Beer in Restaurants part 4: Sommeliers point of view and five US beers

This is the fourth part of a series about beer and food in restaurants. You can read the first part, and more about this series here. The second part featuring NZ beers is here, and the third part about Belgian beers is here.

We were drinking wine. We got to the end of the bottle and I went to get a beer.

Nothing but IPAs, APAs, sours… what I really wanted was a lager or a pilsner.

Things began to make sense.

You see, there is a trope about sommeliers and wine makers. The trope is that at the end of the day they all reach for a Peroni. While I can’t remember exactly what a Peroni tastes like, as it’s been a while, I realised why. After drinking a big red wine, the last thing I wanted was more big flavours over my palate.

I began to identify with why they reach for what I consider to be a below-average beer. They reach for it because it is below-average and sometimes that’s just what you want.

Prior to this, I didn’t really get it. I didn’t get why anyone would choose something that is less than exciting when their palate is used to so much more. I had been told why; but I just didn’t get it.

So I went seeking answers.

William Wilson, certified Sommelier and owner of Sydney bar Cammeray Craft, a bar that focuses on craft beer but also a NSW Wine List of the Year recipient for the “Informal Dining – Limited” category, told me;

“When a sommelier finishes their shift they want a thirst quencher and plain lagers fit the bill. Chef David Chang was crucified by the beer community a few weeks ago for saying he hated fancy beer but what he was actually saying is that he enjoys cheap thirst quenchers because this is why he drinks beer, usually at the end of a hard day

Wilson suggests this also carries over to the customers themselves.

“Beer has exactly the same function for most restaurant customers; the beer refreshes at the beginning of a meal hence the majority of beers on restaurant wine lists are plain lagers.

“You need to give the customer a choice so lists feature a number of plain lagers from Australia and overseas. A good sommelier might suggest a Kolsch or (Stone and Wood) Pacific Pale Ale to do the same thing but 95% of their customers just want plain lager.”

This really gets to the heart of the conundrum for a beer lover. We end up at the whims of sommeliers and wider public that aren’t interested in beer as an accompaniment to food.

The idea that beer is on wine lists to open a meal, and not really accompany food was also touched on by Ben Knight, Sommelier; and National Secretary for of Sommeliers Australia.

“Personally, I don’t design a list with an eye to having people drinking the beers with the food, I focus more on wine.

“I believe that most buyers and sommeliers choose products they think work for their business. I think the main focus is on wine however. In my instance, the beer list is offering a small selection of beers that people want to start with, not drink throughout the meal,’ he said.

Another thing I regularly notice is the often randomness with what beers appear on lists in restaurants. Often I’ll spy a beer that isn’t widely distributed, or a list of the usual lagers and one completely random pale or stout.  This leads me to believe the selections were just down to whoever approached them at the time rather than because they will work with the menu.

Wilson had looked at this when researching for his own venue and saw suggestions of the same, however it wasn’t an overwhelming theme.

“When I studied this a bit last year I got the feeling that a few somms are highly influenced by their suppliers but most are not. Some restaurants only use one supplier for all of their beers and this naturally will have a strong influence on the list especially if there are only a few interesting beers there. Discounts on stocking a number of beers from one brand will influence some buyers. Sometimes the beers are selected because owners, chefs or staff might enjoy a particular beer or because a regular customer asks for something”

Selections aside however, there is the reality that business is business, craft is a small part of a massive segment and at the end of the day, Knight tells me, it’s about what customers want rather than what is being.

“I would  disagree with the suggestion that the lists are designed by sales people. I believe that most buyers and sommeliers choose products they think work for their business.”

If you cast your mind back to the last post in this series, there was a comment from social media about trying to move beer with industry markups.

I left it unattributed but the comment was from someone within the hospitality industry. Being so ingrained in beer, I don’t balk at Australian beer prices but it’s another truth that the wider public still don’t expect to pay a premium for beer.

