Beer’s Evolving Role at the Restaurant Table

Though wine has long commanded the attention of beverage directors, beer is experiencing an unprecedented wave of representation in the country's top restaurants. Zachary Sussman on the shift and what it signals about both beer and dining culture.

Last November, I brought Ted and Carol, my friend’s aunt and uncle, to dinner at Fung Tu, a new-school Chinese restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ted has been a serious wine collector since the ‘80s and they’re both seasoned veterans of the New York dining scene.

When our fist course arrived—a deep-fried date stuffed with duck confit—the sommelier poured us each a glass of Rodenbach Grand Cru, a Flanders red ale from Belgium. Tart and tangy, the beer cut through the fatty duck flesh, while bringing out the underlying sweetness of the date. Carol’s eyes lit up. “I’ve never had anything like this!” she said. “Wait, this is beer?!”

At a time when the city’s craft beer culture is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance and more “sessionable” and wine-like beers (like that Rodenbach) are on the rise, it’s only natural that the sommelier should include a beer pairing at a place like Fung Tu. To my friend’s aunt, however, it came as a revelation. Positive as her reaction may have been, it goes to show how persistently many of beer’s old stereotypes still linger.

“The idea that beer can be a legitimate part of the beverage program has struggled for a long time to gain acceptance,” explains Kevin Mahan, former managing partner of Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern, whose vintage beer program, now over a decade old, represents one of the earliest examples of its kind. “It has always been the red-headed stepchild of the drinks world.”

But thanks to a renewed focus on beer’s potential at the table those decades of neglect might now be drawing to a close.

According to David Flaherty, former beer and spirits director at Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars in Manhattan, the move to reclaim beer reflects the higher standards of excellence now evident across beverage programs in general. “Even a few years ago, you could still be respected as a beverage director by developing this bible filled with thousands of bottles of wine, but on the last page, you’d just see Stella Artois, Guinness and Heineken,” he recalls. “There’s no way you could get away with that today.”

At a time when restaurants carefully curate every last detail, the same rigor logically extends to beer, to say nothing of the operations behind the bar. But given the beverage’s relatively limited track record, it isn’t always clear what a four-star beer program is supposed to look like, or how it should function.

The most obvious challenge—leftover from an earlier era dominated by the titans of industrial lager like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch—basically breaks down to an image problem. Despite what many of us now know to be true in the wake of the craft beer movement—that beer, like wine, can be serious, food-friendly and complex—it is still perceived as being somewhat at odds with a high-end experience.

“People still assume that if you go to a serious restaurant, you’re in a cultural position that calls for drinking wine,” says Matthew Pene, beer director for Manhattan’s Michelin three-starred Eleven Madison Park, which typically offers between 160 and 180 beers by the bottle. “Wine has always been viewed as the highbrow way to go.”

Paradoxically, the most significant barrier facing beer might not be its lowbrow image, but its cost. When it comes to driving profits and raising check averages, there’s no denying that beer markups will always be less lucrative than wine. This becomes even more problematic when dealing with high net-worth individuals, for whom spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on wine is a matter of course. What could ever incentivize servers and sommeliers—especially those relying upon gratuities—to steer the conversation away from that bottle of Burgundy towards, say, a Belgian lambic or a farmhouse ale?

“To put it one way, you’re never going to retire on beer sales,” explains Mahan. “Twenty percent of a two-dollar beer is a lot less than twenty percent of a nice bottle of wine, and that’s not changing any time soon.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to make beer profitable. In fact, this is exactly where upscale restaurants—the kind with creative, multi-course tasting menus—have an advantage. By integrating beer into a set pairing menu, it’s possible to take higher margins while also experimenting with creative combinations.

“All these high-end restaurants with set menus are becoming more hospitable to beer because the diner is already in for a price,” says Sayre Piotrkowski, Oakland-based certified cicerone and beverage industry consultant. “Plus, by surrounding beer with a bunch of wines, you not only give credibility to beer, you’re also adding to the perception of value by introducing the diner to something new, even if it’s a less expensive product.”

Mark Bright, wine director and co-owner of San Francisco’s Michelin three-starred Saison, offers a similar perspective. “There’s a reason why most of our beers play a role in the tasting menu,” he says. “It’s something we generally have to work into the menu for people, since they wouldn’t normally order it, but once we do, it becomes an awesome surprise.”

Restaurants of this caliber aren’t just selling a meal, but an experience. Diners are willing to pay such exorbitant sums in exchange for being transported, exposed to something new. This willingness to venture beyond the familiar paradigm of wine—whether it be beer, cider, vermouth or even sake—gives beverage directors the chance to expand their repertoires and draw from a broader spectrum of possibilities.

“We’ve done cocktail pairings and cider pairings, as well as beer,” says Charles Puglia of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY, which has collaborated with several local breweries—including KelSo, Captain Lawrence, Peekskill and Plan Beeto develop its own exclusive beers. “It’s not for the sake of pushing the envelope, but finding the most interesting or unique pairing. Often that’s wine, but sometimes it’s definitely beer.”

This newfound receptivity to non-wine pairings can be read as an adjustment to broader cultural changes that are redefining restaurant culture as a whole. Just as service has become less stuffy and more casual, so too have notions changed about the kinds of dishes that belong in such hallowed dining rooms. If wine always enjoyed a monopoly as the default beverage for fancy restaurants, this is largely because, in the U.S., “fancy food” has traditionally been filtered through a French notion of fine dining. Today, this hierarchical, Euro-centric (read: wine-oriented) model has started to break down.

“It used to be that if the cuisine had a hot sauce or a fish sauce, it was considered low-culture,” says Piotrkowski. “Now chefs are into smoke and salt and cured and fermented things, which are minefields for wine pairings, but perfect for beer. As we keep moving away from French-dominated cooking, we’ll definitely see more integration of beer.”

A prime example of the new paradigm, San Francisco’s Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions—where designated “half pours” of wine and beer circulate among rotating plates of small, dim-sum-like “bites”—offers one possible glimpse into beer’s culinary future.

“We have a good number of people coming in who are excited about beer, and willing to look outside the traditional progression of wine pairings,” explains beer buyer Ben Henning. “They’ll sit down and have a beer, then graduate to a bottle of wine, or they’ll do the opposite. By bouncing back and forth and finding new combinations that work for them, we’re able to make wine and beer join forces to our advantage.”