When I talk to friends and fellow beer fans about upcoming events, I’m surprised by how many are unfamiliar with or even intimidated by beer dinners. The general concept is simple: attendees pay a fixed price for multiple courses of food, each of which is paired with one or more beers.
Beer dinners are growing increasingly popular as restaurateurs recognize the quality and versatility of craft beer, not to mention its ability to complement all styles of cuisine. Beer-themed events can attract customers on less-busy nights of the week, get first-timers through the door, and introduce diners to menu items they might not order for themselves. Where I live in southern Delaware, it’s not uncommon to see 2-3 event dinners at area restaurants in a single week.
But what makes a beer dinner work? And how can novices figure out if an upcoming event is right for them? With more than a dozen beer dinners under my belt – and an additional beer dinner that I cooked and curated for my wife – I’ve seen enough to tell the good from the bad. Here are the key elements that make up a quality beer dinner.
1. A coherent angle or theme
Whoever’s offering the dinner should be able to sum it up in a few words: “Founders Brewery Beer Dinner,” “Local Seafood Dinner,” “Day of the Dead Celebration.” As one might expect, the most common theme is the beer itself, which could come from a single brewery or region or represent a particular style, like barrel-aged beers. Sometimes the theme gets even more specific. About once a year, Dogfish Head opens up its vintage stash for a dinner paired with 5 of its “ageable ales”. In early 2015, Chicago’s Howells & Hood offered a beer dinner paired with a vertical tasting (2011-2015) of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine.
Conversely, food can be the guiding factor: meals might be built around local or seasonal ingredients, include items associated with a particular meal, such as brunch, or use only special types of protein, for example, a menu of all wild game. Other dinners are based on specific concepts, like Food Truck Cuisine, Festivus, or, in one legendary/infamous case, the Wu-Tang Clan.
No matter what type of theme organizers offer, prospective customers should be able to understand exactly what they’re going to get. Setting the wrong expectations can lead to confusion or disappointment.
2. Good beer!
This one seems obvious, but not all restaurants that decide to do a beer dinner know all that much about craft beer. At some higher-end restaurants, beverage directors have cultivated a deep wine cellar or expert cocktail program at the expense of brew knowledge. In such cases, it’s easy for an overconfident and underprepared sommelier to make some pretty mediocre picks. I’ve seen Mexican restaurants doing beer dinners with offerings like Modelo, which might be okay in the day-to-day but aren’t too exciting. Other dinners have included only the year-round, most common beers from a national brewery.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a setup, but rare or more unusual offerings are much more likely to make what should be a special event feel special. Look for beers or breweries that aren’t typically distributed in your area, one-offs, and specialty brews. A Goose Island-themed dinner at the 2016 San Francisco Beer Week offered all 5 of the brewery’s Sour Sisters along with RARE Imperial Stout. Some breweries have even created small-batch beers specifically for brewpub dinners.
3. Proper portions, proper pours.
When parading 4-6 courses and at least as many beers across the table, organizers must maintain a precise rhythm and strike a delicate balance. Too much food too early leaves attendees unexcited for the remainder of the meal; too much booze can make them distracted, tired, or even sick.
Pour size certainly depends on the strength and style of the beer, but there is a distinct “not enough” and a distinct “too much.” I attended one beer dinner where pours were inconsistent but generally in the range of 2-4 oz. This might not be an issue if there were a high number of beers or the offerings were especially rare or strong, but these were 4 standard-strength beers. On the generous end of the spectrum, the beer dinners at Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth brewpub regularly feature 5 or more full pours of beers north of 10% ABV – more than most can handle in a 2-3 hour period.
Food can be a bit more difficult to gauge, but I’ll note the two most common pitfalls from my experience. Number one is meat quantity. We can assume that most attendees expect a good amount of protein, but piling on the charcuterie, meat sandwiches (even of the mini variety), and red meat can be too much for even cast-iron stomachs to handle. When you see giant bearded men leaving the dinner with multiple doggie bags, it’s quite likely you’ve hit the overload.
As a counterpoint, a light salad or series of small plates just isn’t going to cut it, especially when paired with a full-strength full pour. Attendees need enough food to keep them going, lest they float away or lose focus on the dinner at hand.
4. Pairing: The right beer for the food, the right food for the beer.
I won’t go into too much detail here, as this topic both overlaps with number 3 and is worthy of a full book on its own. In sum, there’s quite a bit of thought on what types of foods work best with each style of beer. Depending on the dinner’s theme, one side of the equation might be predetermined, in which case the other side of the menu should be built to suit. Examples of great pairings include IPAs with strongly spiced cuisine like Thai or Mexican, wheat beers with salads or fresh fish, German lagers with roast pork, and imperial stouts with chocolate desserts.
Beyond the pairing basics, chefs should note that beer dinners are a great opportunity to transcend the daily menu and take some risks. Nothing’s more disappointing than seeing a menu with house salads, chips and dip, chicken wings, and burgers –not exactly a special event. And I know not every restaurant has a pastry chef, but can we put an indefinite hold on bread pudding for dessert?
These last two entries focus on the intangibles, elements of a beer dinner that you might not think of at first but can make a huge difference in the overall experience. In this case, atmosphere is determined by elements like seating arrangements, proximity of guests, and sound level. For example, community-style seating is a big risk: guests will either make new friends or awkwardly confine their sight lines in an attempt to disengage from the people sitting right next to them. On the noise front, a quiet or subdued space can be awkward in the early going and sleepy at the end.
Another consideration on this front is formality: a party is great, but some degree of ceremony makes the dinner feel like a truly special event. And while there’s no need to brush crumbs off the table, elegant plating and attentive service are much more memorable than a standard night at the bar. Ultimately, if everything’s done right, the event will become a party by the end regardless.
Timing might not make a beer dinner, but it can break it. Organizers should start on time or very close to on time. If, like most dinners, the event has a single start time and there’s concern about punctuality, start with a reception course and pairing that’s available as soon as the first diners enter. One local restaurant excels at this approach, opening each beer dinner with a plate of assorted appetizers and flight of beers.
Once the main meal starts, give enough time for people to enjoy their beers and eat at a relaxed pace, but be ready to serve a course relatively soon after the previous course is cleared. Allowing about 30 minutes total per course is pretty safe, but it depends on beer size/strength and food quantity.
Finally, factor any course introductions or discussions into the overall serving schedule. It’s common for chefs, brewery reps, or other event contributors to speak for a few minutes at the beginning of the meal, before each course, or both. For this aspect, I’m always reminded of wedding receptions, where a seemingly never-ending series of toasts, dances, and bizarre customs are just barely tolerated by guests who are hungry, in need of drink, or both. While guests might be slightly less focused on the words of a chef who has already served the course he’s discussing, their mood will be so much better.
Beer dinners can be great fun for fans of all kinds. If you’re into beer and food and have yet to try a themed dinner, put one on your calendar and then let us know how it goes.
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