04 January 2008

Guest Post: Roger A. Baylor, The Potable Curmudgeon - A thread: Can a great restaurant serve mass-market beer?

The Potable Curmudgeon, a blog written by New Albanian Brewing Company headman Roger A. Baylor, is a frequent read for the Knights of the Beer Roundtable. We became smitten with Roger's beers last year at the Phoenix Theatre's Brew-Ha-Ha and the Indiana Microbrewers Festival. We particularly love NABC's signature hop bomb, Hoptimus Imperial IPA, and the NABC Thunderfoot Cherry Imperial Stout, and have plans to visit Roger's establishment in the future to sample a wider variety of his beers.

Roger recently generated some lively discussion among the Louisville area's dining community when he sprang the following question on them:
"Can a great restaurant serve mass-market beer?" We at Hoosier Beer Geek think this is a question worth asking the Indianapolis dining community as well, especially since some of us have gone to a number of Indy's finer restaurants only to be let down by an uninspiring beer menu.

With Roger's permission, we bring you his blog posting on this subject, hoping that it will generate some discussion here. Our thanks go to Roger for allowing us to rehash the subject at HBG.

* * * * *

There's been an interesting thread going at the Louisville Restaurants Forum: Can a great restaurant serve mass-market beer?

Here is one question asked, followed by the answer I provided. It isn't tremendously grammatical, but I was in a hurry.


Can you give me some examples of what would be high quality beers that should be served at a high quality restaurant?

I've thought about this a lot at various times, and the answer tends to change based on recent experiences.

The fundamental thing is to offer a variety of styles, not just a variety of labels/brands. Knowing the difference between styles and labels is the first jumping off point for me.

So ... in no particular order of preference …

Lagers (bottom fermented; clean character)

A true Pilsner with hop character, i.e., Pilsner Urquell; fewer micros attempt this, but if we could get Victory's Prima Pils ...

Dark lager with balls, like Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel. Amber and malty Oktoberfests fit here, too, but probably should be seasonal.

Doppelbock: Rich, sweet, malty, meant for meat. You haven’t lived until you’ve enjoyed Bavarian-style pork knuckle with Doppelbock.

Ales (top fermented; far wider potential flavor spectrum)

Belgian-style Wit (white/wheat), and Blue Moon does not count. Hoegaarden remains serviceable. Citrusy; hint of sourness.

German style wheat: Schneider or Weihenstphaner, although I suppose Franziskaner is acceptable even if the character is too mild for me. Cloves, apples and bananas.

Belgian Trappist (Chimay red or blue, et al) ... dark, bottle conditioned, vinous, complex malt.

Assorted Belgians and French Bieres de Garde. Among the former, sour reds (Rodenbach), eclectic Wallonians (La Chouffe, McChouffe) and wondrous Saisons (Dupont the finsets example); the French beers are criminally underrated and simply wonderful with many dishes. Ask Chef Clancy if you don’t believe me. American examples of both Belgian and French styles include Ommegang Hennepin, Jolly Pumpkin’s line and Two Brothers Domaine Dupage (sic).

Imperial Stout. Thick, black, intense, oily, viscous. Many good microbrewed versions. Functions much like Port with assertive cheeses, and modifies sweet desserts.

American-style hop bombs, double IPA, etc. Bitterness for contrast, and can also be quaffed sans food.

Local microbrews. To me, preferably on draft, and maybe rotating. Louisville is blessed with excellent small breweries (and there’s Alltech, and many more in Indiana, as Shawn noted).


Think in terms of style and the possibilities are endless. I didn’t mention everyday dry Stout of the Guinness mold, which remains beautiful with shellfish, and I’m assuming that there always will be a few yellow Eurolagers around for the plain fearful; as I wrote previously, you simply don’t need Budweiser if you have Stella or Spaten.

The point remains that a very good 15-20 beer list can be constructed from what is available locally, and it will cover most of the contingencies. Seasonals can make up the difference.

Earlier someone brought up Maido as an example of a great beer list, and I agree 100%. Using conventional wisdom, you’re washing down diverse sushi and voluminous wasabi with weak golden lager, but chase them with Stone’s hoppy Ruination Ale and it’s a religious experience, indeed.


  1. There are a few places in town that serve some amazing beer with amazing food.

    I think the problem is still with control and advertising. 1 out of every 2 beers sold in America is a Bud product. I was talking with the barman at MacNiven's and he said the number one beer they sell is Coors Light out of a bottle. I was floored by that. The good news is that he said every single day many people come in asking to try something new, so trends are shifting, but advertising is a powerful took and many people don't know even where to start. For many years all we had in American was one type of beer, one type of bread, one type of cheese, and really only one type of lunchmeat. Everything else has moved onto more choice very successfully, but the beer is still coming around and still has growing pains to make. I think as consumers demands more choice resturants will have to come around to the palates of consumers.

    Another challenge will be pricing. People are willing to pay alot more for wine 200-300% markup in many cases, but I think many people are unwilling to spend that type of money for beer. Perfect case is at Shallows where they markup their prices that much. Their draft prices are awesome, but their bottle prices are out way out of touch with consumer pay ceilings. I would give about anything to have a bottle of Alpha King with my yats (which I can with takeout), or have a Pannepot with my steak at Mo's.

    I think it will come around, just not as fast as we wish that it would come around.

    That is my take on this.

  2. I hesitated a bit before posting this because - to be honest - my experience with fine dining is extremely limited. I guess what we're hoping for is to generate a little discussion about where we can expect to see better beer on the menu. We're all familiar with the beer selection at the various bars in and out of town, but when it comes to restaurants, we've still a bit in the dark.

  3. A couple restaurants that I know have decent beer menus are R Bistro and 14 West. I can't remember much specifically from the menu, but the last time I was at R Bistro I ordered a Trois Pistoles from among 10 or so beers at the bottom of the wine list. That's not all that common at beer bars, let alone restaurants.

    The few times I've been to 14 West, I've only ordered wine, but the "Food for Thought" section of the most recent Up Downtown mentions, "14 West has a cosy bar area, a deep wine list, plenty of ales, stouts and beers on tap and that type of atmosphere where many people would go for a special occasion." That's not very specific, but I'll definitely have to check out the offerings the next time I'm there.

  4. Poignant dialogue here guys, thought I would give my two cents. I had very little experience with beer and food pairing until I was hired by Ted at Brugge to be his chef. It opened up a whole new world for me.
    Prior to that I had always had the extremely misguided perception that beer was not something that was relevant in fine food, how wrong I was! Ted showed me a ton about how to pair beer with food and maybe even more importantly, how to incorporate beer into my cooking. My point is, I am a trained chef and am a student of all things culinary, and I have just learned to appreciate what a complex beer can bring to a fine meal. I think *most* people in this part of the world are still in the dark.
    A really interesting trend that I have noticed is that there are two large american breweries that now have commercials airing that focus on pairing food and beer. This may be one instance where we are on par with the national sentiment in our level of interest.
    I am a wine guy, always have been always will be, but I am happy that at least now I can see that beer is just as important in discussions of fine dining...just ask the Belgians.

  5. I think Neal's experience as a chef is very telling. Most Chefs dont' have any idea. I'm constantly amazed at how few chefs really know much about wine, let alone wine/food pairing, so the fact they don't understand craft beers is not surprising.

    However, to some extent, in fine dining beer is just not considered, well, fine. Doesn't mean it *shouldn't* or couldn't be. But there are a few other factors at work: 1) The margin is in liquor. They want you to drink a cocktail. 2) If you're not drinking a cocktail, they want you to drink wine.

    3) A bunch of good craft beers are a hassle to store and inventory on top of everything else. They take up valuable space in the bar refers. Few people ask for them and it's not a high margin product. (It's why so many places with "extensive" beer lists are out of have the obscure stuff you ask for.) Fine wine is an investment -- stored properly, high end juice can keep for *years*.

    4) For steakhouses or other fine dining establishments -- take that Coors Light number and translate it to "Amstel Light". People who drink beer instead of liquor or wine -- in a fine dining restaurant -- typically go for the plain beer end of the spectrum.

    5) Training and distribution. Most bar managers know less than you think about wine. They trust their wine reps and many are very good at helping bar managers select wines that will move at a high volume. Is this the case with beer? I don't know -- but you have to have trained reps in the field going over all their craft beers, touting specials (which is advertising and promotional dollars), and making it easy for bar managers and GMs to say "sure, we'll try this out." Most chefs don't choose the wine lists for fine dining restaurants, their bar managers/sommeliers/GMs do.

    Then, as Matt notes above, the pricing issue is a significant challenge.

    That's not to say that a fine dining restaurant *can't* maintain a decent beer list. (Obviously Regina does at RBistro) or can't have decent beers on tap if they have the traffic. But you have to have a pretty compelling case that they'll make more money pushing a bottle of craft beer to a customer instead of a glass of wine (by the glass prices are very profitable). NOte that even Neal, who understands the power of beer, doesn't have any craft beers on his menu. (And more importantly, if he added them, would you choose L'exporateur over other options if you're going to dinner at $100 a person?) Would it get you in the door? And would you pay $10-15 for really special beer? Because that's what he's going to get from you if you order a glass of wine. (I'm not picking on Neal, just using him as an example.)

    At the end of the day, running a successful fine dining restaurant is about margins and pennies. And until demand starts to swell, I don't think you're going to see many fine beers on fine dining menus. Doesn't mean you can't hope.

