Sunday, May 18, 2008

About Those Gourmet Beer Dinners

There's little doubt that the popularity of "beer dinners" is increasing. These events are good way for breweries, retailers, and distributors to expose the public to their beers, and to increase awareness of craft beer in general. I've been thinking about the costs to attend these functions, and the message the sponsors are trying to get across. Is it about the food, the beer, both? I mentioned the Samichlaus dinner at Brasserie Beck recently. This $110 a plate meal comes at a premium price. The menu received just a brief mention in the promotional email, and given the beer to be served, the price was probably to be expected. But are the expectations for a beer dinner correct? What's the message? Is the craft beer industry trying too hard to overcome the frat-boy-party-animal image that the likes of Budweiser and Coors have long saddled us with?

Most beer dinners I've read about, or attended, have a price tag of $60-70, for a 4-5 course meal. Such prices are reasonable given the venue; typically it's a gourmet meal, five or more different craft beers, along with some educational aspects. However, the more I think about it, is this necessarily the best way to promote craft beer? Sure we want beer to gain a better image, especially as a proper accompaniment to good food. But how many people are willing to regularly spend $60 or more, per person, for a dinner out? It seems to me that these gourmet meals are being promoted to the exclusion of simpler affairs. Sure, these are special events and we all want and deserve a treat every now and then, but many more people could be reached through different venues.

As people gain an appreciation for fine beer over factory beer, they will soon realize that good beer costs more. But we don't want to give the impression that good beer is an extravagance. Why isn't there greater interest in sponsoring more moderately priced events? Let's spread the message through less extreme events and offer small samples of properly paired food. Focus on education over extravagance. Brewers would do well to sponsor events promoting craft beer to a greater general audience. I recently saw notice of a $30.00 Flying Dog dinner that is described as "affordable and tasty". Certainly a step closer to what I am suggesting, but why a sit down dinner at all? Serve appetizers and light snacks, add more beer varieties, and it would still be possible to keep the cost attractive to a large audience.

Here's a plea to brewers. Keep those fancy dinners coming, but let's see more low cost events too. Present us with 4 or 6 of your beers along with samples of easily prepared foods for everyday enjoyment. Teach folks that a Pale Ale goes just as well with nachos as it does with pan-seared salmon.

Update, May 20: Andy Crouch as posted on a related topic in The SAVOR Wrap-up And Concerns About The Growing Snobbery Of Beer…


  1. Well said. It's difficult for me to really imagine what it's like, as the idea of these beer dinners is pretty alien over this side of the pond. And there's a good part of me that would just love the opportunity to go to one of these.

    But I can't imagine encouraging this kind of exclusivity does the beer world any favours. As you say, more affordable events seems to be the way forward.

  2. I love the idea of anyone making the connection between beer and food, but why does a beer dinner have to get so complicated? Over-priced beer dinners exhibit the same sort of snobbery that we beer
    drinkers used to complain about with wine drinkers. Somehow, someway, the wine industry has managed to rein in the over-the-top wine and food pairings
    that were once typical in any newspaper or magazine recipe article, and have taken it down a few notches. You can now admit that a cheap bottle of Australian Merlot holds up to a slab of ribs slathered with Open Pit and an ear of grilled corn on the side without introducing some obscure ingredient into the mix. You can even admit that you once enjoyed a fried bologna sandwich with a cold glass of Carlo Rossi Mountain Burgundy, and nobody will bat an

    The beer/food craze, though, hasn't found that comfortable level of subtle promotion that vintners have settled into. There's room for exotic and
    obscure food recipes paired with high-priced wines with a run of only 1,500 cases, but there's also plenty of room for the simple foods you might enjoy at home without making its preparation, and pairing with a cheap, but
    enjoyable wine, into a big production number. Every beer/food article I now read or beer dinner invitation I see mimics the haughtiness that wine/food article used to portray.

    Bill Daley, the wine critic at the Chicago Trib once did an article pairing an under $10 bottle of wine with a Chicago-style hot dog. It was a real stretch, but at least he tried taking the gloss off the idea of matching wine and food as being a high-priced and snobby experience.

    It's still a battle with some
    people I know to get them to try a craft or imported beer. Now I'm supposed to get them to drink one of these beers, but only if they order one with "balsamic roasted root vegetables" or need something to extinguish the "bite of wasabi?" If I put ground wasabi on the dinner table, my Lithuanian
    mother-in-law would want to know what I have against horseradish.

    Whatever happened to the good old days when you were invited over to a friend's house for a simple dinner and your friend breathlessly boasted that the brats he was going to serve were marinated overnight in some cheap American pilsner? Nowadays you have to hunt for obscure beers, making sure there's a different beer for each course, and drop a bundle for a boatload of foodstuffs that your average store never carries. You'll never win converts to the craft beer side when the brass ring keeps on getting pulled further and further away. Overpriced and over ambitious beer dinners only add to the problem.

    When I did my research for "Beer & Food: An American History," it was fun to stumble across the first uses of beer in chocolate cake or in a home made salad dressing or find that New Yorkers were slurping down oysters with
    brown ales in the 1700s. But nowadays, you have to use Belgian chocolates and beers for your cake, send away for some herb that only grows on the north slope of the Alps for the herbal portion of your salad dressing, or only use a particular type of oyster because....well, because some expert says so.

    I'll be heading to Monroe, WI this weekend for a limburger cheese sandwich and a cheap beer from the Minhas Brewery...and I'll be as happy as a clam.


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