Hot Trend: Cool Craft Beers
There is a delicious new trend in town, and this is one that New Mexico is determined to stay on top of.
It’s no secret that craft breweries have soared in popularity across America. According to Tania Soussan in the Albuquerque Journal (5/30/18), New Mexico’s “booming craft brewery scene . . . has earned state and national recognition as a ‘beercation’ hotspot.” In 2017 “Craft Beer & Brewing magazine highlighted Albuquerque as one of America’s best beer cities,” and more than once, the Duke City has made “Travelocity’s Top 10 list of ‘Beer Destinations,’” further solidifying its status as a mecca for craft-beer fanciers. The city finds itself among the ranks of attention-worthy brewery locales such as Denver, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Although the greatest concentration of craft breweries is in Albuquerque, there are nearly 70 craft breweries in the state — including some in Santa Fe — with more in the works. In 2018, Albuquerque-based Bosque Brewing Company, earned the state major national recognition by winning a gold medal at the 37th Great American Beer Festival. Five other New Mexico breweries also brought home medals.
Beer alone isn’t the only reason local breweries are gaining national attention. David Ruiz, executive chef at Toltec Brewery, was one of five winners of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Blended Burger Project Challenge. In it, competing chefs are challenged to blend finely chopped, unami-rich mushrooms with seasonings and ground meat to create burgers that are healthier, delicious and more sustainability conscious. A brewery chef winning a prestigious food competition underscores the interest many chefs now take in pairing beer with their food.
EVOLVING PALETTES AND EVOLVING BEERS
Kris Axtell, CEO of Luna Capital, is a Santa Fe business consultant who specializes in craft brewery lending, and his clients include some of the state’s largest craft beer producers. He says producers of high-quality products will rise to the top and ride the boom in the industry, while those with subpar products will naturally die away. That’s motivation enough for those in the competitive craft- and micro-brewing market to strive for top-quality products.
Moreover, Axtell says, the most successful taprooms and brewpubs strive to provide their customers not simply with great beer, but with great experiences. For instance, many of them are now serving “higher levels” of food, and some, like Marble Brewery, also offer patrons activities such as yoga. Axtell points out that the industry has been given an additional boost by the many well-known, highly regarded eating establishments that now offer not just wines, but standout beers.
With all of this in mind, it’s safe to say, gone are the days of digging into bowls of peanuts and stale pretzels in a dark, dank bar, sipping mass-produced beers. Driving the change in part is the younger generation of beer drinkers who grew up drinking craft beer. In their journey to middle age, they have developed more sophisticated palettes. But has their beloved craft beer kept pace with their increasingly more discerning palettes? Is craft beer keeping up as this generation gravitates from pizza and hot wings to five-course meals? To find out, I interviewed several players in the Northern New Mexico brewery and restaurant scene about whether the evolution in brews was keeping up with these beer drinkers’ maturing tastes, and while there, I queried them about ideal food and craft beer pairings.
Their answers varied, but the overwhelming consensus was yes: craft beers are showing themselves to be versatile enough to accompany a fine-dining experience. And even so, these aficionados still consider beer the go-to drink on pizza or taco night. The reason, it seems, is that craft beer embodies a little more of a youthful spirit of fun — a playfulness, if you will — that keeps the generation that grew up on it from taking themselves too seriously.
Says Jason Fitzpatrick, owner of Santa Fe’s Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, “We do sell our beer to higher-end restaurants in town, but really what’s driving that is the age demographic that’s grown up with craft beer.” He confirmed that the under-40 group grew up in more of a beer-and-spirits boom and that their palates are changing. “People are starting to realize that beer can be a lot more than bubbles and foam,” he says.
What he says carries some weight. In fact, craftbeer.com goes so far as to suggest beer should be an integral part of culinary education. Moreover, the website offers free online courses so culinary students can learn about the nuanced flavors of beer and how to work with beer in the kitchen and while creating menus.
