When considering how to write most of my CraftBeer.ca posts I had you, the reader in mind at the controls. You were either experimenting with craft beer as a kitchen ingredient, or were planning to host friends for a get-together and thinking about how to pair beer and food together harmoniously.
Today, I’d like to spend a bit of time on the topic of beer dinners. That usually means somebody else will be making the critical decisions. This post could be put to practical use if you’re wondering how to find a beer dinner that is worth your hard-earned dollars or are lucky enough to organize one yourself.
Let’s quickly deal with terminology before we go any further. A beer dinner is an event where more than 10 people (often closer to 100) pay the same ticket price to eat the exact same menu, paired with the same beers, on the same night. It is not a meal at a brewpub or beer-focused restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with the idea (at least not all the time), but we’re also not talking about cases where restaurants offer a beer-centered prix fixe menu. The event is defined by its communal and ephemeral nature.
Like craft beer in general, special-event beer dinners are growing rapidly in Canada. We have gone from a situation twenty years ago when there were a couple options every year, to several every month in most cities. The freedom to choose is welcome, but here are my pointers for choosing wisely.
The food half of the card is probably the larger risk. I’ll wager that you have a good idea whether or not you like the brewery’s beer, but might put a question mark beside a chef you’ve never heard of. Please don’t. Or at least don’t let that sway you. In my experience, it’s the chefs who seem like an oddball choice that have the best chance at putting on a brilliant beer dinner. Anyone with a propane grill and a half-decent butcher can make a respectable version of Charred Hunk of Beef with Fancified Carrots – i.e. run-of-the-mill brewpub fare – but a beer dinner is an opportunity for more.
Seek out an odd-sounding combination that brings together beer and a chef to cook food that isn’t on the Pub Food 101 reading list. One great example of this was held at Indie Ale House in Toronto when they invited Paul Boehmer from Bhima’s Warung to prepare a menu of his Southeast Asian specialties.
Off the Beaten Path Beers
Maybe this goes without saying, then again, judging by some menus I’ve seen it needs repeating. The beer served at a beer dinner should be extraordinary. At least a few of the glasses shouldn’t be available to guests from nearby retailers. The point, breweries, if you have ticket-paying, engaged fans in the room this is the opportunity to share some your best, even experimental stuff with them.
Again, a perfect example comes easily to mind. One of Canada’s best breweries, Le Trou du Diable, recently held a beer dinner in Toronto at Woodlot Restaurant. Many of the bottles they poured had rare, barrel-aged brews or were special sour versions.
No Tasting Notes
To this point, I have to imagine most people are nodding along with me. My next one might be a bit more contentious. I think beer dinners should have speeches. Not long ones and not for more than a couple people, but more than zero. Guests want to feel that they’ve had an exclusive, unrepeatable experience and personally delivered information is one of the ways to do that. We’re not looking for a 10-minute, blustery discourse about each beer or a dry reading of its technical details. Just a few words from the brewery – brewmaster trumps marketeer here – about what makes a beer different and why you made it that way.
One important caveat: please, no tasting notes. If you’re tempted to complete a sentence that starts with the words “you’ll probably find notes of…” just stop. This will sail over the heads of those who don’t mind and infuriate those who would rather explore the glass themselves with a blank state and no preconceived notions.
I understand the temptation to give the chef her due and let her say a few words about the food pairing. Goal one should be to demonstrate that she created the dishes to go with the beer based on more than just a written description. Even as someone who cares deeply about food made with beer, I feel that once the chef gets to deeply into the ingredient list and technical details, the audience will lose interest.
Beer dinners will only get better as breweries and chefs gain experience. I won’t be surprised if, over the next few years, we get to the point where beer fans can satisfy their annual quota of date-night dinner outings on beer dinners alone. Hopefully, this guide helps you pick the best ones.