by Lacey Griebeler, Chef Magazine

This article is the Beverage & Spirits column for the April 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.

The Brewers Association reported in late February that small, independent craft brewers are continuing to gain in the alcohol market share. Estimated sales by craft brewers were up 5.8 percent by volume and 10.5 percent in dollars between 2007 and 2008, and nearly a half million new barrels of craft beer were sold in 2008. These stats support data from Gallup, which reported that 47 percent of U.S. adults prefer to drink beer (while 31 percent pick wine and 23 percent chose liquor).

Here's why these numbers matter to restaurants: Consumers are now expecting craft beer on your menu, and they're looking for full-flavored choices that will complement your food. Even the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot survey reflected that craft beer is transitioning from a hot trend to a perennial favorite.

Adding beer to your menu is easier to embrace if your concept is more casual. But fine-dining still seems to be struggling to get on board. I was talking with Mike Roper about beer and white-tablecloth restaurants last November at a pairing event he hosted at his restaurant/bar Hopleaf in Chicago; he told me that a certain acclaimed Chicago chef (with a highly regarded wine list at his restaurant) once said to him, "You will never, ever find beer on my menu"--that a 12-ounce bottle of beer with a goofy label would just not be at home atop his pressed linens.

But craft brewers are reacting to restaurateurs' concerns by producing more larger bottles--650 mL (a.k.a. bombers) and 750 mL sizes--with attractive labels and often special branded glassware, perfect for tableservice. Here are just a few:
  • Juliet (pictured, right), Goose Island Beer Co.--A Belgian-style sour ale aged with sour blackberries and partially fermented in Cabernet barrels; pairs well with rotisserie chicken, rabbit, roast pork, lamb and aged Cheddar (6.7 percent ABV)
  • Four (pictured, below), Allagash Brewing Co.--A dark Belgian quadrupel ale brewed with four malts, four hops, four sugars and four Belgian yeast strains; pairs well with bacon-wrapped scallops, crab-stuffed mushrooms, filet mignon, chocolate crêpes (10.0 percent ABV)
  • Pangaea, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery--A slightly spicy strong ale brewed with ingredients from every continent (like crystallized ginger from Australia, water from Antarctica, basmati rice from Asia); pairs well with grilled red meat and game (7.0 percent ABV)
  • Dead Guy Ale, Rouge Brewery--The brewery's signature malty maibock, brewed with local ingredients; pairs well with pork and hot or spicy foods (6.5 percent ABV)

Explore craft beer, and you never know: You just might find that it pairs better with your menu than wine--and it doesn't have to compromise the look of your table.

Quick tips for finding the right craft beers: