Beer and food have always been natural bedfellows.
While everyone can benefit from knowing which style of beer best complements a good blue cheese, or the best crafty recipes for integrating stouts into your holiday dinner, there’s an emerging school of beermakers who are looking beyond the obvious ways beer and food intersect to craft their house ales and lagers.
Brewers across the country are taking notes from the kitchen, approaching recipe development and production techniques as a chef might, by cultivating relationships with local farmers, sourcing seasonal produce, and finding ways to make sure ingredients are manifested in the beer in simple, honest ways.
It’s a cool Wednesday morning at the Green City Market in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Housewives bustle through the crowd with their strollers, young couples walk their dogs through the leaves, and farmers haggle with customers over prices for their latest crop. Jared Rouben, founder of the upcoming Moody Tongue Brewery, greets each vendor by name, accepting samples of their Asian-style pears or new varieties of apple while listening patiently to the stories behind the fruit.
At Moody Tongue, which opens officially in December, Rouben will practice what he calls “culinary brewing.” While studying at Culinary Institute of America in New York, Rouben saw parallels between cooking and brewing – two arts, he says, that use different uniforms and laboratories, but essentially function in the same way.
He took the notion with him when he started working at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in Chicago, and eventually Goose Island, where he started a Chef Collaboration series. Now, as he breaks off to start his own company, his ideology remains centered on the cornerstones of good cooking – fresh, local produce presented using time-tested culinary techniques.
“I look at my malt bill, look at the hop bill, and I’m just making dishes,” he said. “We’re making a giant pot of oatmeal. Then we’re boiling it, so you’re reducing it. Then seasoning with hops instead of with salt and pepper, and then we have the ability to infuse flavors like coffee, tea, fruit.”
Whereas many brewers work within the confines of classic styles and ingredients (hops, malts, yeast and water), Rouben aims to work outside of the box by taking traditional styles and enhancing them with herbs, spices and fruit. His process always starts at the Farmer’s Market.
“What’s most important when you are doing culinary brewing is that you understand your ingredients. That’s why I like coming to the farmers’ market. To taste, to smell and talk to the people who are creating this and selling that. Who knows better than they do? Nobody. And they want delicious beer as bad as I do. So when we put our minds together, we usually get a delicious product.”
The attention to sourcing regional, seasonal produce for beer is not new. In fact, brewers all over the country regularly commit to using a percentage of provincial ingredients.
In San Francisco, Almanac Beer Co. makes what they call “farm-to-barrel seasonal ales.” Taking a page out of the culinary “farm-to-table” movement, they partner with various Northern California farms to create a product that captures the terroir, or sense of place, of the area. Local honey, coriander, strawberries and cherries are a few of the ingredients you’ll find in their bay area brews.
Their system of thinking came to light when brewer Jesse Friedman and partner Damian Fagan noticed there was a beer-sized gap in their local dining scene. “You’d go into these restaurants that have these really amazing food, foraged this and that, and really delicate, interesting wine lists and fancy cocktail programs, and the beer wasn’t really a part of that. We saw there was a spot for a brewery that spoke fluent restaurant in a lot of ways.”
Many breweries simply source their hops and grains from large corporations. The practice is not unusual, nor is it widely frowned upon (it can even be more practical for large-scale production), but Friedman says cultivating relationships with local farmers is key to not only finding the best ingredients, but also supporting the local economy and fostering a sense of community at the same time.
“It’s a lot of fun, because for a lot of them, they grow this food and they sell it and it goes off to restaurants that they will never eat at. With the beers, we can bring back a case to them, and say ‘here we made this with your stuff.’ That’s something they can share with people. They love that. Everyone loves beer.”
Once the key ingredient is selected, both breweries start building the beer du jour from the base up. They begin by identifying the best style that will support a given ingredient. What will work best with rhubarb? Rouben says Saison. Strawberries and nectarines? Almanac captured their perky sweetness into a recent sour. The main goal is finding complementary flavors that won’t compete with the fruit, but rather help showcase and amplify it in the most natural way.
“We have a strict philosophy that if you’re going to incorporate an ingredient it needs to show itself, aromatically or flavor wise,” Rouben said. “There’s nothing new about putting ingredients in beer, fruit, spice, chocolate, coffee, but getting the flavor out of those ingredients in beer is new, without using extracts and things that are artificial. And that’s fine too, but if you can use the real thing, why wouldn’t you?”
Like a chef in a kitchen, Rouben pays attention to things like ideal cooking temperatures, and what form the fruit is in when added to the bill. This is where the culinary techniques come into play. For example, blueberries are incredibly difficult to work with because of their water content, he said. Not only will they dilute the beer, but you also lose a lot of bold flavor during the process. His fix? While many breweries will use an extract or juice, he dehydrates the fruit to keep the flavor strong without the burden of additional juice.
Almanac adopts a similar course, favoring a largely hands-off model where the fruit is left to speak for itself. “We approach it the same way a lot of chefs do their ingredients,” Friedman said. “We try to get the ingredient in its rawest form so we can extract as much flavor from it as possible and process it as little as possible as well.”
Sometimes, this goal requires some innovation. Take for example, this season’s Heirloom pumpkin beer. Heirloom pumpkins don’t hit their peak until early winter, months after the country expects to be drinking the style, so Almanac found a way to capture the fresh flavors of the pumpkin without cheating the system. Instead of brewing with canned pumpkin, like many brewers do, they cultivate the pumpkin meat in the middle of winter, roast it and add it to a barleywine base. The beer ages the brew in brandy barrels until it’s ready for consumption the following fall.
Despite whatever tricks and techniques might be employed to bring each beer to life, at the very core of both company’s concepts is the idea that simplicity and honesty are fundamental to producing great beer.
Without flashy recipes and extreme gimmicks, the quality of the basic ingredients used in the beer becomes the most crucial element of the process. Rouben explains, “I tell other brewers and other cooks that I’ve always been taught this way: You never get a great product from using good ingredients. If you start with great ingredients, you have the opportunity to make a great product.”
Finding and celebrating a single flavor, letting people know where those ingredients are coming from, and building a recipe that supports and showcases flavors while making sure the final liquid stays balanced ensures their beers will always taste fresh, interesting and approachable.
Photos by Emma Janzen, where noted, or courtesy of Almanac Beer Co.