As a foodie, one of the things that bugs me the most is the myopia of alleged food connoisseurs when it comes to beer. It's not unusual to go to a restaurant that features a great wine list, only to be confronted with the lame selection of domestic macrobrew or low-quality imported beer like Heineken or Becks. If you're lucky, they might have Sam Adams-but even that's pretty tame as far as beer goes.
Wine is great, but considering it only has two ingredients, it falls short when it comes to food matching. (I can just imagine some of you reaching for pen and paper to send letters of righteous indignation at my ignorance.) Wine is a natural accompaniment to many foods, certainly, but beer complements a far greater range of flavors. At its most basic, beer is made from hops, barley malt, yeast and water (some brewers like Karl Strauss will suggest that's all it should be made from)-but countries like Belgium have been producing amazing beers for centuries with herbs, fruit and spices added in. Modern brewers have adopted these ingredients and added others to the mix, such as honey, chocolate, peat-smoked scotch whiskey malt and even vanilla bean. Consequently, dishes that don't always go with wine, like Thai curries, sushi or Indian dishes, are a snap to pair with beer.
Unfortunately, when it comes to restaurant beer selections, mediocrity reigns. The unimaginative and uninformed compose beer lists that either stick to the beers of the native country, such as Singha at Thai places or Kirin in sushi restaurants (which isn't even brewed in Japan), or they maintain this stasis because consumers who don't know any better do not demand a change.
This state of affairs is particularly galling in San Diego, which is home to several gold-medal winning, world-class breweries. Despite this, our beers are more widely recognized elsewhere than at home, evident by their conspicuous absence from so many restaurant beer lists and the selection of Karl Strauss as Best Microbrewery by CityBeat readers. Don't get me wrong, Karl Strauss produces competent beer-but in a county that's home to brewers like Stone, Alpine, Pizza Port, Oggi's, Green Flash, AleSmith and Ballast Point, it's a little odd that readers of an alternative weekly would select the most corporate and least adventurous of what San Diego has to offer.
"Well, you know people are pretty predictable with "Best Of'," said Stone's CEO, Greg Koch. "What they mean is the one that they've heard of before, you know? At Stone we don't advertise. We've never advertised. Never had a radio commercial, never had a park bench, never had a billboard-so only people who are seeking out what is truly the best, and actually going out and actively participating in their lives rather than passively doing what the television tells them to do are gonna even be aware of us."
I spoke to Greg at a Beer Education Luncheon hosted by Stone Brewing and George's At The Cove. For $40, guests were treated to a multi-course lunch where each item was paired with an appropriate beer, and a lecture on the subject of beer by Greg and Stone's Brewmaster and president, Steve Wagner. Unlike similar events hosted by other local breweries, this was not just about Stone. In fact, only three of the beers served were from Stone, with the remainder from Belgian, German and other American microbreweries.
"People are fascinated to learn about beer, and to find out what beer is capable of being," Koch explained. "People aren't showing up to have me tell them about the Stone agenda-although, hey, the Stone agenda is actually about people being aware of, and having available to them, great beer. Of those, Stone is one of the best choices you could possibly make-but there are other great choices."
Later that day, gathered around a table at O'Brien's with Koch, Alpine Brewing's Pat McIlhenny, Russian River Brewing's Vinnie Cilurzo, and O'Brien's owner and Oggi's brewer Tom Nickel, I asked them what they thought about the CityBeat Best Of reader's poll. "I can't make any comments about that-with a tape recorder in front of me!" said Vinnie.
"There's a very small number of people that would be out there like "Oh, I've gotta do the CityBeat poll to vote for Stone!'" said Tom Nickel. "I mean how many people would actually do that? Ten? Twelve? Greg plus 11 of his friends?""Can I put my vote in now?" added McIlhenny. "I'm voting for Alpine."