BY JOHN HOLL
(NJ) Star-Ledger Staff
WASHINGTON — For some, the difference between wine with dinner and beer with dinner has been compared to jacket and tie required versus no shirt, no shoes, no problem.
Wine aficionados have long known proper combinations, what vintage from what year goes best with what fish or meat. Sommeliers are available to make educated recommendations to the inexperienced and bottles are opened tableside with a flourish and small ceremony.
Meanwhile, there is a stigma associated with beer and food.
A beer with a meal, many think, means the food is deep fried or should be served with globs of nacho cheese.
But it’s time to think beyond the burger and Bud.
Consider pan-seared sirloin tips in shiitake blue-cheese sauce with a glass of doppelbock or fish tacos with a frosty pint of American Pale Ale.
“People think that only wine goes with good food,” says Gene Muller, owner of the Flying Fish Brewery in Cherry Hill. “Fact is, beer is just as good, if not better.”
As the American craft brewing movement gains momentum and more and more consumers are turning away from corporate beers — like Budweiser and Coors — and towards local breweries and hand-crafted beers, folks in the community are looking to move into the kitchen.
Recently 48 microbreweries and brewpubs from around the country gathered at a convention hall in the nation’s capital to show off just how well beer can go with good food.
Dubbed “Savor, an American craft beer and food experience” sponsored by the Brewers Association — a nonprofit group based in Colorado devoted to professional brewers — the two-day event offered tastings and lectures on perfect parings for everything from seafood to the food most often associated with wine: cheese.
There are limitless options.
Maytag blue cheese was successfully paired with everything from barrel aged ale with an 11 percent alcohol content to a barley wine and a Belgium-style ale. Each brought out unique flavors in both the cheese and beer and created an experience worth savoring and worthy of repeating.
“You really can’t go wrong,” said Fred Bueltmann, of Michigan’s New Holland Brewing. “A stinky cheese, a powerful beer is a great mix.”
Rogue Brewing of Oregon, has teamed up with Chef Masaharu Morimoto, of television’s Iron Chef series to create a black ale brewed with three kinds of hops and produces nut overtones that goes along with a particularly sharp aged cheddar cheese.
Some brewers, like Travis Zeilstra of the Montana Brewing Company in Billings, began his career as a chef and when coming up with a new beer contemplates food parings at the same time.
His Stillwater Rye, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale spiced with coriander and bitter orange peel — a treat by itself — was paired with a carrot ginger curry soup. Zeilstra’s wheat beer was served alongside empanadas with mango salsa.
“It’s getting easier to say ‘put the can down and come try something different, something that tastes good’,” Zeilstra said.
Along with pouring suds into a glass along with a meal, some breweries are using beer as an ingredient as well.
Many of the breweries used stout to enhance the flavors of the burgers while others steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings in a lager, like Sam Adams.
Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association and a New Jersey native, said the time has come where “a bottle of beer belongs on a table as much as a bottle of wine.”
In 2007, the American craft beer industry grew 12 percent, producing more than 8 million barrels of beer generating $5.7 billion in revenue. And, while still considered small against brewing giants like Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller and Coors Brewing, the smaller brewers are slowly gaining ground.
“Over 20 years ago, there was a small corps of dedicated beer people who would get together for beer dinners,” said Papazian. “Now, to see that the American public considers that beer has a place on the table is heartwarming.”
The Brewers Association has a nearly complete list of common craft brew styles with suggested food, cheese and dessert parings at http://www.beertown.org/education/pdf/beer&food.pdf .
Ah yes, dessert. It’s possible to skip a port, or a Baileys, Brandy, Grand Marnier or limoncello and instead reach for an imperial stout, smoked porter, a Scottish ale or a wit beer.
New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colo., for example, paired their Mothership Wit, an organic brew based on a Belgium style white beer, with apple, blueberry and cherry cobblers.
“With well made beer,” says Peter Bouckaert, New Belgium’s brewmaster, “a chef can taste and dream and translate it into anything. It can become something beautiful.”
More than 2,100 people attended the Savor event last weekend, according to the Brewers Association.
Jesse Williams, brewer at The New Albanian Brewery in Indiana, and a man who embodies the maverick ways that can often be associated with craft beer said for drinkers and diners alike it is ultimately what a person thinks is best and works for their own palate.
“Wine has rules,” he said. “We are beer drinkers and we don’t have to follow the rules.”
John Holl may be reached at email@example.com or (908) 782-8326.