Beer finding a frothy status in pairings during special dinners

A beer pairing in Pittsburgh used to be a beer and a shot.

This is evolving as artisan producers gain influence here -- craft beers are replacing Yuengling and Jim Beam is being dumped for boutique whiskey.

A different pairing has become commonplace in larger cities, as barmen and chefs match brews with cheeses, meats and desserts. Beers made their way onto tasting menus and beer dinners have become popular.

"Seeing a beer dinner was like spotting a unicorn," said Scott Smith, brewer for East End Brewing Co. in Larimer.

"Here in Pittsburgh, a beer dinner used to be drinking one at dinner time," he said.

These days, beer dinners are picking up momentum in Pittsburgh. And there's a reason for it.

"Smaller cities tended to develop manufacturing before service, which is why brew pubs came first in that region," said Greg Engert, a Washington, D.C.-based beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group and James Beard nominee in 2012 for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional.

With distribution an obstacle, many brewers in the Midwest and the Rust Belt responded by opening a restaurant, few of which were known for terrific cooking.

That's changing as good restaurants enrich the landscape and service rises to accommodate diners' expectations.

Mr. Smith and East End are on the forefront of this push for beer pairings. He held his annual Beer vs. Cocktail dinner there April 25 during Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week.

The collaboration was between Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville and Wigle Whiskey in the Strip, during which Mr. Severino created five courses paired with both a beer and a cocktail. For the record, the less boozy genre, beer, won.

Chef Anthony Zallo's beer program at Bigelow Grille Downtown lends itself to quarterly beer dinners. At last week's Anderson Valley Brewing Co. dinner at Bigelow Grille, he paired spring's bounty provided by Wild Purveyors in Lawrenceville with seasonal beers from Anderson Valley.

A crisp Summer Solstice saison highlighted late-season morels served with shaved asparagus, pickled ramps and sheets of Ewe's Dream Romano. A spicy Heelch O'Hops double IPA complemented slow-roasted kid goat, topped with an oversized ravioli with ricotta and a yolk that streamed gold across the dish.

"I like these dinners because they allow me to be creative," said Mr. Zallo, whose history includes Tambellini's on Route 51, New Orleans' Bacco and co-ownership of Abrio in McMurray (both closed) before helming Bigelow Grille, where he has been since 2008.

Mr. Zallo credits his brother, former bartender Michael Zallo, as implementing beer dinners at the restaurant, a move that he said was ahead of his time for Pittsburgh.

"He was making his own bitters and tonic water six or seven years ago," he said. "He's hard core."

Among Bigelow Grille's most popular dinners lately was a two-night Dogfish Head dinner. The beer is touted for iconoclast brewer Sam Calagione's outrageous flavor profiles and hyper-hopped beers.

Big hoppy beers are notoriously difficult to pair with food in the same way that big, tannic wines can be.

"I lead with what a beer smells like," he said of his method for determining how to pair beers. He noted that, for these dinners, customers -- many of them more beer than food enthusiasts -- often "go with the flow."

He observed that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board makes it more of a challenge to obtain a diversity of beers from outside the state.

"It's an issue getting beers sometimes," he said. "And it's up to 35 percent cheaper if we were to purchase beer across the state border."

But it's "not impossible," said Scott Ressler, assistant general manager at Harris Grill in Shadyside. His restaurant is among the first in the area to offer eight beer dinners a year, particularly during the winter. This is the seventh year the restaurant has hosted beer dinners. Each has highlighted a brewer as opposed to the depth of a beer director's stock.

Brooklyn brewmaster and author Garrett Oliver helped mainstream beer and food pairings in 2005 with "The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer With Real Food."

Despite the popularity of craft beer, Mr. Oliver said that beer is still marginalized within restaurants.

"Beer is the only food or drink where if you go to a restaurant, the average customer knows more about the beer than the house, even if they have only 10 beers on the list," he told Food & Wine. "That's a disaster."

Which beers pair with tonight's main course?

Mr. Engert notes that beers less sexy than American IPAs pair well with food. German dunkels and Vienna lagers are "amazing with food because they are crisp, refreshing and light with a toasted sweetness," he said.

He also cited saisons as "herbaceous and citrusy, dry without being bitter," that are "really dynamic when it comes to pairing."

With so many craft beers from all over the world, there's much to learn among beer drinkers and restaurant staff.

"One of the reasons it's so confusing is because beer is just another kind of food," conceded Mr. Smith.

"It can be as nourishing as eating a sandwich."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Scott Ressler's employer. It is Harris Grill. (Published June 7, 2013)

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart.


Hot Topic