Beer Dinners A-Brewin': Chefs and brewers tap into beer's sophisticated side

It's no wonder that in a town that boasts the country's largest brewer and numerous microbreweries, so many restaurants and pubs are hosting beer dinners, educational yet entertaining evenings of fine drinking
and dining.

Apart from affording beer mavens the chance to taste the subtleties of different lagers, porters, ales and stouts, beer dinners are an opportunity for brewmasters and chefs to showcase their craft through a multicourse, beer-inspired menu. "The chef and brewer are both 'cooking,'" explained James "Otto" Ottolini, head of brewing operations for the St. Louis Brewery, brewer of Schlafly Beer. 'The art and science ' how they blend and play together ' is very, very similar.'

At beer dinners, the job of the chef is to elicit the unique character of each beer through his or her menu selection; in essence, to find a marriage of flavors between food and drink. 'When you taste beer, you figure out the complexities and subtleties of it and what ingredients enhance it or better serve the beer,' explained Clint Whittemore, executive chef and general manager of The Schlafly Tap Room.

Beer dinners commonly feature traditional and seasonal brews of only one brewery. For example, Mangia Italiano on South Grand hosted a beer dinner last fall that showcased beer from Bell's Brewery in Michigan. Likewise, Colorado's New Belgium brews were on tap in the Central West End at Duff's seventh annual autumn beer dinner.

'People in general are more educated about beer these days,' Ottolini said. Beer dinners can be intimate gatherings, like the one held in November at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, where 10 bons vivants savored a five-course feast paired with a spectrum of Schlafly brews. 'We started with lighter beers and moved to heavier beers,' explained Ritz-Carlton wine director Rhett Haynes, a sommelier. For the second course, Haynes and the kitchen staff mated Schlafly's seasonal Christmas Ale with hickory-smoked Atlantic salmon served with a bean salad dressed in mango mustard. Ottolini noted: 'The Christmas Ale is sweet but spiced with orange and clove and dry-hopped with Chinook, which gave it a piney element. This went well with the smoked salmon dish.'

Guests had the opportunity to compare the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Schlafly Reserve Oak-Aged Barleywine alongside roast pepper crusted rack of lamb and '06 and '07 bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout with a dessert of gianduja orange mousse, matcha green tea financier and citrus sauce. 'Lamb has an almost gamey taste; the barleywine paired best because barleywine has earthy notes to it,' Haynes said. 'Orange, chocolaty mousse is a fancy of our pastry chef. The stout had a deep, rich, chocolaty, smoky flavor, and the herbal cookie cut through all those deep flavors.'

With all of that beer, one might wonder if a beer dinner isn't just a guzzle-fest masked behind a mellifluous menu. 'Evaluating a beer is the same as that for food,' said Ottolini, who's been brewing Schlafly Beer for more than 15 years. 'It may seem ostentatious or snobbish, but there is an element you can describe and talk about. In the end though, it's about creating community and atmosphere.'

Creating a laid-back environment where 'Cheers!' is the word of the day is exactly the spirit in which restaurant owner and executive chef Anthony Devoti hosts monthly beer dinners at his recently opened Newstead Tower Public House in The Grove neighborhood. 'We offer low-key beer dinners that are casual and relaxed,' Devoti said. For $40, gourmands can enjoy a multicourse meal featuring locally grown food paired with regional microbrews. The pub's January beer dinner with O'Fallon Brewery featured brilliant wintry pairings, like O'Fallon's Smoked Porter and braised locally raised beef with couscous, raisins and black currants. 'The smoked porter is super-'bersmoky with hints of dark, dried fruit flavor,' Devoti noted. Rather than smoke the beef, Devoti opted to involve the smokiness through the beer pairing. 'We're not trying to bring the flavor out of the beef; instead we're adding a component of flavor.'

'No matter how complex or refined the dish, whether it's foie gras or a simple sausage, there is a terrific beer out there that will provide a perfect accompaniment,' wrote acclaimed brewmaster Garrett Oliver in his beer-and-food-pairing tome The Brewmaster's Table. If the trend toward beer dinners is any indication, St. Louisans are indulging their epicurean palates more than ever, discovering the rich variety in the spectrum of beers and awakening to beer's versatility and flavor compatibility with food.