The Chef in the Brewhouse: More Breweries Add Upscale Menus and Sit-Down Dining

Feature by | May 2016 | Issue #112
Tassione beets with beef lardo, paired with a dark Saison at Small Brewpub. | Photo by Kelsey Wilson

After generations of tireless research, science has proven it biologically impossible to subsist on beer alone. As a result, drinking sessions must eventually yield to some basic combination of solid food—typically involving starch and meat. Emphasis on basic.

Pub grub, that catchall phrase, has forever been shorthand for pedestrian fare; practical nourishment focused more on soaking up the suds than offering any sort of elevated dining experience. But as the role of the brewery has evolved over the past decade from production facility to full-on tourist destination, so too has the relationship between the beer being brewed and the food being served. Enhancing their sense of place, magnifying their cultural significance, beermakers from coast to coast are now plating gourmet cuisine alongside mash tuns and fermentation tanks. Some even sacrifice profitability to do so. But to stay ahead of the curve, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that craft brewers must do more than brew. Fancy food is now on the table.

As the quintessential blue-collar beverage, American beer has always been a dependable companion to burgers, fries and pizza. The association is so strong, in fact, that it wasn’t seriously challenged until relatively recently. In the spring of 2006, Stone Brewing helped change the game when it launched its Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, Calif. CEO Greg Koch, an established boundary-pusher in the realm of beer, was determined to take the same approach with the menu at his new restaurant. Sourcing local, organic ingredients whenever possible, the eatery implemented a slow food philosophy, introducing dishes like pepita crusted tilapia, and Sriracha-glazed quail to accompany its Pale Ale and Smoked Porter.

“I put the word ‘world’ in our restaurant because I wanted to freely draw from world influences without any restrictions as to a particular genre or direction,” says Koch. Thumbing its nose at convention, Stone even banned ketchup—a policy that still stands at all of its expanded locations. “We don’t have anything that ketchup goes with,” he explains.

Brewery Vivant’s Chef’s Table. | Photo by Paul Bomers

Brewery Vivant’s Chef’s Table. | Photo by Paul Bomers

Although a chef-driven menu at a brewery was risky business 10 years ago, the runaway success of the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens signaled a new era of elevated beer cuisine. The emerging landscape enabled ambitious enterprises such as Chef’s Table at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Mich. Attendees of the private dining experience here are treated to a bounty of French- and Belgian-inspired dishes, each paired with a different beer, and served by the chef himself, Chris Weimer. “In 2013, we expanded our kitchen by moving our walk-in [fridge] outside, gaining prep space inside,” he recalls. “By doing this, we were able to put an 8-foot prep table in the center of the kitchen. [It] just screamed ‘Chef’s Table.’ I had a vision of offering people a private, all-inclusive dining experience right in the thick of service.”

From a strictly financial standpoint, the added space would have been better suited to beer production or food preparation. But according to Weimer, Chef’s Table added value beyond pure production space. “When you are empowered to think quality over quantity, the word ‘profit’ becomes second to that huge word, ‘experience.’ We are on a path to enhance the overall experience of our guests. We use our space creatively to offer something different.” As a result, Brewery Vivant exists as more than just a local brewery, serving as a community gathering place that also happens to offer some of the best cuisine in town. Sure, you can score nachos here, but they’re house fried tortilla chips, drizzled with Brie cream and topped with duck confit.

Wild game beer dinner at Ithaca Beer Co. | Photo courtesy of Ithaca Beer Co.

Wild game beer dinner at Ithaca Beer Co. | Photo courtesy of Ithaca Beer Co.

As much as it fosters community, quality food also invigorates regional pride. In upstate New York, Ithaca Beer Company expanded into a new brewery and restaurant in 2012 focused on reinforcing the brand’s image as ‘The Spirit of the Finger Lakes’ and strengthening the connection between the beer and the place it’s made. “We’re inspired by our own agricultural culinary terroir,” explains Gregg Stacy, director of marketing and sales. More than just sourcing local malt for Outdoor Ale and locally roasted coffee for Nitro Super Stout, for example, that means an equal emphasis on using Finger Lakes-raised pigs for the house-smoked bacon, and smoked Gouda cheese from a nearby dairy farm. “The historical cliché of burgers, wings and fish and chips still has validity in many brewpubs,” says Stacy. “It’s part of the experience that many consumers have come to expect and seek out. However, the craft beer segment has matured and with it, so have brewpubs and their culinary focus.”

