The restaurant game seems to be almost as faddish as the rag trade. Seemingly out of nowhere a new fashion appears and, before you know it, it headlines every menu.
At the moment it seems as though you can’t go anywhere without falling over beetroot this or goat’s curd that. What’s more, it’s all being served on a slab of wood rather than an oversized round plate. Two years ago was stuffed zucchini flowers served on a rectangle plate. A decade ago everything was covered with roasted pine nuts and probably served on some kind of a burnt orange plate.
Food fashions are wonderful in that they constantly introduce new flavours and techniques, some of which prove lasting, and ensure that dining is interesting and fun. However, the slavish adherence to fashion often also sees the baby thrown out with the bathwater in the quest for the Next Big Thing.
Wine varietals often suffer from this faddishness and too many people these days turn their noses up at a good Chardonnay because “that’s soooo 1999”.
While fashions can excite, slavish adherence to them often just shows a me-too mindset that simply reveals a lack of imagination and originality.
The flipside of faddishness is overlooking the inherent qualities in something everyday, or looking at it with a jaundiced eye and ignoring it entirely. For me, beer falls into this category.
Over the last decade there has been a huge growth in what we have taken to calling ‘craft’ beer. Craft beer is beer made on a smaller scale and with a greater emphasis on showing the nuances and flavours of its ingredients. In flavour terms, craft beer is to mainstream lagers what a farmhouse cheese is to plastic wrapped singles.
While there is a huge spectrum of flavours and styles available, many restaurant owners and chefs see beer as the Rodney Dangerfield of beverages and pay it no respect. This was never more clearly demonstrated to me than in a discussion I had with a well-known chef who had spent just five minutes extolling the virtues of his sourdough breads (another recent food fad). When I asked him about beer and food, he dismissed it with a curt “I don’t drink much of it”, said in a way that he wouldn’t condescend to such pedestrian beverages.
But hold on. His sourdough bread is made with water, grains and yeast. Beer is made with exactly the same ingredients, only with the addition of hops and far more varieties of yeast and grain than bread. These can be blended to derive even more flavour combinations and styles than there are breads. This chef saw beer as the equal of a supermarket-bought white loaf, failing to see that, as with his sourdough, in the hands of a craftsman it can also be much, much more.
Beer is still seen by most of our restaurateurs as a pale fizzy drink, to be offered on arrival to wet the whistle before patrons move onto the serious business of wine. Beers, when they’re set out in the beverage list, are relegated to the end as if in some kind of grown-up’s kiddy menu.
Beer will never have the cachet that wine enjoys, and should never adopt wine’s pomposity. But still, as craft brewers rediscover and adapt old styles and experiment with new ingredients and techniques, the flavours they are producing partner with an extraordinarily wide, and often surprising, range of foods. What’s more, an intelligent use of these beers provides exactly the sort of excitement that diners are seeking and restaurateurs want to offer.
All they need to do is look at it with fresh eyes.
Top restaurant crimes against beer:
1. Thinking you have a good beer list when you simply offer 10 different brands of lager. Unless you would confine your wine list to 10 different Sauvignon Blancs, you should show a little more imagination.
2. Selling your beer list to one brewer in return for some umbrellas, staff uniforms and branded glassware. Big brewers are interested in pushing their preferred brand, not serving your diners or adding interest and colour to your menu.
3. Listing Becks, Stella, Heineken, Kronenburg, Kirin, Asahi and any number of other nearly-identical lagers as ‘imports’. While the brands are international, most of these are brewed-under-licence in Australia. There is nothing wrong with that, but they’re just not ‘imported’ or ‘international’. Chefs have over 100 different words to describe different sauces; surely they can find one to accurately describe their beer list.
4. Boasting about having ‘genuine’ imports for the beers listed in 3 above. As a rule lagers don’t travel well. Even when it’s directly imported, beer can spend up to 6 weeks in a shipping container crossing the Equator to get here. When it’s parallel imported it takes even longer and no-one has any idea where it’s been and for how long. Unless you would brag about storing your restaurant’s XXXX in the boot of your car for 6 weeks, don’t brag about selling ‘genuine’ Heineken.
5. Serving the beer in a stubby. While for some reason many diners prefer to drink out of the stubby, restaurants should always at least offer a glass. If a beer is worth drinking, it’s worth drinking from a glass, especially beers with flavour.