The Beauty and Elegance of High-Low Beer and Food Pairing

Recently I’ve been itching to go to a beer dinner, a really delicious excuse to eat too much delicious food and drink too much delicious beer, but to be honest, they’re just too expensive. I mean $50 for a four-course meal with 4 beers is pretty reasonable, assuming that each of those beers costs $5, that’s $20 and then the dinner itself is $30. However the reason person within me thinks ‘wow, when was the last time you spent $50 just on food for yourself in a normal restaurant situation?’ I feel like beer dinners should just be cheaper – you’re a captive audience and supporter and blowing $100 on a weeknight meal for two just feels frivolous to do more than once a year. It’s ok to make it expensive sometimes especially if you’re involving a renowned chef, but to really get people excited and learning about craft beer and food/beer pairings, you have to make it more accessible – lower the cost.

However, it’s a two-fold situation. Beer-pairing dinners are the little brother to wine-pairing dinners, which are arguably more expensive and, for lack of a better word, ritzy. The discourse around wine is much more sophisticated and as are the people that talk about the ‘bouquet of the wine’ and nibble crackers in between tastings (that apparently you are not supposed to actually swallow). Wine is supposed to go with high-class food while beer goes with sporting games and burgers. But as we’ve seen recently ‘everyday’ food like burgers and grilled cheeses are become more popular, more ritzy, and definitely more expensive. So why not pair beer with those things instead of the unattainable Michelin star-type food you find matched up with wine? Well, some do, but then they charge wine dinner prices for it. Sure good quality craft beer isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely not fancy pants wine and that’s not what beer is all about so why charge like it is? Beer is for the people, even craft beer, believe it or not.

If craft beer is expensive then won’t people think it’s better and more elite, like wine? So then it practically needs to have events similar to those with wine. Craft beer no longer competes against crappy American lagers, it competes against wine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, people who say they don’t like beer just haven’t found the right one. There is a larger variety of flavor profiles in beer than there is in wine because it can literally be or taste like anything – craft brewers are getting adventurous and by over-pricing beer dinners, people are missing out. Pairing craft beer with gourmet food isn’t the ‘next big thing’ because it’s here and frankly it’s unsustainable and further alienates people that craft beer has left behind. The future of craft beer and food is high-low beer pairings, bringing the people and the beer together rather than the beer to the people.

Last summer for a friend’s birthday we went to the Lagunitas and Heggie’s pizza beer-pairing dinner at the Nomad World Pub. It was awesome. For $20 we had four (five?) glasses of Lagunitas paired with five different slices of the famous bar-only Heggie’s frozen pizza. As an appetizer we had a handful of Totino’s pizza rolls in a whiskey glass served with a tasting glass of beer and then from there, the beer and pizza were flowing. Before every new pizza and beer, the local Lagunitas rep gave us a brief description of both and why they went well together – there were no white tablecloths, no cloth napkins for that matter, just a lot of beautiful patio and tasty beers. I honestly can’t tell you why there weren’t more people there – am I the only one who likes cheap craft beer and above average frozen pizza? Perhaps.

But my point still stands. Through that event, Lagunitas got their name out in the community, we got to try more Lagunitas than I have even had at a beer festival and we ate plenty – it was a successful beer dinner by all definitions.  So now I want more but I have seen none. Unlike a wine-pairing dinner that teaches people that the only way to enjoy good wine and good food is to pay a lot at a fancy restaurant, the beauty of the high-low beer pairing is that it is inexpensive for everyone and a great way to focus on the beer and how to pair and enjoy it with everyday foods. That’s what craft beer is all about.

Why Old Chicago is Actually Kind of Cool

I know it’s been a while since last I wrote on my blog and for that I am very sorry; life happened, man. Well that’s a lie, mostly work happened. And as many of you know, staring at a computer for many hours a day (doing mostly powerpoint) makes you feel like you definitely don’t want to be typing up a storm on the computer when you get home (but Netflix and GChat are, of course, exceptions to the rule). My mind has just been a different place. I have been tweeting though, so… if you don’t follow me on Twitter, you should: @beerspectacles. It will help you get that Beer Spectacles fix you’ve been missing. Anyway, enough of that. Down to business. This will be a quick “I told you so,” so don’t worry, you can read this in the 30 minutes you give yourself at your desk before you really sit down to “do work.” Like I did, finishing it off before I really started my day.

