A few tips for a successful beer dinner: Build menus from the brew up, and don’t intrude on the meal

Posted Aug. 30, 2011, at 4:20 p.m.

Before sending out the first plates of a beer dinner Monday night, executive chef Chris Williams at St. Louis restaurant Franco told diners he felt like he was back in seventh grade: His homework was complete, and now he just had to turn it in and wait for a grade.

A few weeks earlier, Williams and his boss, Franco owner Tom Schmidt, had ventured out to New Haven, Mo., to meet — and drink beers — with brewer Steve Crider and his team at 2nd Shift Brewing Co. As Williams tasted Crider’s beers, ideas began popping into the chef’s head about the ingredients, flavors and textures that might make ideal pairings.

The increasing frequency of beer dinners in St. Louis’ better restaurants is a clear sign that craft brews are continuing to gain traction in places that previously had a wine-only mentality.

“As chefs, we’re trained to think, ‘OK, wine dinners, wine pairings,’” Williams says. “You forget how food-friendly beer is.”

Beer dinners can be tricky to pull off, and I’ve attended many that suffered from a lack of creativity or cohesiveness in the pairings. The Franco-2nd Shift dinner had no such missteps. In fact, I think the event offered some lessons that any beer-dinner planner should heed:

• Chefs, taste the beer. Too often, beer dinners happen this way: Chefs come up with dishes they want to cook, then someone else figures out which beers might work with the food. The better way is to craft the food around the beer. By tasting 2nd Shift’s beers before building his menu, Williams was able to create dishes that truly complemented the beers he served, and vice versa.

• Don’t interrupt. Nothing ruins the flow of dinner — and kills the conversation you’re having with your tablemates — like a chef or brewer standing up between every course to explain the dish and the beer to the whole room. That’s not to say I don’t want to hear the information; I just don’t want to have to stop eating, drinking and talking five times to take it in. On Monday, Williams and Crider briefly thanked everyone for coming and gave an overview of the menu. During the courses, they stopped by each table to chat and answer diners’ questions. Exactly right.

• Mix things up. Yes, stouts and chocolate go well together. But it’s boring and predictable to pair a chocolate dessert with a stout. When Williams tasted 2nd Shift’s Catspit Stout, he immediately had beef cheeks in mind. “I know, it’s the middle of summer and it’s a thousand degrees outside and you might think I’m crazy for doing a braised meat,” he says. But guess what? It worked. For dessert, he served Key lime pie with a scoop of hibiscus sorbet — a perfect match for 2nd Shift’s Hibiscus Wit and a refreshing, light end to the meal.

• Incorporate beer into the food. Williams marinated those beef cheeks in Catspit Stout overnight, then used that liquid to braise them in a low oven for eight hours. The essence of the beer came through without turning bitter. In a salad with mussels and oven-dried tomatoes, Williams used 2nd Shift Wheat Freak to build his dressing, which helped pull together the pairing with the same beer. However, you don’t have to cook with beer in every dish. Pairing a duck liver course with 2nd Shift’s Unicorn Killer Saison, which is brewed with pink peppercorns, Williams garnished the plate with crushed pink peppercorns — a nice touch.

The Franco and 2nd Shift teams delivered a beer dinner that achieved its goal: to elevate the flavors of both the food and the beer. For this assignment, everyone gets an A.

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