How West Coast Chefs Are Utilizing Craft Beer As an Ingredient

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

Short ribs / Manzanita  | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Short ribs / Manzanita | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Getting big by going small is a trend seen in many kitchens and bars throughout the country, and the continual climbing sales of craft beer should not be overlooked. 

The popularity of endless options and styles produced by craft breweries is creating a loyal following amongst the demographic businesses desire, and there is room for so much growth. Beverage programs already offering a variety of craft beers are plentiful, but not enough have taken the next step in utilizing craft beer in the kitchen. It's time to start. 

Dual Intentions

There are establishments up and down the West Coast that designate plenty of handles on their tap line to craft beer, many exclusively. These establishments are into the craft beer movement — the small scale, local flavor, and individuality, amongst other reasons. There are others getting involved because the numbers make sense. According to Mintel Market Research, 43 percent of Millennials say that craft beer tastes better and at least 50 percent have tried it. 

Quick-serve restaurants Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. hopped on board early this year with a beer-battered fish sandwich, satisfying the craving for products featuring smaller breweries. On the West Coast alone, Brewer’s Association data states that there are 903 breweries in the three West Coast states alone, producing 17.5 gallons of beer annually for every adult aged 21 and up. These numbers may seem conservative in locations like San Diego, where new breweries are popping up all over the county. 

Initial Considerations

The styles of beer are as vast as the breweries producing them, so tastings are most certainly in order. There is no shortage of hoppy, West-Coast-style brews, but some homework is in order to find craft brews that offer more subtle flavors. The type of establishment and dish will drive the style of beer that can be used. Consider availability because many smaller breweries experiment and may have the perfect beer for a special, but if they only produce a small amount, the longevity of the menu item is significantly reduced. Limited brews have a following, however, and may be very successful offered as a special. Stick to a craft brewery’s staple brew for long-term solutions or dishes that need to be scaled up for multiple locations. 

An Osso Bucco dish braised in beer  | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

An Osso Bucco dish braised in beer | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Beyond the Fryer

Beer-battered onion rings and fish & chips are great, but can guests really tell if the kitchen used a craft pale ale or a lager once the batter is seasoned and dropped into the 360-degree fat? Get more creative. Craft brews often offer complexities like wine, so using them interchangeably is an option but will require some trial and error in the kitchen. 

Experiment with beers and understand that when cooked, the flavors intensify. A reduced stout, for instance, will be a splendid choice for glazing vegetables such as carrots. The sweetness comes out, almost molasses-like in flavor, and can add a considerable amount of richness and complexity to a dish without too much additional fat. A win-win for health conscious guests that are into the craft beer movement. 

Substituting a darker beer with braised dishes and skipping the wine for a change will add a new dimension to items like pork shanks. A hint of sweetness and those complex, malty flavors will be perfect for the winter menu. Deglazing with a sour gives as much complexity as a white wine, and can brighten up a dish with that hint of sour upfront. A splash of a tasty sour is amazing in a vinaigrette as well. A rep or brewer (if going local is an option) will be able to help with selections, making sure there is enough supply to last and helping to figure out if the selection is cost-effective for the menu.

House made sausages  | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

House made sausages | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

San Diego’s Beer Kitchens 

Along with San Diego’s burgeoning breweries comes some ingenuity in the kitchen. Hamilton’s Tavern represents a serious beer force in San Diego with Scott Blair (and his four beer bars/breweries) at the helm. Hamilton’s uses hops in their house made sausage, offering the sought-after flavor of the West Coast IPA in sausage form. 

Using hops as an ingredient provides some bitterness and other complexities that also fare well in infused accompaniments. Try hops-infused honey on a cheese board and pair it with some craft brews. Salad dressings are an option, though the use of some sweeter baby greens would be best in order to avoid bitter on bitter. Bitter is something Stone Brewing does quite well, and they make the bold move of using Ruination IPA (100+IBU) in a cheddar and garlic soup. 

Ballast Point pairs their popular Sculpin IPA with cheese in a sauce for their house baked pretzel. Pizza Port/Port Brewing uses their brews in their signature wholegrain pizza crust, while Waypoint Public uses Belching Beaver Brewing’s Peanut Butter Stout in their Brownie Sundae. Appetizers to dessert, there is place for a local craft beer on the menu, and it shouldn’t be limited to “pub fare.”

Experimental Phase

Thinking like a chef and a brewer is important to execute using beer as an ingredient successfully. Experimentation will need to occur, but be confident that there is a beer out there that can be a star on the menu. Depending on how deep establishments want to go, using highly sought-after craft beers in a dish can quite possibly lead to the next star menu item. Watch the food cost, and be sure to cross-promote. When a local brewery has a beer featured on a partnering restaurant’s menu, it’s a safe bet they will be on board for helping to spread the word. Cheers!