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As most of you may know, I really like Michael Agnew and his A Perfect Pint blog and efforts; he is really cool and does really cool stuff and has cool things to say. Every time I go to his blog I discover another juicy piece of beer news and yesterday was no exception (I mean I looked at it today and saw that the one of the founders of Flat Earth was let go in like April. April?! It’s May! WHAT AM I DOING?). Michael wrote a piece about a new Old Chicago in Eden Prairie that caught my attention: I started writing a post in January about it myself and I don’t feel bad in the least that he beat me to it. I mean, he actually went to the new Old Chicago, I did not; I still only go to the one in Uptown and love it (Although I haven’t been in a while). But his post is proof: Old Chicago is actually kind of cool.

While I am not always a huge proponent of chain bars and restaurants, every time I’m in, at, or around an Old Chicago I’m reminded of the fact that, when picked up and turned around in the right direction like a wayward snail, they can find their way, and people will follow their trail of slime. Ok that was too much, but you see what I’m saying. Yes, Old Chicago has great drink specials. Did you see that they had pints of Surly for like $2.50 on some nights (I could be exaggerating, but that’s still a good deal)? And those mini pizzas?! Need I say more? … Sure.

I also went there once with Mike and coworker for a sports game (football?) where we drank a lot of pints of Coors (hey, it was on special). Did I still like it? Yes. But Mike made the good point that behind the bar they have those special mugs that people who have drank so many beers in so many places have (something called like the Beer Tour.). Apparently this special mug thing is a cool old school tradition that they have in a lot of east coast bars (ooooooooooohhhhhhh east coast bars!!!!) that we’re missing around here. Sure the CC Club has its regulars, but none of them have their own mugs (that the CC Club knows of). That’s just baller.

These regulars must have the right idea; I guarantee you they’re not drinking always Coors out of those mugs (or they might be, who knows) but my point still stands. This sort of loyalty exists for a reason, they support a quality establishment, which it seems to be, according to Michael’s article (or at least the one in Eden Prairie). It has a plethora of beers on tap (ok, it’s no Republic, but it’ll do), serves their beer the right way (not in frosted mugs, oh thank god. Now I don’t have to be a douche and scoff behind the server’s back about how it’s supposed to be served in a room temp glass), and is knowledgable about beer and more specifically, local beers and breweries. What else could you want? More of those little pizzas? Definitely.

One of my friends pointedly told me the other day (I think pre-sports game outing at the Uptown Old Chicago) that according to an article he read, chain bars and restaurants have some of the best beer lists around (I think the example he used was Ruby Tuesday. What?) and I was in disbelief, almost anger, at his blatant lies. People don’t go there to drink cool local craft brews, they go there to be dicks and order a billion strawberry margaritas and drive themselves home (oh I went there). But I stand corrected. They are making a true and honest attempt to replicate the experience one would have at another of their favorite restaurants or bars while still having that chain vibe you know and love: that’s their look and feel, some would say. And I mean, if you’re just a regular dude and want to have a beer you also know and love (Coors) and maybe a beer you don’t (Lucid?), if the staff can recommend one to you in a smart and sincere way, then by all means, go for it and work towards one of those cool mugs behind the bar. You deserve it. And Old Chicago deserves some recognition for helping to make craft beer more accessible (even though this image of all these beers in a row is from their website, and to be honest, a little bit off-message, if you know what I mean. Is that Smirnoff on the shelf too?!).

Can it, Already: Why Canned Craft Beer is so Cool

You’ve seen it in liquor stores and are probably familiar with it in your home, especially if you love Surly: canned beer. Why is it so cool? Why are so many more craft brewers going in this direction versus the more traditional pry-off top bottles (please, screw off tops imply cheap and, ew… macrobrewed beer.)? Just the other day I was at Pat’s Tap on 35th and Nicollet and they had a whole blurb about how they love cans and why they’re better than bottles (Side Note: Pat’s Tap is a great place, you should definitely check it out. They have great cheese curds, although not top five. Ok, maybe top five, but definitely NOT top three, which for the record are 1) Groveland Tap (bonus of great beer selection), 2) Bulldog Uptown (also bonus of great beer selection and, obviously, locale), 3) State Fair (non-bonus of expensive limited beer selection)).

Anyway, not the point. The point is that beer in the can is cool and there have been many recent articles/blogs about why exactly that is. Well, that article is about science, saying they are equal. Don’t bother reading it, the only real sentence that matters is that science says: “I would expect that the difference between amber glass and aluminum cans is minimal as far as photodegradation is concerned.”  Photodegradation is the light impacting the overall taste/flavor/carbonation of the beer, which is the main reason why people have said amber bottles are the way to go. In case you didn’t know, clear glass lets in all the light, so that definitely impacts the beer (“photodegradation”), resulting in what some people refer to as “skunked beer,” which mostly refers to the lack of carbonation in the beer and just being generally gross. Either way, you know that beer that comes in a clear glass bottle is a) not a respectable beer, because b) the proprietors couldn’t be bothered to put it in an amber glass, so chances are it sucks. Just. Saying. Oh and in case your wondering, green bottles are ok, but amber ones are better. Clear ones are the worst. Cans? They’re just as good as amber bottles. WHAT?