“You can put a larger profit margin onto a bottle of wine than you can with a beer. Beer drinkers are far more price sensitive. No one has ever questioned me about my $120 bottle of Champagne but ask $49 for a 750ml bottle of 2009 Rodenbach Vintage and people scream at you. This is especially the case for fine dining where the least expensive glass of wine would be well above $10 but you probably have to charge less than $10 for a regular beer, ” Wilson said. 

The next part of the price problem is beer’s relatively short shelf life (something I’ve tried to factor in for the beer suggested at the bottom of each post in the series, but it will always be an issue), with Wilson adding, “most wines can keep in a restaurant’s cellar for years. A long wine list including old vintages is a huge draw card and one that can massively increase your average sales and profit. To have a long beer list featuring interesting beers you need to be moving them quickly which simply doesn’t happen at most restaurants.”

It all seems a bit bleak for us beer lovers really doesn’t it? There isn’t much incentive to change. However there is a bit of a piggyback affect, noted by both Knight and Wilson, with beer being dragged along with the upswing in less formal dining.

Knight suggested, “the food trends at the moment of tacos, burgers and bbq would have been a pretty significant boost to the industry I imagine”.

And according to Wilson, “the increase in craft beer consumption on premise and the increase in quality informal dining are very closely linked together. Beer drinkers are much more likely to drink beer all of the way through a less formal dinner.”

The battle of high beer taxes, public perception and lack education about the possibilities for beer and food probably means we won’t see beer in the Australian restaurant industry reach the heights set by far-reaching or considered winelists.

However, the old adage that you catch more flies with honey is one that probably rings true in this case. Both beer lovers and industry should probably remember that stamping our feet at places not having exactly what we want is probably not going to win any friends. But from Wilson’s point of view there are constructive ways to help it along.

“Staff training and engagement is really the key, not just for sommeliers but the other staff as well. Invite staff to beer events. Hold the events at times when staff can attend. Offer to come in a run a short staff training session. Instead of dropping off one sample bottle drop off a six-pack so that all of the staff can enjoy it at the end of a shift. Look at a restaurant’s menu before trying to sell them your entire range and sell them more suitable beers instead. Make an appointment with the somm, don’t just turn up. As a whole the industry needs to get into the hospitality courses at TAFE and in fact should lobby for greater beer knowledge to be an essential element in the qualifications.”

While Knight said earlier that the beers on his lists were intended to open a meal, a small bit of engagement might have already altered his stance, saying, “even doing this interview is making me think about changing that.”

I bet you are all still wondering what I ended up reach for in my fridge after our bottle of wine.

Fortunately I did have one pilsner, coming from Townshend’s in NZ, it was their Black Arrow Pilsner.

I can’t imagine any Peroni even coming close to the gentle tropical aroma, slight peppery spice, malt sweetness and easy drinking body. It does everything Peroni does while managing to be an above average beer.

It’s the kind of beer I want to put in front of anyone who writes off “craft” beer as a fad, or as too hoppy/bitter/whatever.. and especially those who want to reach for a Peroni at the end of their shift.

Now, on to my five US beers that I believe could feature on any beer list around the country.

While the US is leading the way in the beer world right now, I actually found these the hardest to come up with.

As mentioned above, freshness is important with beer and when it comes to the massively popular hop-forward American beers it is absolutely crucial. Most IPAs or APAs only really have a shelf life of 3 months. Given it can take a month for them to make their way to our shores, by the time it ends up on a restaurant beer list you might only have a couple of weeks to shift the stock before you’re selling the product past it’s best.

The other problem is, there aren’t that many beers that I wanted to select that have regular supply. I’ve found US beers to be far less reliable than the established supply chains coming from Belgium and other parts of the world. Demand in the US is so high that we won’t always get first look over here and given the industry’s  youth, there doesn’t seem to be the same established connections for distributors.

While it is changing it does present a problem in this instance.

Because of that, this might seem a bit of a safe list, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing it safe when “safe” means beers such as these.

Brooklyn Lager

This malty-vienna style lager might be a bit different to what your average Aussie lager drinker wants, but it is both easy drinking while being interesting enough to present next to a lot of food.

