Crystal Luxmore is a Toronto-based beer writer whose work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Chatelaine, The Walrus, The New York Times, CBC and msn.ca and she was the “Hopped Up” columnist for what was easily Toronto’s best weekly magazine, The Grid (RIP).
Accordingly, it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about beer. This month, as part of my ongoing efforts to explore the relationship between dining and beer, I chatted with Crystal via email about beer, food, and why beer isn’t afforded the same respect as wine–yet.
Ben Johnson: As a cicerone and prud’homme certified beer sommelier, do you put a lot of thought into beer and food pairings when you’re dining at home or eating out?
Crystal Luxmore: I do, but I don’t sweat it too much. At home, I see what’s in my beer and main fridge, and usually choose the best possible match from what’s already chilled once dinner is ready. At a restaurant, I do think about it, but sometimes I’m more interested in trying a new one-off than finding the perfect match for my burger. Luckily with beer, it’s so versatile and easy to pair that if you’ve got great food and a great pint, you’ll be satisfied.
BJ: I feel like once you start paying attention to what beers work with what foods, you can’t NOT pay attention. It’s like a new level of snobbery when I’m with friends. First it was, “oh don’t drink that.” Now if I say, “well don’t drink THAT with THAT” I feel like I’m going to get punched in the head.
CL: Yeah. I would punch you in the face if you told me that. Taste is subjective and everyone’s palate is different, so what you think is right, is right—but only for you.
BJ: So is it too much to think like this? Does beer and food pairing increase your enjoyment of a meal the way it can with wine?
CL: It’s not too much at all. The same amount of blood, sweat and tears goes into crafting the perfect bottle of beer that goes into crafting the perfect bottle of vino—beer deserves to be appreciated and celebrated on the same level as wine. Plus there are so many more intersections between beer and food than there are with wine—for example all beers are carbonated—and this gives beer a secret weapon in food pairing. Wine’s only way to slice through richness or fat in a dish is acidity—carbonation does that in beer, so do roasted malts or bitter hops, which gives beer more legs to stand on when it comes to the dinner table. Plus beers are made from four ingredients (or more) all of which offer different flavours, effects, and layers to the drink that will interact with food. So of course you want to think about it, and feel like you can’t stop talking about it. Pairing beer up with food is super fun. But there’s a way to talk about beer and food that doesn’t make you sound like an overbearing beer snob, the first step is to listen to your dinner companions—are they even interested? If not, move on and keep the epiphanies to yourself. (I’ve been known to scribble notes on my phone rather than sharing my thoughts with my disinterested companions).
BJ: In terms of the current state of beer and fine dining in Toronto’s restaurants, I feel like there are only a few restaurants that “get it.” What do you think?
BJ: So who’s doing it right? What venues do you think treat beer as more than just an afterthought and make a conscious effort when it comes to the beer menu?
CL: Beer Bistro. Beer dinners at Indie Alehouse and Bar Hop. The Bier Markt certainly tries hard, and it can be a good place to start, but the pairings aren’t very imaginative. To be honest, besides the Beer Bistro—which also suffers from the problem of not changing its food menu often, so you get the same old pairings—I don’t see anyone in Toronto really embracing food and beer pairings. In Brooklyn, I ate at Luksus, which is run by a Nova Scotian chef, Daniel Burns [who formerly worked in the kitchen of Noma in Copenhagen before heading up research and development at Momofuku Culinary Lab], and he is doing a high-end tasting menu paired exclusively with beer. There is no option to order wine or spirits. Beer only. And the pairings are challenging existing notions of classic pairings, rejecting tried and true stuff like stout and chocolate cake and aiming for something more. It’s brilliant. It could be done here in Toronto too. You just need the right philosophy. (For more on Luksus, you can check out Crystal’s interview with Daniel Burns from the July 2014 issue of TAPS Magazine. — BJ)
I was really happy to see that Bar Isabel opened with such a cool bottle list, but sad to see that there’s no real integration of beer into the dining experience. I see a great opportunity to do that at spots like Isabel (For more on on Bar Isabel and General Manager Guy Rawlings’ approach to be beer, food, and their excellent bottle menu, check out my recent interview — BJ).
BJ: So why do you think few places are embracing the possibilities with beer?
CL: There are so many reasons for this. I think restaurateurs believe there is more economic gain to be had from a high-end wine list than a great beer list. The reality is, with pricey and rare beer bottles finally coming to market regularly, that is changing, but I don’t think most restaurant managers realize the extent of what’s available out there from the LCBO, and more importantly, private importers and agencies. There’s also a disconnect between the beer and the kitchen. For example, a fellow Certified Cicerone is the head chef at a city restaurant, and he is dying to take over the beer program—bring in beers to match the food better, simplify glassware, educate servers, all that jazz—but beer falls under the Bar Manager’s domain, and without a Certified Cicerone or Beer Sommelier on staff, like many places have for wine, there’s no one around who’s job it is to make that connection.
Plus, I’m not sure that we as a beer-drinking culture are ready for hoity-toity Cicerones telling us which beer to order with our meal—while it’s culturally acceptable to get wine advice, it’s not OK, for men especially, to ask which beer they should order.
BJ: That’s a good point. But I still think we’re mostly being held back by the big brewers. Beer culture wouldn’t have such a hard time evolving in this city without the current environment of tap “payoffs” and the expectation of free shit from their beer suppliers.
CL: Fair, but there’s nothing stopping restaurants who get payoffs for taps or discounts on kegs from cultivating a great bottle list. That isn’t happening. I think it comes down to convincing restaurant owners that having a killer beer list, with rotating bottles, educated servers who can suggest pairings, and bartenders who know whether the beer is fit to serve, will make them more bank.
BJ: Yeah, and it seems like it’d be pretty easy to make beer a more integral part of the dining experience. There are no shortage of beer “experts” these days who’d gladly be willing to consult on draft selection so why doesn’t anyone do it? (Seriously, fancy restaurants, please email me I’d be happy to help ).
CL: I know? Dream job, right? I think it’s a question of money and most likely restaurateurs think that building an extensive beer menu will take away from wine sales. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a realistic fear. Usually when we sit down to order a meal, we’ve already made the decision about whether to drink wine or beer, so why not simply have a great list of each for customers to choose from.
BJ: Having graduated from two beer-tasting certification programs, do you think they’re suited to helping dining establishments incorporate beer the way they do with wine? Is one program more geared to that task than the other?
CL: I learned about beer and food in both certifications. For Prud’homme we did a bit more tasting and cooking with beer, so it was more hands-on, where Cicerone was more self-study (lots of eating and drinking alone) and theory on beer and food pairing. I think an experienced Prud’homme Sommelier or Certified Cicerone who is immersed in beer full-time would be equally qualified—unless one of them also had some serious chef credentials. They’d be the winner.
BJ: Do you think we’ll ever see a time when “beer sommeliers” are as common as sommeliers currently are in fine dining establishments?
CL: If we see a time where we’re routinely asking people to pay up to $400 for a bottle of beer, we might see our fair share in restaurants, so it seems like it’s a ways off. But we’re making progress, there are over 60 Certified Cicerones and Prud’homme Beer Sommeliers in Canada, and at least a handful are working in restaurants and bars full-time. Restaurant owners and wine sommeliers often express interest in taking the Cicerone test, and I think that will impact what we see on the menu in the next five years. Time will tell.