So then you think back to the last time you ordered a PBR at the bar and you’re all like “Hmm… but what about that aluminum taste? I don’t like that. I just bought the PBR because it was cheap and it adds to my cool image.” And good question; the point is that beer, like wine, is not meant to be drunk in the receptacle it came in, be it can, bottle, or bag (ahem, don’t pretend you don’t drink Franzia, the world’s most popular wine). That’s why pouring it into a glass (I’m not going to be a dick and say the ‘right’ glass; a glass is good enough) is really important. This is something that has to happen even if your beer came in the fanciest amberiest glass bottle of all time. The point is that yes, beer from a can will have a slightly more aluminum taste if you’re putting your slobbery beer-thirsty mouth against the stupid aluminum can to drink (chug?) it. So just pour it in a glass and quit your bitching. Then again if you’re getting a PBR at the CC Club or something, they might laugh at you when you order a tallboy of PBR and ask for a glass (I mean you paid $2 for it, it’s not worth their time or money to clean a glass for you). But you were the idiot that ordered that PBR in the first place. Just drink it out of the can and save yourself the trouble.

So again, you ask, why are cans so cool and why am I cool for drinking beer from them? Why do I see my favorite beers available in cans? Why do good breweries insist on canning their beer rather than bottling (besides the aforementioned fact that they let in just as little light as traditional amber bottles)? Surly’s slogan is “Beer for a glass, from a can,” not only saying that cans are cool (like their beer) but that it’s meant for a glass, like a real beer that you would find in a bottle, that you would also pour in a glass (HAVE I MENTIONED THAT YOU SHOULD POUR YOUR BEER IN GLASS?). Also, cans and canning is just cheaper, simple as that. And from a design standpoint, they also allow a slightly larger canvas from which to express the essence of the beer, which is important in a world where there are more and more breweries and differentiators are not only harder to establish but harder to show to the consumer. I mean, not all breweries can have special glass bottles made for their beer like they do with Vodkas; plus it goes against general beer conventions.

But I think it’s more than that. Ultimately, cans are a throwback to the age when the can was really the only option (and people were drinking it straight out of the can by the case-load) and craft beers are reclaiming this identity in a postmodern way (yeah that’s right, I went there. I’ll reel it back in, don’t worry); a can no longer means an average macrobrew. Craft beer now has all the versatility of the can but you get to drink the beer you love the way you used to drink Bud Light or maybe Milwaukee’s Best in college (chug, smash, toss). I say the reclamation of the can is postmodern because it not only references the past use of cans and the current changing face of beer, but it was cans that changed how beer was brewed/distributed in the United States in the first place that made it monolithic post-Prohibition, and here they are, doing it again, but diversifying. Reclaiming. Reforming. Recanning. And people are loving it.

So, is canning an attempt to reach the market of macrobrew drinkers by tricking them into buying cans, grabbing it instead of a case of Miller High Life? Does it make them feel better about buying a craft beer they once thought was too hoity-toity or didn’t even realize was a beer until it came out in cans? Probably not. But maybe? I’d say it’s more for beer geeks/snobs who want to take craft beer with them camping and not deal with bottles (because bottles don’t crush like cans, duh, and they can shatter or in some cases, explode). The question is if you as a beer snob invited some of your beer snob friends over and offered them some beer snob beer, would they feel wronged if you brought out some beer snob cans and poured them into glasses? I think they would be skeptical at first, then you would have some sort of abbreviated version of this blog post about whether or not it’s a big deal that their Fat Tire is now canned.

