For years, craft brewers have been pushing beer as a dinner-table alternative to wine. So it's worth asking: how's that going for you?
I'm sure that in places like Portland and Denver, it's common for people to bring a four-pack of your favorite microbrew to a dinner party. But here on the East Coast, I've yet to see it. At least in the circles I travel in, great beer is respected, but it has yet to knock over wine as the drink of choice with a fine meal.
I doubt I'm alone, if only because there are still some pretty high barriers to beer's tabletop ascendancy. Beer may want to be taken seriously, but its marketing often says otherwise. Conversely, people may want to take beer seriously, but they don't know how. And beer is consumed in quantities that make it tough to split a 22-ounce bottle five ways.
Goose Island, the grandfather of Chicagoland craft breweries, believes it has the solution. For much of its life it has focused on making predictably good if not always great beers, in crowd-pleasing styles like IPA, nut brown ale, and English bitter.
But over the last few years, Goose Island has found religion, and alongside its old standbys, has started to churn out edgier, higher-end beers. Its Bourbon County Stout, one of my favorite domestic brews, is a 13 percent ABV bomb with a dark rainbow of malt, chocolate, and raspberry flavors; it's like drinking liquefied (and heavily spiked) Black Forest cake. Like good wine, BCS is best stored for at least six months, to let the alcohol mellow a bit. (Along with the brewery's regular-production BCS, this year it's putting out a few limited-release expressions, including coffee, vanilla bean, and "rare," aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels.)
More to the point, though, is the marketing. Instead of whimsical cartoons, Goose Island's high-end beers have serious, bespoke designs, looking not unlike ... wine bottles. "When you walk down the beer aisle, you see these bright garish labels, always with a lot of color," says Goose Island's master brewer, Greg Hall. "That works in the beer aisle. But when you put it on the dinner table, it doesn't look right."
The Bourbon County Stout label, for instance, is all sober serifed script and ruled lines, with the release year prominently displayed. The same goes for Goose Island's line of Belgian-style beers: Sofie (farmhouse ale), Matilda (Belgian pale ale), Juliet (Belgian sour ale), Pere Jacques (abbey ale), and the upcoming Fleur (made with wild yeasts), Madame Rose (kriek), and Lolita (framboise). The minimalist labels are off-white with the names in cursive script; the casual-but-classy effect is something like what you'd expect from a small Sonoma winery run by a retired Bay Area lawyer.
That's one barrier down. Goose Island has an equally easy answer for the second, customer confusion: each of the beers has not only recommended food pairings but also recommended wine substitutes. Matilda, Hall says, can stand in for white Burgundy, Sofie for Champagne, and Fleur for rosé. Bourbon County Stout makes a nice stand-in for a strong port. "We got the idea when chefs started getting into beers," Hall says. "They'd want to pair beer with their food, but they'd bring in all these hoppy beers than didn't pair well. So we try to match our beers with wine varieties, to give people an idea of what to look for."
Hall and Goose Island hope their answers to the first two problems will solve the third, namely that most people still think of beer as something you drink—or chug—rather than sip, an approach they continue even when they get their hands on the good stuff. After all, people used to do the same with wine, until better products, better marketing, and better education convinced them it was worth savoring. Quality and character replaced quantity and effect, and suddenly four diners could make a single bottle of wine last a meal. If Greg Hall gets his way, we'll be doing the same with beer soon enough.