HIGH-BROW OR LOW-BROW, SOUL MATES STILL
Jotham Michnovicz, an owner and founding member of Bosque Brewing Company, says there is a strong emphasis on beer-and-food pairings at the Craft Brewers Conferences held every spring. According to him, in big metro areas such as Washington, D.C., it’s rather common to see craft brewery dinners in place of wine dinners. “In some of the bigger markets you see a lot of over-the-top, wild food and beer pairings. Here in New Mexico you see a lot more food and beer dishes that just make sense,” he says. Bosque has teamed with local chefs to host one such dinner, with another in spring 2019.
While New Mexico can sometimes feel a step or two behind the national trends, it seems to keep a closer stride when it comes to beer-and-food tastings. For instance, Bosque isn’t the only one offering beer dinners. James Crowther III, executive chef at Lambert’s of Taos, says he’s already partnered with Taos Mesa Brewery to host two beer dinners and is planning more soon. He shared a sample menu with me, and it's certainly a grown-up take on food and beer. The five-course meal starts with a grilled octopus salad, with kumquat chile jam, cauliflower “couscous,” preserved lemon and roasted pistachio. He paired it with Taos Mesa’s Sabor del Sol Pilsner, “a light, crisp German-style Pilsner that lives up to its name: a taste of sunshine.” The main course featured smoked Wagyu beef ribs, paired with the Bourbon Barrel Stout. The decadent meal was finished off with a wild Italian cherry cr.me br.l.e, served with Tap Dance Barleywine. (Barleywine is a super-strength beer that contains the same alcohol by volume as wine.)
“Beer is so fun to pair food with, and it’s an easy way to connect with people,” says Crowther. He points out that some people perceive wine as a snobbish high-end beverage, whereas beer is more for the average person and feels “accessible.” He admits that although he doesn’t necessarily take beer into consideration when creating a menu, their on-staff sommelier has a deep love for beer and brings a higher level of the drink into the restaurant. “He’s from the Netherlands,” Crowther says, “so he loves Belgian beer, and he tries to talk to me during downtimes at the restaurant about what beer pairs with what food.”
Clearly some chefs have beer in mind when creating their menus. Shane Alexander, head chef of the iconic El Farol, on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, says he absolutely considers food-and-beer pairings when dreaming up new dishes. Alexander, who is originally from South Africa (a meat-and-potatoes country that “sort of pairs beer with everything,” he says), acknowledges that beer pairs very differently with food than wine does, but he maintains that it can elevate dishes just the same. “With beer it’s not always just about what complements the food; sometimes it’s more about what contrasts with it to create that fantastic pairing,” says Alexander. He pointed out some dishes on their current menu that would be perfect with a beer: the shishito peppers, Brussels sprouts and calamari. His top suggestion, though? Bronzino (European sea bass) paired with a wheat or Belgium ale. He says that Marble Double White is a great Belgian-style beer that’s a personal favorite of his.
Alexander, like many others with whom I spoke, says not to forget about beer when eating what some (author included) view as the most important part of any meal: dessert. Suggested pairings included cheesecake and stout, a beer reduction syrup over ice cream and a chocolate cream brownie enjoyed with an amber or red ale. For readers who might like to wow their craft brewery-loving dinner guests with a special desert, Alexander was kind enough to create an original recipe, Scotia Salted-Caramel Sauce, made with Bosque’s Scotia Scotch Ale. (Recipe accompanies this article.)
FOOD TRUCKS, SARDINES AND BEER
Several of the chefs interviewed agreed on the possibility of using beer in cuisine or on the merits of keeping beer pairings in mind when putting menus together. However, no one takes the marriage of beer and food to the next level like Jason Fitzpatrick and Jason Kirkman, co-owners of the new, family-friendly Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery. Opened in Santa Fe in 2018 with the goal of filling a niche for young families, the Agua Fria Street “taproom, stage and marketplace” boasts a large indoor and outdoor seating area, live music several times a week, dedicated food trucks in the parking lot and a seasonally changing beer menu. Their chef, Enrique Guerrero, will be working in close conjunction with the brewers to create a complete, complementary menu.