Aaron Garcia, head brewer and general manager of Small Brewpub in Dallas, Texas, attributes the advancement of pub grub to a larger cultural shift. For years, “the industry for the most part was stuck in a rut of very English styles,” he says. “I love those styles, but like a bunch of other folks, now we desire more creativity and variety.” In beer, in food, across the board, American palates are shifting away from the bland and the basic. Garcia recognized this in 2012, when he brought chef Misti Norris on board to develop a business plan, which included finishing out a kitchen adjacent to the brewhouse. Conceding that it wasn’t the most cost-effective model, he points out that “brewing beer is only one part of what we’re doing here at Small. We’re not driven solely by profit potential, we pursue excellence in food, beer and drinks equally.” It takes an expertly-crafted beer to hold its own against Norris’ genre-bending provisions, including pickled beets with beef lardo, and veal sweetbreads with oak leaf saag. As a testament to their shared vision, chef Norris was just nominated as a Rising Star of the Year at the 2016 James Beard Awards for culinary excellence.

Chef Misti Norris plating a dish at Small Brewpub. | Photo by Kelsey Wilson

Chef Misti Norris plating a dish at Small Brewpub. | Photo by Kelsey Wilson

Not long ago the exception, it’s now becoming something of a rule that any brewery expansion must allocate sizable space to gourmet cuisine. Like the new Tap Room at Avery, offering everything from chicken-fried rabbit and waffles to udon noodles with root vegetables and crispy tofu; and Surly’s Brewer’s Table, with its four course pairing menu; and on and on. In a twist that few saw coming, the list of the country’s great breweries can now almost double as a destination dining list.

“I love the juxtaposition of a pallet full of grain, next to a line of dirty kegs waiting to be washed, next to biergarten-style tables with funky beers and amazing food plated like something out of a Michelin-starred restaurant, all in the same room,” says Garcia. “It’s a strange dream, I admit.”

Strange maybe, but it’s hardly a dream as more and more breweries trade up from stodgy pub grub.

A Better Kind of Brewpub

Technically speaking, not all breweries with restaurants qualify as brewpubs. To earn that distinction, (according to the Brewers Association) at least a quarter of a brewery-restaurant’s beer production must be sold on-site. Within this vast subset, high-end cuisine of increasing diversity, representing all manner of ethnic inspiration, is in full bloom. At Portland, Ore.’s BTU Brasserie, for example, classic Chinese fare—Char Siu pork bao, hot and sour soup—finds its way to the table alongside housemade microbrews indicative of the Pacific Northwest.

Further down the coast, in Hermosa Beach, The Brewery at Abigaile merges refreshing lagers with inventive, California cuisine. Smoked pig ‘pop tarts,’ and escargot poppers commonly accompany a crowd-pleasing IPL, brewed just blocks from the ocean. Los Angeles County is also the new home of Firestone Walker’s latest expansion: a dedicated SoCal-themed restaurant in Venice (think fish tacos and crispy brussels sprouts with spinach and goat cheese), promising a small-scale pilot brewhouse for one-off brews in the imminent future.

In Chicago, Corridor Brewery and Provisions opened in the autumn of 2015, bringing Belgian-centric beer styles—not to mention, heaping mounds of moules frites—to the city’s upscale Lakeview neighborhood. To appeal to vegetarians, Corridor’s kitchen even plates a surprisingly addictive buffalo-fried cauliflower, speckled with cheese curds.

Not to be outdone, the Eastern Seaboard boasts a bevy of chef-driven kitchens at brewpubs from Florida to Maine. In Asheville, N.C., Wicked Weed’s original location still houses a 15-barrel system, along with an inspired selection of expertly executed eats. Beef tartar, Carolina bison meatloaf, and organic pork loin served with a butternut squash hash are but a few of the unconventional menu items befitting of one of the country’s most intrepid beermakers.

New York City raised the bar for malt and hops when Luksus became the first beer-only restaurant in the world to earn a coveted Michelin star. Just down the street, Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company produces a wide assortment of styles, from traditional to experimental, made to match a series of dishes inspired by the staples of Western Europe: pierogis, pates and house-soured pickles, as wondrous and diverse as Brooklyn itself. In the Gowanus section of the borough, Threes Brewing weaves an innovative model into a successful brewpub formula: rotating pop-up eateries. The multiuse bar, kitchen and event space has hosted over a dozen buzzworthy chefs and restaurants from across the city, typically for two to three week residencies. The concept allows drinkers to experience something fresh upon each visit, while the brewers are free to experiment with endless styles of their own, unencumbered by the expectations of a fixed food menu.

As its name suggests, Prohibition Pig of Waterbury, Vt., pays homage to all things pork. The original birthplace of Heady Topper, the brewpub that succeeded the Alchemist in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene has developed its own impressive lineup of tropical, juicy IPAs. Just what you need to cut through the fat of housemade pork cracklins, chopped pork—steeped in Carolina-style BBQ sauce—and maple baked beans. Don’t skip the Snickers Pie for dessert.