Then there’s the fact that there aren’t really THAT many breweries that can their beers. It’s still an anomaly. Check out this neat website that talks about all craft brews in cans and announces the new ones as they come out. It’s kind of exciting to think about the future of craft beers as they convert more breweries and people to using and drinking canned beer. But what does that mean for homebrewers? Are they going to have to start buying cases of fresh amber bottles from their homebrew supply store instead of reusing bottles? I mean, I doubt that all beer sales will be in cans for a while, or at all, so that’s good, but then what’s the point? I know that not all homebrewers = beer snobs, but the overlap is pretty big, so then does that kind of hinder canned craft beer sales? Wasn’t homebrewer reuse part of the reason Summit went to pry-offs instead of twist offs (besides the fact it makes them seem more legitimate, oh, and THEY WOULD TEAR THE SHIT OUT OF YOUR HAND WHEN YOU TRIED TO TWIST THEM OFF AND YOU HAD TO USE A BOTTLE OPENER ANYWAY)? But it could’ve also been that beer in pry-off bottles stays fresher longer than beer in twist-offs, but would you believe me if I told you it stays EVEN fresher for longer in cans? Because it does.

And then there’s the social phenomenon around the tallboy. How cool is the tallboy, you ask? Really cool. Just ask your local hipster. Go to your local liquor store. I don’t know how excited you were when you saw that Grain Belt now comes in cases of tallboys (yes, 24 16oz cans with that great checkered Grain Belt pattern), but I was really excited. This introduced a whole new level of beer appreciation into my and my friends’ lives, a level that we now refer to as the ‘Pounder Pack.’ I would be remiss not to mention that the term itself came from the official name on the case of PBR tallboys that we once (ok, several times and counting) purchased for a drinking game/activity known as PowerKart (but more on that another day), that we now use to refer to all cases of tallboys.

Needless to say, not only are cans cool but so are tallboys and the Pounder Pack (as was the packaging company that startedto encourage breweries to start doing it this way—recognizing, creating or propagating the trend, it’s hard to say). But for now, it seems that the Pounder Pack concept is just for beers that come from breweries that have the capacity to can at this scale (as much as I love Grain Belt it is by no means a craft beer, this I recognize), so it just adds to the popularity of the can in general. Then again, the twelve-pack of 21st Amendment comes in a fridge-friendly box and is always a solid brew (I had their Back in Black Black IPA the other day, and it was delicious). They can ALL of their beers and are proud of it. There’s something sexy about a craft beer in a well-designed can, and they do it well.

More cans, I say. Bring on the Pounder Packs of craft beer.

Here’s to Those Who Wish Us Well…

Hello and welcome to the Beer Spectacles! For some of you, this may be the first beer blog you follow; for others, this may be the millionth. Whatever your fancy, this beer blog aims to have a nice mouth-feel and a smooth finish (beer terminology… you’ll get into it, I promise).  But first, a little about me and my goals. Then you can decide if you want to tap the keg… of knowledge.

Me: A 20-something Midwestern female with a unquenchable thirst for beer and beer knowledge. If you didn’t already know, I grew up overseas, experiencing some sort of bizarro “American” lifestyle. I mean bizarro in the nicest way possible, of course, as this inside-outsider perspective encouraged me upon my repatriation to explore all things American with the avid desire to just fit in and have something cool to talk about that everyone can relate to/learn from (especially, of course, on a weekend night). Sophomore year of college, beer became this exact thing. Sure I was under 21, sure I had no idea that my college’s local liquor store had a very mediocre craft beer selection, but boy did I get into it. That year, I was enrolled in the anthropology department’s methods course on ethnographic interviewing and sad that my lead at the local funeral home didn’t work out, I skulked into the homebrewing supply store across the street, where I met my very attractive, very first ‘informant’ (anthro term for person who talks to you for hours, having great patience, explaining every little thing about their culture or microculture).  It was all downhill from there, becoming obsessed with understanding every nuance of different beer styles and the homebrewing process, wanting so bad to be part of it all. A semester later, Keith (the pseudonym for my informant, another anthropology precaution) gave me a great discount on my first homebrewing set and having moved off campus, I was ready to brew… And brew hard. A billion beers later (ones I brewed, ones my friends brewed—brew crew!, and ones I salivated over at the bar), I’m here. Writing this. Just for you. It was always just for you.

My goals: Are pretty straightforward. I want to share my love, life, and experience with beer with you all. Minnesota’s beer scene is literally exploding right now, and I want to be part of it and I can’t help but be part of it and I want you to be part of it, too. There will be posts about how to start homebrewing, what I’m brewing, where to find good information on brewing/beer/breweries, cool bars to go to (and reviews of cool bars I like to go to, or cool bars that have terrible beer lists), reviews of brewery tours and beers (new and old), discussions about what it means to be a craft beer lover and supporter, what’s in, what’s out, and how to pour well (not a Mike pour). That’s why it’s called the Beer Spectacles. Refine your beer goggles.

So let’s embark on this together. Like the toast my heterosexual lifemate Hannah gives, “Here’s to those who wish us well, and all the rest can go to Hell!” Cheers!