As interest in beer continues to grow, brews are taking their legitimate place at the table alongside wine as an equally fine complement to food.
Many restaurateurs have taken notice, expanding beer selections, creating food-beer pairings and even offering brewmaster dinners.
New products range from the ridiculous to the sublime. The first beer from outer space was brewed by Sapporo in Japan, made from barley seeds that had circled the earth in the International Space Station. Mama Mia Pizza Beer, contracted by Sprecher Brewery, is brewed with tomatoes, oregano and basil and touted as perfect with pizza. And a Brazilian brewery has created a beer-energy drink hybrid—Dado Ilex Bier—brewed with yerba mate. More down to earth is Bud Light Lime, a takeoff on Mexican beer-juice combos. Miller has its version, too—the lime-flavored Miller Chill.
With the purchase of Anheuser-Busch by European giant InBev, restaurant and bar owners can easily order up, among others, the English ale Boddington’s, Asian lagers Harbin and Tiger and a bevy of Belgians, including Leffe
and Hoegaarden, from their regular A-B distributor. New to Miller’s U.S. import line are Peruvian beers Cristal and Cusquena, as well as Aguila from Colombia and Tyskie from Poland.
Molson-Coors has some new packaging innovations—cold-activated bottles and glasses that change color at the perfect drinking temp and a vented wide-mouth Coors can that provides a smoother pour. And, in a bid for nostalgia, Pabst Brewing is re-launching Schlitz, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” in its classic 1960s format.
Craft beer sales grew at an amazing 16 percent last year and are on track to increase this year. Microbreweries are turning out seasonal and specialty beers at a mind-boggling clip. And several brewers are releasing beers made with organic barley and hops, among them Peak Organic in Maine, Butte Creek in California and Wolaver’s in Vermont. As a sign of the category’s potential, Anheuser-Busch has two organic brands, Green Valley and Stone Mill.
Prices for beer have risen anywhere from 4 to 10 percent over the past year, thanks to the higher cost of the main ingredient, barley malt, and a shortage of premium hops. And beer delivery costs have jumped considerably with the high price of gasoline. Increased costs of glass and aluminum have also impacted the price of a six-pack.
Prices of microbrews are generally rising faster than mass-market lagers. Mega-brewers have locked in long-term supply commitments and enjoy efficiencies of scale that craft brewers can’t. And some of the big brewers are holding the line on increases so as not to turn off customers.
Half Moon rising
Sourcing locally is a big culinary trend—now it’s a beverage trend as well. Despite an extensive selection of imported and craft brews, Half Moon Restaurant & Saloon in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, allots several of its 27 taps to locally brewed beers.
“We like to support our local brewers,” says co-owner Scott Hammond. He also supports other nearby purveyors by purchasing seasonal farm produce, locally raised buffalo and other foodstuffs whenever possible.
Beers from famed Pennsylvania breweries like Victory, Troegs, Legacy and Yards are tapped side by side with imports like Young’s Chocolate Stout and Franziskaner Weissbier, as well as other American craft brews, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “The local beers have a good following among our regulars,” Hammond claims.
Those beers are generally fresher, too; another home-court advantage. Plus, he notes, transportation costs are less—an important consideration these days. When the brewery is local, it’s also easier to offecask-conditioned ales (beer that is naturally carbonated in the keg). Half Moon has three such ales, with hand-pulled beer engines to tap the casks. “If you’re a serious beer bar, you have to offer at least one cask-conditioned ale,” Hammond contends.