When the crowd filters into Chadwick's in Alexandria for the restaurant's first-ever beer dinner, logo T-shirts outnumber suit coats in this burger joint overlooking the Old Town waterfront.
But this isn't a post-softball-game picnic of wieners and potato salad. Chef Peter Durkin's four-course meal includes breast of duck "saltimbocca," wrapped in prosciutto, and American red snapper slow-roasted in a banana leaf, each paired with a beer from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. First up is Midas Touch ale, flavored with honey, white muscat grapes and saffron, all of which play crisply against a plate of red-curry prawns and grilled papaya.
Beer may have a kick-back- and-relax reputation, but its flavors increasingly are showing up alongside haute cuisine.
More than 1,300 small breweries nationwide produce more than 70 different styles of beer, and craft beer sales have surged nearly 30 percent in three years, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association. A new generation of chefs, who have grown up since the first microbreweries appeared in the late 1970s, are integrating these flavors into their cuisine.
Washington's beer palace, the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle, began cooking up beer-friendly victuals in the late 1980s to augment its monthly tastings. Owners Dave and Diane Alexander opened RFD Washington in 2003 in Chinatown partly because its larger kitchen gave them more room to play around with beer cuisine. Now, restaurants across the area are hosting beer banquets.
Two days after the Chadwick's dinner, executive chef Frank Morales of Rustico Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria showed off beer and small-dish combos from his new "mosaics" menu plus a few experimental dishes. We started with . . . a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
It's not something you'd put in your third-grader's lunch box. The jelly is made from a reduction of St. Louis Kriek Lambic, a Belgian ale infused with cherries and fermented with wild yeasts. By simmering the beer at a low temperature, Morales retains some of its alcohol and tart, earthy flavors.
Cooking with beer is an art in itself. "You can use it in the sauce, as a reduction, in glazes," Morales gushed. "It's insanely endless!"
The Paulaner Pils he served with the PB&J is merely a thirst quencher. But the Hudson Valley duck potpie and the North Coast Old Stock Ale form a more equal partnership: The rich maltiness of the ale smoothly complements the savory duck.
After eight mini-courses, the group of food journalists invited to this media dinner regrouped for dessert at Buzz, a nearby coffee shop and bakery under the same management as Rustico. Buzz carries a small selection of beers noteworthy for their ability to pair with pastry. Lindemans Framboise (a Belgian raspberry ale) was a delight with a chocolate tart.
"You can find a beer that pairs beautifully with just about every dish," says Ryan Johnson, "beer sommelier" for brewer SABMiller. He says he will help arrange 30 to 50 beer dinners this year.
Beer outdoes wine in certain respects, Johnson says. "Beer in general is brilliant in lifting fats and oils off your tongue and allowing you to taste the more delicate flavors. It does this through its carbonation, bitterness and alcohol content." Beer superbly accompanies spicy Thai or Mexican cuisine and makes "a very strong marriage" with cheese, he says.