15 Jul 2009 @ 4:41 PM 

Last night, I went to multi-brewery beer dinner. It’s the first time I’d gone to a beer dinner that wasn’t hosted at a brewery and also the first since I started writing here. Overall, I had a blast, but it got me to thinking: What exactly makes a successful beer dinner?
Beer Dinner Menu, Spice Street, July 14, 2009
Certainly, there are two easy starting points: Good food and good beer. Without those, you are doomed to fail, but if that’s the only thing you’ve got, I think you’re only coming out at mediocre. So I tried to come up with a little list of what I think makes (or would make) a beer dinner exceptional.

Have brewery reps present. Last night, we had brewmasters from two of the four breweries represented on site (Triangle and Lone Rider, and a rep from a 3rd (Natty Greene’s). They came around to each table as their beer was being served and talked a little bit about the style, how they thought it would pair with the course, a little about what was going on with them for business and everything. It was a wonderful touch, and the 4th brewery was noticeably absent when their beer was poured. If brewery reps aren’t available, at the very least, have a beer connoisseur or cicerone available to go around to each table to talk to people about what they’re drinking and eating.

Be thoughtful with your pairings. I really enjoyed the menu last night, but we had what I would consider beer pairings for wine people. I’m not trying to be disparaging, here, but it was organized in a very familiar way. Light beers went with seafood. Dark beers went with red meat and chocolate. It’s traditional, and really mimics the way most people pair wines with food. To be fair, if you’ve got a wine-friendly crowd that’s fairly unfamiliar with beer/food pairings, this is probably a great way to go. Myself, I like it when you actually work on the flavors available in the food and the beer together for an end result.

For instance, one of the pairings last night was Lone Rider’s Shotgun Betty Hefeweissen with a hop-marinated scallop and frisee salad. This is a traditional pairing. I’m not sure it really worked. Without doubt: the beer was excellent and the scallop was excellent, but the beer scrubbed the rather delicate flavor of the scallop off of your palate entirely. They were both great, but they weren’t great together. It might have been really interesting to see Lone Rider’s Deadeye Jack Porter paired in this instance; using the dark roasted flavors (and probably lower carbonation) to play against the light flavors and somewhat spicy flavors in the scallop to create a whole new sensation across the palate might have been really fantastic. Mind you – I haven’t tried it. It might suck. But I think getting that kind of non-traditional pairing right is a step toward creating a fantastic beer dinner.

At the same time, you can’t really beat chocolate stout and chocolate cake together, traditional or not. Damn that’s tasty.

Give people information. I think it’s important to remember that craft beer still has a really small market share and that to population at large, craft beer – much less beer/food pairing – is something entirely new. Giving people information – especially printed information – that they can refer to during the dinner and even take with them afterward, is tantamount in getting them to enjoy themselves and come back for more later. Tell them what they’re drinking, what to expect out of what they’re drinking, what to expect from the pairing, and where to find the beer later. (Presumably, they know where to find the food.) Education is key. There are three related reasons that so many smart people are into wine: 1) There is a lot to learn. 2) There are readily available resources to learn about wine. 3) Smart people like learning. Craft beer fits into the same mold. Exploit it.

What about you? Outside of “good beer” and “good food” what makes a good beer dinner into a great beer dinner for you?

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 08 May 2009 @ 9:39 AM 

Lemme tell you a story.

Every restaurant, bar, and brewpub knows the importance of good waitstaff and bartenders, but I’d like to underscore this with personal experience: my personal story as a consumer and NOT as an enormous beer geek with a huge ego.

I currently get paid by UNC Chapel Hill. Every Friday that I can, I like to take myself out to lunch. Since it’s closest to campus my usual stop was the Top of the Hill. Great burger, decent brewpub (even if they all share a similar character that I can’t, for the life of me, pin down), and a revolving door of stunningly beautiful waitstaff who can’t be bothered to tell me the time of day. I don’t know why. I’m unobtrusive, I tip really well, and sometimes I want to talk about the beer. How bad is that? (I should note: The assistant brewmaster recognizes me on sight, says hi, and talks beer with me – even did at the CBC. It always makes me smile. Great guy.)

After a while, I got a little irritated with waiting for the waitstaff at TotH and decided that, long lunches be damned, I was going to head down to the Carolina Brewery. Mind you, this requires me to go get my car, go find a place to park at the brewery, have lunch, then drive back and walk in from my parking garage. I cannot, in any way, eat my lunch in under an hour there. In order to do this, I have to come into work early or leave late… at least in theory.

I still go back to TotH occasionally, but not often. Why? Because the Carolina Brewery makes me feel loved.

Of course, there’s still a revolving door of waitstaff and bartenders. After all, it’s a college town. You can’t keep people around for that long. Since the 2nd or 3rd week that I’ve been going there, when I walk in the door I am generally greeted with, “Erik! What’s up?” (The exceptions are when there’s somebody new behind the bar.)

Why on earth would I want to go anywhere else?

On Tuesday night, I was out at a different bar enjoying a few lovely Belgian beers when I ran into my normal Friday lunch bartender. He was watching a show across the street at the Cat’s Cradle, and had come over to the bar I was in for a drink. He was wearing a Carolina Brewery Flagship IPA t-shirt. “Hey! Erik!” He introduced me to his lady friend, we shot the shit. He asked me if I knew what the pint night at Tyler’s Taproom was that night and then gestured to his t-shirt with pride. “See you Friday!” he said as he left the bar.

Brewpubs, take note: This guy is a model representative for his brewpub. They couldn’t ask for a better employee, and it should be rewarded. Happy, friendly, interested in his customers and proud and knowledgeable of the beer that they serve. It makes me a loyal (and frequent) customer.

Hell, I can’t wait to go to lunch today.

What about you? What makes a great bartender/waitstaff in your estimation? Where are they?

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