    Go forth and ask. Everytime you sit down at a steakhouse or high end place, ask. Once that starts to happen a few times, a smart general manager will start doing a little research. Doesn't mean fine beer can't go with food, but in higher end restaurants, wine is going to have the tougher hold from money alone.

  6. As Neal, said, it's all about perception. It's not that beer can't hold up to wine in a fine dining setting (it actually has the ability to be far more flexible and comprehensive), it's that people think beer is Budwesier, Miller and Coors. Beer has the perception of being unrefined. Miller is the Carlo Rossi of beers.

    braingirl's post is a prime example of this. I know from reading her blog that she is more than familiar with the world of fine wines and fine dining and can even appreciate a good beer, though just now she has shown how limited her knowledge of beer is. Beer can escalate to much higher alcohol levels than wine (pair a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout with a dark chocolate truffle). Beer can age magnificently (JW Lees Harvest Ale 1988 with Creme Brulee), not as old as wine, but there are still flavors to develop from the yeast feasting on those sugars year after year. There are a lot of beer reps that are well versed in their market, but frequently restaurant managers want to see sales numbers instead of gourmet pairings when it comes to beer. Why pick up a more expensive craft beer that won't sell when Budweiser is almost flying out the door?

    I think every one of us here would gladly order a $30 bottle of Fort to replace a wine with our $200 meal, but this is a beer blog. We are educated about beer in the way that wine enthusiasts are educated about wine. There's just a lot less of us. Brugge has given the city of Indianapolis an invaluable gift, and it excites me to no end to see them doing well. Beer is a beautiful and complex beverage that has so much to discover and enjoy in terms of pairing with food. Unfortunately, Neal also put it very well when he said that he is a wine drinker and will always be a wine drinker. Wine drinkers are clearly the largest group of beverage connoisseurs in the country and they aren't going to give up wine for beer. That leaves us beer fans with a few enthusiasts and a whole lot of "let's get drunk and do a keg stand"-ers.

    Things are getting better and advertising is starting to mold beer in the right direction, but as long as those mountains are turning blue on the side of the can, you can be sure that there isn't going to be a $30 bottle of beer to match that $120 bottle of wine on the menu. I'm just very thankful that I am just now getting into food and beer pairings and that things do look very positive for the future. So thank you Ted for taking up the torch and thank you Neal for approaching the issue with an open mind, you are both shining examples of what this industry needs.

  7. Braingirl, I can't answer all your questions, but I can answer a couple:

    "Would you choose L'exporateur over other options if you're going to dinner at $100 a person?"

    Maybe not the first time through the door, but I'd be disappointed if I didn't have decent beer options - and it might lead me to try somewhere else the next time. A good beer list has led me to eat at lesser restaurants more than once or twice.

    "Would you pay $10-15 for really special beer?"

    If the crowd at our anniversary and New Year's parties are any indication, the answer is "yes". At the anniversary party we ran through a 1/2 bbl of Dogfish 90 minute (at $9/glass) over the course of an evening, and during the NYE party we went through two 1/6 bbls of Delirium Tremens - not a particularly hard to find beer - at $10/glass (which is pretty much extortion, but we've got no control over what the bar charges).

    So I think the margin is there - maybe the problem is selling that argument to the restaurants.

  8. Mike -- I think you're exactly right. The issue is selling the argument to restaruants. And armed with some good data, (which you have right there), you can start to target a couple of places to change their mind.

    Certainly, my knowledge of beer isn't on par with Rodney's or some other fine folks on this list. But the trick is getting to your customer. And to do that, it's a numbers game for restaurant managers. I have no doubt there are some fantastic beers out there that will profile with wines and sell in a similar way. How do you get those beers in the hands of bar maanagers and GMs, educate them on them, and then educate the customer so they order? That will be a big key to the puzzle.

    The good news is that all the 2008 trend lists say gastropubs will be one of the next big restaurant trends in the US. Here's hoping that's the case and it will help promote the cause of beer and food together.

  9. Just a quick follow up...

    To make a quick correction to Braingirls post, here is our *entire* beer list at L'ex:

    McChouffe Belgian Brown
    Stone IPA
    Tilburg DBA
    Hitachino White Ale
    Saison Dupont Belgian Farmhouse Ale
    Bavaria Pilsner
    Tusker Lager
    Samurai Rice Beer - Only really on because my sons name is Samurai lol!

    Also, as I said on Feedme Drinkme, I will have a date for a Beer Dinner by tomorrow. I will forward the info to braingirl and you folks over here as well.
    I plan on inviting Ted to collaborate on the dinner.

  10. Looking forward to seeing the menu Neal. Lots of good comments. One thought in particular that caught my attention is the role that beer reps play in pushing their product into the finer establishments. It never occurred to me the role that wine reps play at restaurants; that they would make such a big impact on what wines are actually sold.

