Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sonoma County Paper: Quality craft beers are making headway as worthy companions to gourmet foods

This is great news for beer lovers and for all gourmets.
Long derided as a companion worthy only of a plate of greasy chicken wings or a bag of pretzels, beer is emerging as a sophisticated alternative to wine in gourmet food pairings.

"In comparison with wine, there is more of a diversity in selection and flavor in beer," said Bruce Paton, chef at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco.

Paton hosts annual dinners with brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing Co., showcasing creations such as Cilurzo's Damnation Belgian-style ale with upscale fare like ceviche with scallops and caviar.

"Several foods are not wine-friendly," Paton said, "but there are a wide range of flavors that come out of, and can be matched with, beer."

Wine has only one ingredient, grapes. While great, beer can do more. That is simply telling it like it is. And there is no need to denigrate wine, just because beer has been denigrated over the years. I blame tasteless mass-produced beer and frat boys, not wine people.
Paton has been bridging the gap between the worlds of beer and fine food since the mid-'90s, when he began hosting dinners for Bay Area breweries and San Francisco's Clift Hotel. Paton suspected a lack of knowledge, rather than a lack of interest, was preventing gourmets from putting the two together.

"It was initially very experimental," said Paton of his early dinners. "I wasn't really sure how things would go together. But it was something I had always thought about."

Paton admits there is still "a little prejudice" among chefs and consumers who associate beer with the "guy eating chips in an undershirt." But, he said, Bay Area epicures are starting to reach for a bottle of brew to go with everything from caviar to beef carpaccio.

"Most of the microbrew renaissance has happened out here," Patton noted, "so we have access to these beers, and we also have access to incredible food. It's logical. Craft brew has come a long way."

I wouldn't say most. But Anchor Brewing is the granddaddy. Northern California has a great beer culture to go with a world-class wine culture. It is a great area to be a gourmet.
According to Paton and other experts, beer and food-pairing principles are based largely on common sense, much as wine and food pairing is. The concept of "light with light" and "dark with dark," (i.e., dark beers with red meat, garlic, spice; light beers with chicken and seafood) generally works. The hoppiness of a beer should be treated in the same way as wine's acidity; hop-heavy beers pair well with high-acid foods and also cut the oil in foods like salmon and dishes made with olive oil.

The beer renaissance has also registered on a national scale, according to recent studies. While interest in mass-produced beers like Coors and Budweiser is on the wane, sales of microbrewed, craft and imported beers continues to rise. Beer expert, brewer and author Garrett Oliver ("The Brewmaster's Table," Ecco, 2003) called this shift a "return to normality."

There is no better book if you are interested in food and beer pairings. Oliver discusses all the general principles and discusses every major beer category.
"Many of us have grown up during a culinary Dark Ages." Modern consumers have long been subjected to "three kinds of cheese, two kinds of bread and one kind of beer," but pre-war American shoppers could choose among quality artisan products, he said.

"Now, we're seeing a resurgence of quality products, including beer," said Oliver by phone from his home in New York. "The rise of the beer culture is part of the rise of the food culture. People are drinking mass amounts of beer, and beer outsells wine even at the high end. We've come a long way."

In other words, craft beer is part of a bigger movement that includes free-range chicken, fine wine, fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses and breads, etc.
"High-end wine drinkers and high-end beer drinkers are the same people," he explained, citing high-profile events like his recent "Iron Chef"-style food pairing showdown with Gramercy Tavern sommelier Paul Greco as an example.

"My goal is to preserve beer's approachability while promoting its sophistication. I don't want beer to lose its casualness, but people could have more fun with the beer that is out there."

I like that last quote.
Russian River Brewing Co.'s Cilurzo said that his own patrons already regard beer with respect and are willing to pair it with a diverse range of food, a perspective he attributes to his location in Wine Country.

"Sonoma County has a connoisseur's mentality, and the locals and regulars are enthusiastic about what we're doing," said Cilurzo, who brewed beer for Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville for five years before opening his own brewery in 2003.

Can't wait to visit Russian River this summer.
Despite its ascension to loftier climes, however, beer still offers an approachability that sets it apart from other alcohoic beverages, said Cilurzo -- even when it's barrel fermented, corked and bottled with flair like some of the Russian River Brewing Co.'s offerings.

"Pairing gourmet food and high-end beer is fun and should not be intimidating," he said. "There's a lot you can do. It can be very simple, but very good."

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