Today’s chefs are stretching the gastronomic envelope further than it’s ever gone. From space-aged toques of the molecular ilk to those taking traditional dishes to flavorful new places, there’s never been a more exciting time in America’s culinary history. Much of that has to do with the wealth of resources, informational and ingredient-wise, that exist. Nearly anything a chef needs to create stellar dishes is at their fingertips, whether those digits are tracing over produce at a farmer’s market or manipulating a computer keyboard. It’s commonplace to come across foreign-sounding edibles and spices on a menu these days as chefs at all levels find new ingredients and the inspiration that comes with them. Given all of this, this food-and-beer journalist feels inclined to wonder in print: With all this nth degree embracement of every ingredient under the sun, why has such a small percentage of this country’s chefs thoroughly explored the wide-ranging and flavorful world of craft beer?
This isn’t a criticism. Surely, some craft brewing enthusiast somewhere has authored some snarky, accusatory piece scolding chefs for ignoring one of their favorite things, but it’s my belief that if chefs were aware of what craft beer really is, they would be inclined by their innate curiosity about all things edible and quaffable, and their desire to produce the best food and drink experience possible, to dive glass first into this medium. So, the intention of this piece is simply to raise the topic for both discussion and discovery in the hopes that this country’s culinary class will take note and interest in brews that have come to be regarded as the world’s best.
It’s easy to understand chefs’ grasp of wine as a cooking staple and adaptable go-with for their cuisine. Wine is at the core of many classic European recipes and base techniques and, hence, its use has been communicated to generations upon generations of aspiring culinary professionals. As anyone familiar with the depth and delicious character wine lends to so many recipes can attest, this is a good thing. And when it comes to pairing, the ideal white, red, rosé, or sparkler can take dishes to new heights. As such, a significant percentage of chefs devote time to learning about wine’s history, varietals, flavor profiles, and kitchen uses. This is a very good thing.
So, one would think it natural that, especially with the rise in popularity and availability of craft beer in this country (particularly over the past decade), that chefs would feel inclined to replicate that educational process with this libation category. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the company of chefs, the majority are certainly no strangers to beer. Sometimes consumed before (or even during) a dinner service, and most definitely after, it’s a part of daily life in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately, consumption is typically limited to pale, bland American macro-lagers—and craft beer, that is not. Still, one would think even that baser interest in beer would spark an interest in learning about better beers. Sticking strictly to cheaply made, uninteresting, mostly flavorless beer when thousands of superior options are readily available would be like only drinking Two Buck Chuck.
Even spirits seem to be more on the average chef’s radar. In fact, restaurants have played a significant role in fueling this country’s burgeoning craft spirit renaissance. Again, this is a good thing, but if one is going to devote time and energy to picking apart subtle nuances of vanilla, oak, caramel, spice, etc. from a beverage that is undeniably alcohol-forward and more tipple than flavor enhancer, again, why not dig deeper with craft beer, a beverage that’s lower in alcohol than wine or spirits, broader in its number of styles and achievable taste elements, and more about providing flavor than either of the aforementioned beverages?
Again, this isn’t accusatory. The string of whys and why nots I’m presenting are so that the chefs reading this can ask the same questions. Simply put, ignoring a viable and delicious ingredient, much less an entire family of quality ingredients, is near sacrilegious in the cheffing culture. To put it in a purely culinary context, it would be like a chef coming across an assortment of mushrooms—chanterelles, morels, porcini, shiitakes, lobster, oyster, hen of the woods—and opting instead for near-flavorless white buttons. Or, instead of working with a variety of proteins, feeling content to work solely with ground beef. Any toque worth their salt knows how important it is to constantly evolve, remain curious, and use any tool at their disposal to make the best food they possibly can. I want to say definitively, as a passionate and professional journalist covering both food and beer, that craft beer can absolutely enhance the dining experience.
Whether accompanying a dish or serving as a flavor-adding component in a recipe, craft beer can and does make a difference. No article could ever explain all the countless enhancing qualities craft beer brings to the table—and the kitchen—but plenty of texts and online resources exist.† But for the beery beginner, the best reference points are those who produce craft beer. There are over 2,500 breweries, brewpubs, brewery-restaurants, and assorted craft beer tasting venues in this country, and no better place to learn about the variety and history of the world’s 100-plus identifiable styles—flowery Belgian ales, acidic sour beers, piney India pale ales, roasty porters, malty Scottish ales, cloven wheat beers, chocolaty stouts, and so many more. And there’s not a brewer around who would not be happy to welcome a chef into their establishments and afford them as much time as they can to explain the details of the beverage they have, like culinary professionals have with their craft, devoted their lives to.
Add me to that contingent. My reasons for writing this piece are two-fold. As stated, I am hoping to inspire chefs to take a closer look at craft beer and begin their journey down the ale and lager trail. But, to help facilitate that, I would like to offer my personal assistance to any chefs interested in starting that journey, whether it be by answering questions, advising on breweries and other beer-centric venues to visit and begin their immersion, or simply speaking further on the subject of craft beer (perhaps over a beer).