  11. That's awesome Neal! I really, really hope you pick a date when I can attend.

  12. Just wanted to add myself to the list of folks here noting how exciting it is to see Neal's initiative (and to see L'ex's very nice beer list, I might add). I look forward to seeing more information about the beer dinner.

  13. Neal! Thanks for the correction, which just goes to show that maybe the issue is that craft beer lists in fine restaurants should be given the same prominance as wine lists. (Now that I think about it, with the Japanese influences on your menu, it would be surprising if you *didn't* have beer.)

    As I noted in the other thread -- I had this same conversation with another chef last night(Meridian). Turns hout they have a decent beer list also -- but no mention of it on the wine list or on their web site.

    As someone noted over at Feed Me/Drink Me -- more fine dining restaurants have lists than one thinks. At least, I've been surprised!

  14. I think that fine dining restaurants definitely have room for great beer selections. While it is certainly difficult for one to find great beer selections at most fine dining restaurants, there are a few here in town that have great selections. At Meridian Restaurant and Bar, we have taken that approach. While all of us here are food and wine geeks, we are beer geeks too. We offer such Belgian beers as Delirium Tremens, Duvel, and Orval as well as other midwestern brews such as 3 Floyds Gumballhead and Bells 2-Hearted Ale. We put these beers in the restaurant because we all appreciate good beer, and we look forward to changing up the selection a few times a year to take advantage of all the seasonal beers that are available.

  15. Zach-

    That is an excellent beer list! My wife and I are very eager to check out your restaurant and are planning to do so soon. At least one Gumballhead will surely be on our tab!

  16. I think we are starting to see a trend here are we not? Over at FMDM, we were discussing that this issue was the result of restaurant owners/managers perception of what we *thought* our clientele wanted, but maybe this is misguided. It just may be that we are not getting the word out about our beer selection the way we should. Meridians beer list, at least in my very pedestrian (from a beer standpoint) opinion has some very serious beers. And it just goes to show that we as restaurateurs, *are* considering trends in craft brewed beer.

    It's just really refreshing to see this kind of dialogue, and I hope the readers of this blog understand how much conversations like this advance the cause. I can't speak for Dan, or Zach at Meridian, but I know that I will start looking at our beer purchasing a little differently from this point forward.

    Now, lets take the next step.

    As promised, we are going to ink the Inaugural Indiana Craft Brew & Food Symposium (lol) on Feb. 27th. Ted Miller has agreed to attend and I am going to try to talk Kevin Mataluchi (sp?) into coming as well. If anyone has any other suggestions for people to invite to speak on the subject of Beer & Food, just let me know.
    I will get the details of the event to all of you as soon as I know them.
    Reservations can be made by calling us at L'ex.

  17. FYI folks.. L'Explorateur Contact Info:

    phone • 317.726.6906
    address • 6523 Ferguson St. Indianapolis, IN 46220

  18. What a great conversation. H2O would like to help the cause and offer a Beer Dinner as well on March 10th. I hope that it will only be as great as Neal's is sure to be. Here is our current list as well. We do also carry Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi for obvious reasons.
    We Have
    Hitachino White Ale
    Hitachino Sweet Stout
    Hitachino Ginger Ale
    Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale
    Stone IPA
    Bard's Tale (Gluten Free)
    Einbecker N/A

    We also have Oberon (sp) and Guiness Ice Creams on our Ice Cream order list.

    Contact info:

    We will post the menu in the next week or two.

    I am a huge (literally) beer fan, not so much for wine. Go Colts

    Eli Anderson

  19. I happened to go to R Bistro for lunch last week and dinner at Elements on Saturday and I've got some snippets of their beer menus:

    R Bistro (it was lunch, so this is just from looking at the wall behind the bar)

    Bell's Winter White
    Three Floyds Gumballhead
    Delirium Tremens
    Unibroue Trois Pistoles
    Pilsner Urquell
    (probably 5-6 more I didn't recognize or can't remember)


    Stone IPA
    Mad Anthony Porter
    Breckenridge Avalanche Ale
    Tilburg Dutch Brown Ale
    (6-8 more I can't remember)

    On the one hand Elements was nice enough to prominently place their beer list on the first page of the wine menu. On the other hand, the list is a little deceiving as they were out of the Mad Anthony Porter and the Breckenridge Avalanche Ale.

    When I ordered the Porter, I ended up changing to the Tilburg Dutch Brown Ale (very mellow, tasty brown). When I ordered the Avalanche Ale, I ended up with wine instead. Turns out that was lucky, as the wine went much better with my soup than I imagine the beer would have, not to mention that Beer Advocate doesn't think much of the Avalanche Ale: