Beer and Food… But Why?

St. Feuillien & Green Flash Belgian Coast IPA, at Against the Grain
St. Feuillien & Green Flash Belgian Coast IPA, at Against the Grain

Kudos to Ben T. Johnson for putting more emphasis on having good brews in public eateries. We all know too well that beer takes a back seat to wine in the foodie world. Why restaurants are so damned slow embrace the greater range of flavours and styles (and more approachable pricing) is baffling.

Last week I was invited to a rather fine restaurant and treated to a meal that made my eyes roll back, it was so fucking good. The main course was a spring pea risotto, which may sound underwhelming, but this… was… some other level of deliciousness. The beer menu was rather unexciting however, so though I would have loved a bière de garde or some other funkier, earthier farmhouse, I ended up with a rather unexciting Kronenbourg Blanc; a witbier that did nothing for the food. I can’t imagine a knowledgeable chef that conjures up such mind-blowing dishes can feel satisfied with their restaurant’s less-than-inspired bottle list.

A week prior, I took in a warm summer evening at Against The Grain’s lakefront patio. Not only did ATG drop an excellent beer list on my table (including bottles I’d never seen before), the menu also championed in-house Prud’homme Beer Sommelier, Maarten Nederhof, as a customer resource. If there are other places in Toronto doing the same (Certified Cicerone or Prud’homme), please share.  That’s the type of place I want to send people asking for recommendations.

It was a month earlier that I started giving more consideration to how beer culture might change the way people dine. Shortly after NOW approached me to write for their Beer Guide, I was asked to add to another feature for the same issue. The magazine had planned a write-up featuring beer-focused establishments that also offer the best of certain food items. Sadly, the magazine’s food critic passed away early in the planning stages, so in a bit of a scramble they asked me to research the best burger, wings, nachos, sausage and mussels in better beer environs.

As you may know (or have gleaned from how enthusiastic I am about risotto), I’m vegan, so anything I could add to the article would come from surveying others – which I did. In the end however, NOW decided against running a food section in the guide.

I won’t list all the results of my own bit of research, but I will share some insights. This wasn’t an anonymous survey – I know who replied and have a good sense of which respondents care more about the quality of the beer than its origin. This also wasn’t multiple choice. People wrote out their answers and many felt compelled to share comments.

I’m curious to hear your feedback based on what I collected. I’m offering this more as a discussion piece than my opinion. I’m looking for help making sense of this.

Almost no one had strong feelings on nachos. A couple suggested the iconic, budget-conscious, TexMex joint, Sneaky Dee’s, but admitted it wasn’t based on their personal experience (“I think Sneaky Dee’s has good nachos, but I haven’t been in a while so I don’t know if the beer is any good”). Two others liked The Dock Ellis, which might be a solid supporter of Ontario’s craft brewers, but I still wouldn’t cite it for having an exciting beer list. The only real beer bar to receive more than one vote – and it just doubled that total – was Victory Café. So I’m taking from this that good beer and nachos aren’t a natural combo.

Wings inspired only a slightly better response rate. Real Sports took that category. Betty’s and Allen’s (wouldn’t they make a cute elderly couple?) tied for second.

On the other hand, nearly everyone had opinions on mussels (Beer Bistro, followed by Bar Hop and Bier Markt) and sausage (WVRST, almost unanimously).

Just over half the people replying had opinions on burgers (Allen’s and Bar Hop tied for first).

Having dodged meat and dairy for the past eleven years, I can’t offer my own insights as to why certain establishments’ fare fared better than others’, but I do have some theories about why beer drinkers had stronger opinions about mussels (usually one or two complementary flavours in the sauce) than nachos (salty corn chips covered in jalapeño peppers, melted cheese, sour cream, green onions, ground beef and a salsa featuring tomatoes, cilantro, lime, chili powder and whatever else).

I’d be willing to wager that a survey of oysters, cheese and charcuterie (+ beer) would have earned more responses than the wings, nachos and burgers (+ beer) queries. But why is that? I think most craft beer drinkers still revel in clinking mason jars in public places and pissing in bushes when the bathroom isn’t convenient. Yet they (we) don’t want to be labelled as lowbrow. There’s probably a whole sociological/cultural anthropological blog post there… I’m over-reaching.

Really though, why are chicken appendages suddenly uninteresting to craft beer drinkers? Of those that did receive enthusiastic thumbs up, two of the three exalted varieties were somewhat unconventional (Betty’s finishes their dead flappers on the grill; Allen’s dubs theirs “Manhattan Capon Wings”) while the category champion, Real Sports, has 15 styles to choose from. There is choice out there, so is it the flabby texture, the not-so-subtle sauces or something else (memories of horrific food poisoning?) that’s diminished your love of flightless bird accessories?

Sausage, I’m guessing, does better than burgers because the character of the meat – not the bun, not the toppings – is more likely to stand out. I’ve had the vegan sausage at WVRST, so I speak from experience (finally, right?) when I say I’m not choosing my accompanying pint based on sauerkraut and hot mustard.

Again, this is just me trying to figure it out. Please let me know why you think certain categories got more (and more passionate) responses and how beer drinkers are changing their feeding preferences. Would gourmet nachos with less ingredients (quinoa flour chips, baked and topped with shredded wagyu beef, Gruyere and garlic shoots sprouted in an IIPA) do well in a craft beer bar? Are drier, lightly breaded wings conceived in collaboration with a 2011 Polaris Prize nominee a better match for interesting brews?

I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

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