Fitzpatrick says they didn’t start off as food centered, but it’s progressed to that. He maintains — and Chef Crowther at Lambert’s Restaurant would agree — that beer is both more versatile and accessible than wine. “There’s a lot more flavor, and it’s not as nuanced as wine. Beer goes with everything,” he says. “Wine and asparagus don’t go together, but there isn’t a single food that beer doesn't pair with.”
Chef Guerrero concurs. With the taproom’s 400-person capacity and growing popularity among families with children, Fitzpatrick realized the need to serve more people and provide greater variety than the current kitchen could handle. That’s what prompted him to hire Guerrero, the owner of the popular Bang Bites food truck, one of the trucks that serves Tumbleroot patrons. Born in Mexico and having lived and trained in Italy, Guerrero spent the better part of his culinary career in the fine-dining world. Feeling burned out, he moved on to the food truck industry.
Guerrero maintains that beer remains an “everyday man’s drink.” He says that although it has the potential to be paired with higher-level cuisine, it’s best suited to more basic dishes: “To me, the perfect pairing for a beer is a burger or tacos.” True to that belief, and to what one might expect to find in a family-friendly taproom, both burgers and tacos appear on the menu, along with other brewhouse staples, such as hot wings. Fitzpatrick and Guerrero plan to work in tandem when it comes to pairing the on-tap beers with each dish. “I don’t like to stick to one thing,” Guerrero says. “We try to have fun.”
One glimpse at the menu proves that they mean what they say. From Phosole, a New Mexican take on a traditional Vietnamese dish (best served with a brown beer, Guerrero notes), to a meatloaf dinner stacked so that each bite is a little piece of the stick-to-your-ribs meal, there is a clear sense of fun and flair to the dishes. With regard to pairing the beers, Guerrero says it’s fairly intuitive. “I don’t believe in the idea that you need to pair certain wines with certain meat. I think that’s clichéd,” he says. “It’s the same with beer. I recently did a porketta (pork loin wrapped in pork belly) on the rotisserie — it’s a very Italian dish — with a white bean purée. We took that and made it into a sandwich that we paired with Citra [Pale Ale].” He adds, “We thought that was one of the nicest pairings ever. The citrus in the beer really cuts the fat in the meat. It’s basic like that.”
The one pairing that really took me by surprise, though, was the suggestion of sardines and beer. Guerrero maintains that no matter how fine the restaurant was, it’s the one dish he always had on the menu. “Sardines and beer are a perfect pairing!” he assured me. He recounts that when he was a kid growing up in Mexico and he was bugging his grandparents, they would give him a can of sardines in tomato sauce, a packet of crackers, and soda and send him outside. “So many people carry a childhood memory based on sardines,” he muses. “A lot of older people love sardines, too. Back in the day, it was inexpensive, and so people ate them often.” He says sardines really shine with a pilsner and that a white lager and the farmhouse ale are also great complements. “Here [at Tumbleroot], we’ve paired the sardines with our own Dijon mustard and a really nice, high-quality olive oil and lemon on top, as an appetizer.”
CONTRASTS, NOT COMPLEMENTS
Guerrero wasn't the only one waxing nostalgic. Santa Fe native and acclaimed chef John Rivera Sedlar says, “The first time I absolutely fell in love with the flavors of beer was while I was cooking in Moscow during Glasnost and Perestroika. There was a late spring snowstorm outside, and somehow it highlighted the beer I was drinking.” He explains, “The complex, deep caramel flavors and the ice-cold glass, with snow falling outside, was bracing and delicious, just like a Russian bear hug.”
After the success of his Latin-inspired restaurants in Los Angeles, Sedlar decided to pay homage to his Northern New Mexico roots by opening the modern Eloisa restaurant, located in the Drury Hotel in downtown Santa Fe. Opened in 2015, Eloisa is a nod to the feminine influences in Sedlar’s childhood, particularly his grandmother, for whom the restaurant is named. Eloisa’s menu is based on the local flavors that Sedlar grew up with, and so it comes as no surprise that the dishes pair perfectly with beers from local craft breweries. “I usually have on my winter menu wild-game venison or squab matched with a deep stout [dark] beer and juniper-berry sauce,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll substitute the stout with Bosque Brewing Company’s Elephants on Parade wheat ale. It’s a terrific local craft beer brewed with dark and red-berry fruit.” He adds, “Bosque makes some of my personal favorite beers — perhaps it’s the Rio Grande water!”
