage Depot’s annual Goose Island barrel-aged stout release—Tarczynski confronts the prevailing image of beer as something to be crushed with a cheeseburger. That’s partly why he gave the rare beer list a tongue-in-cheek name like Fancy Beers. He also created a mainstream beer list chock-full of craft usual suspects such as Allagash White and Founders Breakfast Stout for those not craving Danish wild ale. He also spotlights individual breweries with quarterly beer-and-beef pairing dinners.
“A lot of people see beer as a simple beverage; the majority of the population is still drinking macro brews,” he says. “I don’t make purchasing decisions based on brand or brewery names, and I don’t think beer has to be expensive to be good. It’s all about putting the best possible product in front of the guest, and not taking ourselves too seriously. Beer should be fun.”
Christian Pappanicholas opened beer-sloshed gastropub The Cannibal six years ago in New York City with some 150 packaged and eight draught beers to complement its menu of charcuterie, lamb tartare, wagyu ribeye, and braised off cuts. Rather than chase beer nerds, Pappanicholas has steadfastly gone after the broader market by creating the sort of place where you’d feel equally at ease sipping a Rodenbach Grand Cru or shotgunning a Tecate. (The latter choice comes from the selection of beers Pappanicholas affectionately refers to as “fit for a funnel.”)
“We decided, let’s convert everybody to be more interested in beer, but we had to build trust,” Pappanicholas says. “There weren’t as many food destinations with heavy beer programs in 2012—Gramercy Tavern had only just started to take their beer program seriously—so it took some time to convince people.”
The beer list has since swelled to 300-plus, focusing largely on European and domestic craft offerings. Pappanicholas has concurrently grown the wine and cocktail menus for those who want something else.
Like Tarczynski, he takes cues from the wine world when talking to customers about beer and food—characterizing them in such food-amenable terms as acidity levels, fruit, body, and finish. “I figure if you educate the guest about beer in that way, maybe it’s more familiar,” he says. Unlike Tarczynski, however, Pappanicholas finds beer harder to drink with food than wine because of the carbonation—the same reason you might not swill champagne throughout a meal.
That’s where he likes to defer to diners’ preferences and having staff who can accommodate both the beer nerd and the traditionalist who only has eyes for Bordeaux merlot.
“Beer is our focus, but it’s never something we force upon people,” Pappanicholas says. “If you’re on a mission to drink trappist beers all night, we’ll take you on that journey. But we’re not all looking to get an education when we go out. We pride ourselves on having staff who know when to do that and when to rein it in.”