With floral, citrus and peppery aromas, it also has a biscuit and caramel malt body which helps it lend to a number of dishes. You would first look at fried foods and let the aromas sit side-by-side with the sauces. Think combinations of pepper/lemon for fried fish or pepper/bbq for ribs and wings.

There are a number of contrasts in a burger to let this beer complement but not overpower.

However I think you can take this beer further than just informal American-influenced “on-trend” dining. You can let it run with fruit or citrus desert to provide an interesting counter balance, or put it up with a rich stew to help cleanse and complement.

The only thing I would avoid would be game, or rich pork. Otherwise you can get away with quite a lot with a beer as well made as this.

Sierra Nevada Pale

The epiphany beer for brewers around the world this and the Brooklyn Lager would be the two “essential” US beers for any beer list.

Its natural bed-fellows in the food world are the American style foods that Brooklyn Lager also works well with, but given its rich-full body, bigger citrus/grapefruit aromas, and higher bitterness; you can take this a bit further. It’ll go great with spicier Asian style foods such as Thai curries, Korean Bibimbap, or a spicy nuoc-cham drenched Vietnamese salad.

Once again, you can send this into dessert with fruit and citrus, but it also has enough complexity and body to stand up to some chocolate desserts. Something like a chocolate mousse with tart-raspberry would be a unique and interesting pairing for this beer.

Victory Prima Pils

This pilsner has a slightly bolder American aroma about it but keeps it classic with moderate bitterness, grassy but spicy hops and a bready, biscuity German malt finish.

For savoury dishes I would put this with anything that the above two beers can go with but I would favour this when it comes to classic Italian pizza or an after dinner cheese course.

I think this beer really goes great with anything cheese related – it doesn’t quite have enough to go against rich blues or overripe brie, but it will go excellently with harder cheeses. Think parmesan/rocket/pear salad and a crunchy thin crust Italian pizza.

I wouldn’t put it up with many desserts – possibly only sorbet or granita. Keeping it light and refreshing.

Sixpoint Bengali Tiger

This IPA isn’t rich, or cloying, or overbearing like many IPAs can be (which isn’t a bad thing of course) but has some interesting characteristics that give it wide-ranging applications when matching with food.

The last time I drank a can (it comes in cans only) was alongside pasta carbonara. An unlikely bedfellow for an IPA out of the US, but the grapefruit, orange and lemon aromas and flavours help cut through salty cured meat and provide an excellent accompaniment to fragrant herbs.

I find Sixpoint beers can be a bit thin at times and as they get into higher ABV they show a bit too much alcohol warmth for me, however this one dances that line nicely. Leaving an almost vinous warming finish.

Founders Breakfast Stout

I wouldn’t put this beer with a whole lot of savoury dishes, if any. Given its intense coffee and chocolate flavours it might be interesting with game or slow cooked meats. It would definitely not be a horrible match; but I would put this on a menu purely for its dessert possibilities.

As mentioned, coffee and chocolate are the predominate flavours in this beer but they don’t cloy or overwhelm. The beer hums along nicely beside anything sweet, giving a dryness and roasted malt characters.

There aren’t too many beers in the world that I would look to over this when given the option with dessert.

Next up, in the last part of this series: Rest of the world (not Aus, NZ, Belgium, or USA).

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting interviews Luke.

    I find it a little disheartening to see what feels like a very defeatist attitude. Sure, the current climate in Australia is such that people don’t want to pay much money for beer. And nor do mainstream beer drinkers want to enjoy beer paired with and during the meal, as opposed to a refreshing aperitif. But there’s no reason for either of those really, other than public perception and ingrained behaviors. And the first step to breaking those is to acknowledge them and push against them a little.

  1. December 8, 2014

    […] I’ve given my initial thoughts on beer in restaurants,  looked at what is happening in the Wellington beer and food space, got opinions from social media, and spoken to sommeliers about their thoughts on beer in restaurants. […]

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