Sedlar is in the camp of “contrast, not complement,” when it comes to food-and-beer pairings. “I don’t think the flavors of craft beers complement foods in the same way as wines. What I have found is that I enjoy pairing beer and foods that contradict each other.” He describes it this way: “Sort of opposites attract, if you will. Bitter and sweet, and sour and umami.” His favorite pairing combination is beers with local cheeses, house-made salumis and chorizos (spicy Spanish pork sausages).
When asked about suggestions for pairings, Sedlar says he’d advise beer-loving restaurant patrons to pair light foods with hop-forward, herbal and earthy, citrusy IPA. [IPA is initialism for India Pale Ales.] For deeper-flavored beers, such as porter and stouts, Sedlar suggest more complex flavors, such as rye. He says the stouts and porters also go well with sauces made with Dijon mustard. Sedlar reveals one of his personal favorite combinations, though, is an amber ale matched with enchiladas or with crispy tacos filled with a hot sauté of cabbage and chorizo.
LOCAL WATERING HOLES AND GASTROPUBS
Second Street Brewery has been a Santa Fe staple since 1996, when it opened a small brewhouse and taproom at 1841 Second Street. According to Mariah Scee, director of marketing, in 2010 they opened a Second Street Brewery taproom at the Railyard, and in 2017 they unveiled a taproom and large brewhouse at 2920 Rufina Street. (The up-and-coming Rufina district is evolving rapidly, and now boasts a thriving arts district, with theaters and music venues, not to mention Meow Wolf.) All three locations feature a full menu and rotating selection of beers on tap, as well as a diverse schedule of music and events. Try a seasonal favorite, such as the Summer Rain Sour, Fulcrum IPA, Coffee Porter, Rod’s Best Bitter, Atalaya Altbier or Imperial IPA. In 2018 Second Street began packaging and distributing its beer statewide, and their popular gluten-free 2920 IPA, Agua Fria Pilsner and Boneshaker Special Bitter are available in both cans and kegs.
For a pub with well-priced, upscale fare, head to Fire & Hops, on Guadalupe Street in Santa Fe. The brain child of co-owners Joel Coleman (chef) and Josh Johns (front of house), the gastropub, established in 2014, opens daily at 5:00 p.m. on weekdays and at 2:00 p.m. on weekends – perfect for getting together with friends or for date night. Although this casual, cozy neighborhood eatery is tucked in a 115-year-old, thick-adobe-walled house, you can expect top-flight, made-from-scratch cuisine and outstanding beverages. And if that weren’t enough, the owners are committed to sustainable practices. Coleman cites the principles that guide them: “Local. Sustainable. Quality. Friendly.” Savor innovative small and larger plates, an array of tempting desserts and an ever-changing selection of beers, wines, and hard cider and kombucha.
The bottom line is that there is no shortage of possibilities when it comes to finding a great taproom and a perfect pairing of beer and food, even in many high-cuisine restaurants. The generation raised on craft beer will be especially happy that there is no need to forgo their beloved beverage for a glass of “grown-up” wine, even when they are out on a fancy date.
Along with the emergence of the craft beer scene has come an elevation of beer’s status in the culinary world, even in laid-back Northern New Mexico. Still, it’s comforting to hear that beer is still the beverage of the people and that craft beer has established itself as a drink that almost everyone can appreciate. With craft beer’s range and broad appeal, the answer to “perfect” pairing question seems to be “Whatever you’re eating at the moment.” Lucky for those of us who call Northern New Mexico home — as well as the thousands of visitors who flock here each year for a taste of our local cuisine — we’ve got a whole lot of delicious options and the beverages to go with them.
By Tiphini Axtell
Tiphini Axtell is a full-time wife, mother, writer and dog cuddler extraordinaire. In her spare time, she acts as the communications director for her husband’s business advisory firm, Luna Capital Advisors. For more information on their Santa Fe-based business, see https://luna.capital.