The recent Ontario launch of two beers from Goose Island, one of Chicago's most celebrated craft breweries, came with an interesting marketing hook. According to the press release, Sofie and Matilda, a pair of excellent Belgian-style ales, were "brewed to complement the flavours in some of the finest foods."
Suds for classy grub – the concept would hardly seem novel to those who have long been savouring fermented barley with all manner of cuisine. But this was no ordinary launch. Goose Island happens to be owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian giant behind Labatt, Budweiser and Stella Artois, which took control of the Chicago icon two years ago. The marketing subtext: Move over, premier cru Burgundy, Big Beer wants a seat at the white-linen table.
"There's a beer for everything, even pancakes," says Suzanne Wolcott, Goose Island's head of education and resident cicerone, the beer equivalent of a sommelier. "But as far as fine dining goes, you're not going to want very basic beers." She did not mention Bud Light by name, but I think it's safe to read between the lines.
With Sofie and Matilda, Labatt – which is marketing the brews in Canada – would appear to have two winners on its hands. I especially like Sofie, a pale ale modelled after a style called saison, the fresh, fruity Belgian beer made with wild yeasts that was traditionally brewed for summer consumption by farm workers. Partly matured in used wine barrels with fresh orange peel, Goose Island's version is cloudy-golden in colour, with a pineapple- and peach-like core and hints of vanilla and spice that put me in mind of a well-balanced New World chardonnay. It goes especially well with delicate fish.
The darker, mid-amber Matilda takes its cue from Orval, a Belgian Trappist ale, delivering stronger bitterness as well as a sweet-sour verve that stands up to more robust meats. Like Sofie, it comes in a heavy, 765-millilitre bottle similar to that reserved for Champagne and sells for $9.95.
Fittingly, Labatt launched the brews over lunch at Nota Bene, a Toronto temple of haute cuisine where the beers were served in wineglasses and where star chef David Lee rose to the occasion with menu items you won't find at an ersatz Irish pub.
Nova Scotia poached lobster tail came on a bed of caramelized enoki mushrooms and was drizzled with vanilla-scented pineapple-water reduction and vinaigrette made from grapefruit and clementine, which echoed Sofie's fruity-vanilla essence. To the plate Lee added small "crispies" of fried batter made with the beer as well as a beer-infused foam for extra tang. To showcased Matilda, the chef revived an old Nota Bene signature of suckling-pig tart accompanied by boudin noir.
"I don't drink beer that often," Lee says. "But the sensations of what they've developed with these beers are incredibly unique."
Labatt is not the first brewer to launch an explicit push into fine dining with the help of a kitchen star. Several years ago, Barcelona-based Estrella Damm joined forces with Spain's Ferran Adria to create a German-style weissbier flavoured with coriander, orange peel and licorice. Named Inedit (French for "original"), it was reportedly billed by Adria as the world's "only gastronomic beer." That declaration might come as news to Atlantic Brewery in Cornwall, which developed a series of "fine dining ales" in collaboration with local Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw. René Redzepi, the wunderkind behind Noma, a top-ranked Copenhagen restaurant, serves a house pilsner made with birch sap, his local twist designed to resonate with the Nordic cuisine.
Intriguing though such efforts may be, they court a question: Must beer be brewed for food to harmonize with it? I'd suggest no.
"There are so many different elements in beer that match up with food anyway that it's really easy to find good pairings," says Iain McOustra, head brewer for Toronto's Amsterdam Brewing Co., which makes an array of styles, including a saison and several oak-aged offerings. "I've always said that you can have much better pairings with beer than with wine, and that's coming from someone who loves wine."
Like me, McOustra finds that beer tends to make for a better match with, say, creamy cheeses. In that setting, he says, wine is "a joke" (despite popular belief to the contrary).
Stephen Beaumont, the Toronto-based co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and of the forthcoming Pocket Beer Guide (both with Tim Webb), views the brewed-for-food conceit as an offshoot of a broader trend. He says beer is "moving into fine dining in a big way now," more specifically in North America, a continent where the knee-jerk association of chicken wings with cheap lager unfairly stigmatized the beverage for so long. Glaring example: New York's Gramercy Tavern, one of Manhattan's top restaurants, which features a vintage-beer list with 27 cellar-matured selections, including a 2007 Matilda.
A fan of the Goose Island brews, Beaumont says they mark Labatt's attempt to play catch-up with other large companies that have been expanding their presence in fine restaurants and elsewhere with acquired craft-style offerings, as Molson did with Creemore of Ontario and Granville Island Brewing of British Columbia.
"The big boys started dipping their toes into food-and-beer pairing and it occurred to them that they don't have the flavours [in their mass-market beers] to do that properly."