Beer. It’s the drink of the working class, the Chevy to the Porsche that is wine.
But craft beer bucks that stereotype. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the rise of fancy dinners in which chefs carefully pair courses with particular beers.
Pairing dinners used to be wine’s undisputed territory. But beer is creeping in, especially now that craft beer’s creative brewers have been exploring new styles and flavors with a fervor that hasn’t been seen in America since before Prohibition, if ever.
Even The Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittboro and Herons at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, often cited as two of the best restaurants in North Carolina, have joined the trend.
“Now that craft beer’s becoming more popular, people are actually realizing there’s more distinct flavors … really unique flavors,” said Dustin Williams, co-owner of the soon-to-open Regulator Brewing Co. in Hillsborough who recently contributed to a Fearrington House beer dinner.
At a dinner last month at Durham’s Piedmont restaurant, a couple of dozen people gathered for a $50 five-course meal.
This wasn’t a burger and three or four PBRs dinner. Every dish was crafted with a different beer from Raleigh Brewing Co. in mind by executive chef Greg Gettles, formerly the sous chef at Herons.
There were scallops in a hoppy cream sauce, paired with a pale ale. Spicy catfish ceviche with a pilsner. Cobia carpaccio gazpacho – that’s raw fish in a cold tomato soup to us neophytes – with a Belgian ale. Eggplant and pork belly with a Scottish ale. Chicken and smoked potatoes with a fruity wheat ale. Peaches and blueberries with white chocolate and pecans, paired with a coffee porter.
“The dessert kind of strips the beer of the sugar taste, so you get those other flavors from it,” said Raleigh Brewing’s head brewer, Alex Smith, while introducing the final course.
The intent of each pairing was to create a flavor meld greater than the sum of its parts. Boy, did it work. I’d go to one every week if my wallet could keep up.
But don’t declare victory yet, beer fanatics. Wine is a formidable force in the high-end dining world, and it’s not going to be dethroned.
Fearrington Village, for instance, seems like about the last place to let beer take any of the spotlight off wine.
I went on a date to a Fearrington wine tasting once. They flew in vintners from all three French vineyards on display, so they could personally guide us through the intricacies of their wines.
My date and I were the youngest people there by at least 20 years. Everyone else seemed to do this regularly.
Yet the restaurant has let beer share the spotlight. Last month, Fearrington held its second annual Hops v. Grapes dinner. Each of the four courses was paired with a beer and a wine, and guests voted on the winning beverage for each round.
Like Christians being sent to the Coliseum, Williams and his poor beer-loving compatriots had no chance against the wines. But he said he was pleased that beers got more votes this year, even though the wines still won out.
“It’s a big wine crowd,” Williams said. “Wine beat us again this year. But we closed the gap.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
Beericana: A craft beer, Americana music and food truck extravaganza, 2-6 p.m. Sept. 12; VIP ticket holders can get in at noon and also get some special small-batch beers. Get tickets at beericana.com.
Raleigh Beer Week: Events daily Sept. 20-27. Check raleighbeerweek.com or Raleigh Beer Week on Twitter and Facebook to find out more.
N.C. Brewers’ Cup: Homebrewers and commercial brewers have until noon Sept. 18 to enter the annual contest at the N.C. State Fair. If you think you make the best beer around, enter at nando.com/ncbrewerscup.
BBQ, Blues & Brews: This festival in Fuquay-Varina is 3-8 p.m. Sept. 26. Learn more at nando.com/bbqbluesbrews.
Triangle Oktoberfest: Oct. 3-4 at Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary. Learn more at nando.com/oktoberfest.