- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

“I’m a firm believer that beer is the new wine,” says Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City, a long-established craft brewery in Baltimore. “But we’re about 20 to 25 years behind wine, and we have to keep educating the consumer.”

The equivalent of a graduate seminar in the craft-beer revolution was provided at Savor, a beer-and-food-pairing showcase gathering of 68 craft brewers from all around the nation at the National Building Museum on Saturday.

The festival featured stouts and ales, pilsners and porters - and none of them was of the light, yellow-tinted, mass-marketed, beer-flavored-water variety.

Instead, most were dark and high in alcohol content, rivaling wine in more ways than one, which is no coincidence, because that’s part of the craft brewers’ goal - to have their product considered a good alternative to wine as a dinner and dessert companion.

“Beer has much more flavor range than wine,” says Eric Wallace, co-founder of Left Hand Brewing Co. in Longmont, Colo. “You smash up some grapes, and you get wine. Beer is much more complex than that.”

So, table upon table at Savor was packed with such items as vegetarian samosas, steak on skewers, blue-cheese chunks and dark chocolate to show how craft beer (a term used to describe beer from independent brewers) complements food.

However, choosing craft beer is not just about flavor; it’s about principle, too. That’s right; what kind of beer you drink can be a political statement of sorts.

Drinking craft beer, for example, can signal that you support local business versus big business.

“For our generation, it’s a way of rebelling,” says Emilie Stein, while waiting in line to try a couple of Dogfish Head brews. “I would never drink a Bud Light,” adds the heavily tattooed 26-year old District resident and chef.

Big beer business basically consists of two companies these days: Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. They make up about 82 percent of the beer market. Craft brews, though just 4 percent of the market, are gaining ground, Mr. Sisson says, adding that the segment’s goal is to reach 7 percent to 7.5 percent within the next five years.

“We try to do things thoughtfully,” says Alex Field, a 25-year-old District resident, of his generation’s purchasing habits. “And that includes how we eat and drink.”

He and Ms. Stein are representative of craft-beer drinkers. They’re cosmopolitan and in the 25-to-34-year-old range. Other trademarks of craft-beer drinkers include a college education and upper-middle-class income.

“It’s a beer renaissance,” says Alex Clifford, 30, who together with Mr. Field was attending a chocolate-and-beer pairing at Savor, held by Mr. Sisson, the Clipper City founder.

“We crave knowledge about stuff like sourcing, food pairings, and we want to support local businesses,” Mr. Clifford says, “but we’re also capitalists. We’re not going to drink something that doesn’t taste good, and we’re not against making a profit.”

Sam Calagione, the successful owner and founder of Dogfish Head, a mid-Atlantic brewery based in Milton, Del., and others are literally tapping into this principled yet quality-conscious purchasing behavior.

“I think it’s very important that consumers know where their beer comes from,” says Mr. Calagione, who’s known as the rock star of craft-beer makers. “And what goes into making that beer.”

“When you use what’s around you, your beer reflects that,” declares Mr. Calagione, who gave a talk on ancient ales in the modern world at Savor. For some of his beers, for example, he uses honey from his family’s farm.

He also likes to replicate ancient beers - such as Midas Touch, a beer based on a 2,700-year old Turkish recipe - no matter how arduous and time- and money-consuming the method.

“You can’t replicate the flavor by faking it,” he says.

Yet he acknowledges that no matter how hard he and other craft brewers try, most consumers still will favor traditional lagers. (Remember that 82 percent market share.) Too bad, he says; he’s going to continue to “push people outside their comfort zone.”

Because, as Mr. Sisson puts it: “Once you start drinking craft beers, it’s hard to go back.”

Pairing and serving tips

Craft-beer lovers are on a quest to make beer the new wine. However, for that to happen, you, the consumer-diner, have to start viewing it as a serious dinner companion - the way you do wine.

“The wine industry did a lot educating before it became what it is today,” says Mike McCarthy, director of brewing operations at Capitol City Brewing Co., which brews in the District and Arlington.

So, let the education begin with these recommendations by Mr. McCarthy and Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City, a Baltimore brewery.

• Instead of pairing your beef tenderloin with a cabernet, try instead an Amber Waves Ale (a Capitol City Brewing fave).

• Instead of pairing a chardonnay or a Gewurtztraminer with your seafood, try instead a pint of Organic Belgian Saison (a Belgian ale).

• Instead of pairing a red wine with chocolate, try Clipper City’s Peg Leg Stout, a dark beer with aromas of coffee, chocolate and toffee.

Beer, as opposed to wine, efficiently cleanses and clears out the mouth (a good thing, particularly between courses) because of its carbonation, Mr. McCarthy says.

But isn’t the carbonation also more filling?

It can be, but not if served right, Mr. Sisson says.

“Pour it down the middle of the glass and let it settle,” he says.

The method knocks down the carbonation. Also, don’t overchill the glass or the beer, he advises.

You wouldn’t serve a chardonnay ice-cold, would you?

-Gabriella Boston

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