When Daniel Burns decided to open a hip new restaurant and bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Nova Scotia native did what many chefs do and designed his tasting menus to play off the drink pairings. But Burns, who earned his stars in famed kitchens at Noma in Denmark, the Fat Duck in England and as head of research and development for David Chang’s Momofuku empire, wasn’t interested in wine. He was more interested in beer.
At his tiny, all-wood beer bar, Tørst, Burns serves some of the world’s best beers on tap, including his partner Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø’s experimental Evil Twin brews. But head through a pocket sliding door in the back and you reach Luksus, the 26-seat dining room where Burns serves market-inspired dishes such as lamb with burnt hay, sunchoke and tongue, and rhubarb, beet, pea and anise hyssop—each plate designed to coax the myriad flavours from Tørst’s formidable beer collection.
The move would have seemed incongruous just a few years ago. But with the explosion of craft beer and chefs’ increasing experimentation beyond the wine list, beer has become a hugely popular accompaniment for all sorts of gastronomical concoctions. Three months in, Luksus is regularly packed.
Whereas higher-end restaurants have always taken great care in crafting their wine lists, the expansion of artisanal beer-making is drawing chefs to explore ever more complex flavours and styles. In 2010, Ferran Adria commissioned his own beer—Inedit, a tart, yeasty brew close to Belgian witbier—to accompany his molecular inventions at el Bulli (now closed). At the time, he described it as “the world’s only gastronomic beer.” Now it’s standard for high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison, Per Se or Noma to suggest beer pairings for their dishes; many even have house cicerones (beer sommeliers) to help guide guests.
“I don’t think beer is going to replace wine at the dinner table,” says Steve Hindy, whose Brooklyn Brewery made a strong Belgian dark ale called Blue Apron specially for chef Thomas Keller at Per Se. “But there are certainly some dishes and some occasions where beer is a better beverage. Beer is often the better pairing with seafood.” Hindy, along with his brewmaster Garrett Oliver, also work closely with Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison, where they serve 140 different beers.
So what’s driving chefs to obsess over new food and beer pairings, and even design entire restaurants around them? The challenge. “Beer has a much wider range of flavour than wine does,” explains Oliver. “A beer can taste like chocolate or oranges or bananas. We can infuse it with coffee, we can spice it—beer can taste like almost anything.” The selection out there is incredible, agrees Burns. “There are barrel-aged beers that are incredibly diverse, as well as naturally fermented beers that have funkiness. So many avenues to take when pairing beer with different food.”