While craft beer, in its varying forms, has snuck its way onto ever increasing numbers of beer lists in pubs and bars across the country, the realm of fine dining is still primarily dominated by grape rather than grain. But in certain pockets of Australia, beer is beginning to be treated with the same reverence on a menu as the finest wines.
Kerry McBride speaks to some of those championing the cause about why beer and fine food are worthy allies.
Opening the drinks menu at a new restaurant someone else has chosen is often accompanied by a touch of hesitation for the seasoned beer drinker. As you flick through to the pages to find the beer list, you wonder whether you’ll be greeted with a catalogue of green bottled imported lagers, maybe a couple of options from an Australian macrobrewery, or a mix of locals and internationals so exciting that you’ll be hard pressed to make a choice at all.
As craft beer has increased its share of tap space across pubs and bars, so too have those venues allowed for craft to nestle into their restaurants' beverage lists. But when it comes to standalone restaurants – especially at the pointier end of the price bracket, craft beer has had a harder time breaking through.
There are exceptions, however. At venues such as Quay in Sydney, Estelle in Melbourne and as far out of the way as Fleet Restaurant in Brunswick Heads, the link between quality food and beer is being thoroughly explored.
Quay head chef Rob Kabboord – who launched Merricote in Melbourne’s north alongside wife Bronwyn Kabboord – sees a beer list as an element every bit as crucial as food or wine, no matter what is on the menu.
“Supporting craft beer is not hype or a trend, it is a choice you make as a business – it is a choice in taste and belief,” Rob says.
“Craft beer tends to be a little dearer then VB or Carlton, but put a craft beer next to that and the real beer drinker or foodie will have a much better experience.”
At both Merricote and Quay, between which Rob splits his time as best he can, the beer lists are built with a careful and considered touch through discussions with the head sommelier about what would stand up best against the dishes on the menu.
At either restaurant, you are likely to find a mix of pale ales, dark beers, Belgian style ales and, at Merricote, a section of the menu dedicated entirely to sours.
“Once you have a core list built, that core list is usually a signature that stays with the restaurant,” Rob says. “These beers tend to be from brewers that have a range you can play with during the seasons.
“You then just build around it to have a range of styles represented. For example, Boatrocker is always on the Merricote list but in different forms – Elderflower Mitte during spring; Sterk and Donker in winter.”
A similar approach can be seen at Estelle Bistro just up the road from Merricote, where Aaron King oversees a restaurant offering up beers from the likes of Feral, Hop Nation, Mountain Goat and Brooklyn Brewery. During September, they also created a special five course Boatrocker pairing menu to explore the Braeside brewery’s range against their kitchen’s best dishes – the first beer pairing menu they have ever undertaken.
“Good food menus are always based around seasonal product – the best thing available at the time," he says. "When you are looking at anything for pairings, you have to look at what works best seasonally, or what projects seasonal changes.
“Wine drinkers often drink a lot more red wine in winter, and white wine in summer. The same can be found with beer drinkers, who might lean towards darker beers in the colder months. It’s that placebo effect people look for of wanting to match their drink’s flavours to the season.”
Across the Estelle group – which encompasses Pickett’s, their new deli and rotisserie at the Queen Vic Market, the Estelle Bistro and its elegant sister next door, ESP – they need to put together beer lists that offer something for every type of diner.
“In the Bistro, it’s a bit more funky and cool, while ESP is a bit more refined and more expectation from within and the outside as well. You do want to offer a certain standard and image for each venue,” Aaron says.
“For instance, I couldn’t have Melbourne Bitter tinnies in ESP, but that might actually work quite well for the casual person having some chicken for lunch at Pickett’s. It’s about having the range match the venue that you’re in.”
But the question remains: how many people, when dining at a high end restaurant, reach for a beer over a fine wine? How do you show people that a beer can complement a meal just as beautifully?
For Aaron, the answer is in giving people the chance to try something new.
“You get a lot of people for whom coming in to our venue is something quite different for them – they then apply that mentality to the whole evening,” Aaron says. “They wouldn’t normally start with champagne, but hey, they’re at ESP, so why not?
“Even those who may not drink craft all the time are noticing the craft beer movement because it’s happening all around them. Sitting in a venue they’ve never been to before is actually the perfect time for them to try something new, because they want to create an entirely unique experience for themselves.”
By focusing on regions of influence, local breweries, and quality of product, staff have more than enough ammo to convince even the most hardened Heineken drinker that it’s worth their while to try something they wouldn’t normally drink, Aaron says.
“You have to have beers that are accessible to everyone, while still reaching a certain standard. You want to have something to say about them at the table, whether it’s an award-winning beer, a notable brewery, or an interesting style. It’s the same with anything – start that conversation and see where it goes.”
When Banjo Harris Plane and his cohorts got together to open Bar Liberty in Fitzroy last year, there was simply no doubt that beer would play a significant role on the drinks menu. As one of Australia’s top sommeliers, Banjo is no stranger to a good drink and, the way he sees it, there are as many good beers to be found as there are good wines or cocktails.
“We always had the idea to be an alcohol focused venue. We all come from fine dining backgrounds, and in that sphere wine certainly gets all the attention. But from our personal preferences, we wanted to offer the best in beer, wine, spirits, and sake and put a highlight on anything that we feel is made well," Banjo says.
“One of my pet hates is going into a venue and seeing seven lagers and a couple of pale ales making up the entire beer menu. We’ve made sure to have at least eight or nine different styles. We’ve got saisons, goses, red ales, pales, IPAs, all sorts. We want to showcase as many styles as possible.”
To entice exploration, they often open larger bottles from the likes of Two Metre Tall, La Sirène or Cantillon to allow people to try a glass rather than committing to a whole bottle.
“That’s a really nice way in for people who aren’t familiar with a certain beer or beer style. The larger bottles are often what has attracted them, but they don’t want to quite take a punt on the whole thing,” Banjo says.
“We’ll get five or six glasses out of a large bottle, and hopefully five or six happy customers who have tried something new.”
In a city like Melbourne, the general trend towards informed eating and drinking is evident at Bar Liberty. There is a strong appreciation for quality of ingredients, a curiosity about new things, and an expectation of excellence, from both those behind the bar and the customers they serve.
But, for some customers, beer and fine food simply don’t equate, according to Banjo.
“When I worked at Attica, we certainly played around with having our beers matched to the food, just like with our wines. Some customers would be blown away that they’re being served a beer, but some also responded negatively to it.
“They didn’t want to drink a beer when they were paying X amount for a very fancy dining experience. But those who did take the plunge would be rewarded by it, and get excited by it, and I’m finding more and more customers willing to do so.”
Introducing people to beer matching, or at least to beer exploration, is still a work in progress for many venues. But now, when a new venue opens in Melbourne, they simply must deliver on all fronts, lest they not make the grade in the highly competitive restaurant scene.
Having a strong wine list that fails on the cocktail front, or a killer beer list but only a couple of whites to choose from simply will not cut the mustard, Banjo says. Similarly, a venue needs to have local producers on their list, whether it be the spirits, beer or produce.
“There’s such passion and diversity amongst the different venues in Melbourne. People get disappointed if they walk in somewhere new and they aren’t able to eat or drink something that’s produced up the road. You lose points in their eyes. The desire to eat local and drink local is getting stronger and stronger.”
Over time, Banjo hopes that most venues will stop thinking in terms of wine sitting above beer in the hierarchy, and instead just focus on quality.
“Gradually the mindset is coming through that it’s just another fermented beverage; it doesn’t matter what the base material is. Whether it’s grape or grain, it’s still equally valid, and incredible harmony can be found when you pair it with quality food.”
Keep an eye out soon for the first instalment from our resident beer food expert, Paul Kasten. He'll be pairing some of the winners from the recent Saison Blind Tasting with some of his favourite dishes.
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.