By Rich Higgins
Americans are finally waking up to the experience of great beer paired with great food. In this country, we have a wealth of amazing agriculture and artistic freedom, and they have combined into a unique artisanry of craft beer and slow food. Other cultures of beer and food may enjoy more celebrated terroir or deeper rootstock, but it is in America where creativity, quality, and openness have crafted a fresh-faced newcomer to the Slow Food and Slow Beer arena. The late British beer writer, Michael Jackson, continually praised America as the best beer country in the world, shocking old world brewers while enlightening them about the passion of American craft brewers’ ability to brew faithful interpretations of classic beer styles and to pioneer new flavors.
Americans’ ability to harness unique terroir and attitude is proving to be infectious, and in a very flattering nod, breweries all over the world are forging new beer traditions as well. A great beer cultures is emerging, and the proof is in the pudding of great chefs and restaurants all over the country. Just in the last week in San Francisco, celebrity chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto has cooked a four-course meal at the Haight’s Magnolia Pub and Brewery, chef Eric Tucker of Millenium Restaurant has served a five-course Chile Dinner with beer pairings (including two of SOMA’s ThirstyBear Brewing Co.’s organic beers). In New York City this month, Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant served a seven-course dinner paired with Brooklyn Brewing Co. beers (price tag: $350 before tax and tip).
It has never been a better time to drink and eat local in America. This is a pretty incredible about-face from the bleak beer scene just a quarter-century ago. A great craft brewing revolution has rushed in on the heels of pioneers like Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, CA. These brewers, and their thirsty supporters, made a statement against the status quo of bland American beer.
For much of the twentieth century, American beer was on a depressing decline into characterless oblivion. Breweries emerged from Prohibition in poor financial health, and in the turmoil the the weak began to devour the weaker. Industry consolidation caused breweries to get larger in size and fewer in number, and success became defined by the ability to eke out efficiency. The millennia-old processes of making great beer do not lend themselves to efficiency. Fermentation times shortened. New enzymes were employed to alter protein and sugar types. Beer flavor and body thinned out when government-subsidized corn and rice made their way into the grist. Breweries shifted more and more money from the brewhouse to the marketing department, and by the 1980s, Americans had inherited a beer arms race of tasteless commercials promoting tasteless beer.
Beer is an agricultural product, a celebration of malt and mash, hops and heritage. Allowing brewer’s yeast and natural enzymes free reign in a beer creates the deeply satisfying flavors of real beer. These flavors and processes cannot be forced or substituted, they can only be nurtured. And, fortunately, there are now hundreds of bold, passionate American breweries who care to nurture beer the slow way. Each of these brewers will tell you, too, that they work for the yeast, and not the other way around. With the yeast in charge, and throngs of thirsty fans in support, real beer has gained a permanent foothold in America, both at the bar and on the dinner table.
Rich Higgins is a foodie, brewer, and Cicerone in San Francisco, and he pairs great beer and great food wherever he goes. Contact him at www.richhiggins.com.