The pubs and brewpubs most of us have grown up with generally fall in line with one another. Nachos, wings, dry ribs (boneless ribs if you’re in Saskatchewan) and run-of-the-mill cheeseburgers are just a few of the staples we have come to expect alongside a pint of beer.
But as the craft-beer renaissance continues, some breweries on the Prairies are also stepping up their food game, bringing in professional chefs and becoming culinary destinations in their own right.
Edmonton’s Christine Sandford has arguably become one of the Prairies’ most acclaimed chefs in recent years. As the executive chef of the award-winning brewpub Biera since it opened in 2017, the innovative culinary mind brings an astuteness to her craft that has propelled both her and the concept into the limelight.
Describing Biera as a “brewpub” is technically accurate, but visions of nacho platters and chicken wings could not be further from the truth.
Here, Ms. Sandford creates a myriad of ingenious dishes such as ash-roasted Alberta-grown banana peppers with roasted cheese curds (I’d challenge anyone to find a better-tasting plate of cheese curds) or a sunflower seed and rye “risotto” with two-year-old aged Mimolette cheese lightly grated on top.
House-made condiments such as rose hip sambal or kosho (a fermented chili paste with Japanese origins) help make cheese plates pop. The baked-fresh-daily sourdough bread with lardo and kefir butter further accentuate that this beer-making facility takes its food as seriously as it does its brews.
By no means do the ever-rotating lineup of beers pale in comparison to her creatively constructed dishes, but it’s no secret that Alberta has a highly competitive craft-beer scene. Ms. Sandford’s lunch and dinner menus help to put Biera in a league of its own.
“Biera is constantly changing and evolving due to seasonality," Ms. Sandford says. "We think about a person’s palate during different times of year and the types of food and beers they might be craving during certain months.”
She adds that the recent launch of its new micro-micro-brewery, Monolith, which produces small batches of mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beer, gives her more room to push the boundaries with her menu.
“Some of what we’re brewing now bridges that gap between beer and wine, so it’s really interesting to pair dishes with these styles of beer,” she explains.
Ms. Sandford is excited about the brewpub’s new line of slightly effervescent pickles fermented in beer by her sous chef, Ashley Brandin. She focuses on how their beers and her food can work best in tandem.
“I like to create a dish that is meant to be eaten with a particular beer so that the flavors blend together. Our new bourbon barrel-aged dark lager Buffalo Meadows [tastes very unique] and pairs so perfectly with our sourdough ice cream.”
Calgary’s Merritt Gordon came on with Dandy Brewing Company in 2018 when the brewery expanded into its new location in the city’s Ramsay neighbourhood and added a tasting room where people could have lunch and dinner.
Although it was not the first concept of its kind in Calgary to try to implement a creative culinary program, Dandy was the first to succeed in doing it well. Since opening, it has kept things inventive both in terms of what it brews and its seasonal menus.
Mr. Gordon’s approach to his menu is thoughtful and one that he says draws inspiration from bar foods and snacks from around the globe. His take on rollmops – a traditional German dish – has become a staple of the tasting room. Typically made with pickled herring, the chef uses Alberta trout instead, pickling it in a brine using cider vinegar and ginger and finished off with a garnish of fried bread and crème fraîche.
Another unexpected pub dish comes by way of thin, crispy sheets of chicken skin that are gingerly piled onto a small plate and tucked in beside a few dollops of rich chicken-liver mousse. Other components such as a red onion chutney of sorts, finely chopped chives and a sprinkle of sumac also help signal that this is not your standard watering-hole fare.
The chef says he uses every opportunity to incorporate Dandy’s beers or residual ingredients from the brewing process in his menu at the tasting room.
“In the past we have cured fish in hops, used wort and beer in glazes and sauces, and we’re currently serving charcoal-grilled carrots and labneh with a granola made of oat malt.”
Creativity abounds in Mr. Gordon’s kitchens, but of all the possible pairings a person could settle on at Dandy, the chef’s go-to is a happily predictable combination: the oyster stout (Dandy in the Underworld) and fresh oysters.
A match made in salty, sudsy heaven.
Not to be skipped over, Winnipeg’s Nonsuch Brewing Company is the third and newest brewpub in the Prairies that is making an impact on its city’s food scene with a deliciously explorative menu created by its chef, Tyrone Welchinski. Most prominent here, perhaps, is the chef’s focus on house-made charcuterie, an art few chefs in the region excel at.
At the end of the day, all of these forward-thinking chefs are trying to have people explore what it means to enjoy beer alongside food. They push boundaries.
“I absolutely respect pubs that serve more traditional pub fare with beer, but there is no harm in offering up a different style for what this can mean,” Ms. Sandford says. “We are opening up peoples’ minds to how we can look at beer and food pairings. Just like the way other restaurants do with wine or spirits.”