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0122homespunweb.jpgRISMEDIA, Jan. 22, 2008-(MCT)-On a cold night last week, about 40 people squeezed into the Newstead Tower Public House in St. Louis’ Grove neighborhood for a five-course “beer dinner.” 

Wheat beer from O’Fallon Brewery was paired with roasted duck and lemon gastrique. Smoked porter went with braised beef and couscous, raisins and black currants. Brioche bread pudding called for cherry chocolate beer, of course.

“I’ve always thought that beer would make an excellent food pairing,” said Maureen Durand of Dardenne Prairie as she sat with her husband and a friend. “But nobody ever does it.”

Au contraire, madame! Brewers big and small increasingly are trying to impress the public — and forge stronger loyalty to beer — with dinners that tout beer’s variety, nuanced flavor and heritage.

St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos., for one, hopes to steal some of wine’s luster and sales by copying a page from wine’s leather-bound playbook. One major goal is to rebuild the beer industry’s eroded market share — damage done in part by wine.

Dinners pairing brews with elegant food are tools to help the biggest U.S. brewer capture fancy drinking occasions that otherwise would be wine’s domain.

The dinners are “just coming into their own,” said Dan Kopman, chief operating officer at St. Louis Brewery Inc., the maker of Schlafly beer.

Brewers across the country want to enhance beer’s status and wipe out any lingering image of beer as the alcohol family’s pedestrian, unassuming cousin.

On a muggy night last September, Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Clayton brought out the fine white tablecloths for a $100 Anheuser-Busch beer dinner for 60 registered guests. Menus laid out seven courses of haute cuisine: coconut shrimp and Michelob, beef tenderloin and caramelized onions with Michelob Amber Bock, and Caesar salad with Budweiser in pilsner glasses.

Brewmaster and host George Reisch stood by, explaining how a Ray Hill’s American Pilsner — brewed by A-B in New Hampshire — would “open up” the taste buds to savor the oils and creams of the tenderloin and balsamic vinegar.

Diners “don’t ever forget this,” he said. “It’s sensory.”

For some time now, the beer industry has sensed serious competition from wine. Wine sellers have boosted their sales at beer’s expense by touting wine’s variety, subtlety and taste-enhancing pairings with fine foods. Many drinkers set down their beer, picked up wine glasses and started discussing “mouthfeel,” fruitiness and cheese pairings.

Anheuser-Busch and other brewers fumed as wine sliced away at beer’s market share. Beer’s share of “absolute alcohol” consumed in the U.S. dropped 3 percentage points, to 55%, between 2001 and 2006, according to the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights.

Meanwhile, wine’s market share jumped to 14% from 12.7%. Absolute alcohol measures equivalent amounts of alcohol. A 12-ounce Budweiser at 5% alcohol by volume is counted equal to a 5-ounce glass of wine with 12% alcohol by volume.

“The sad thing is that consumers have had pounded into their head a stereotype” that wine is the best choice for nice occasions such as a date or cooking for friends, said Bob Lachky, A-B’s chief creative officer and point man for an industry effort to improve beer’s image.

“Beer would be more appropriate than automatically thinking, ‘I can only do wine because it’s food and there’s a girl present.’ … Gimme a break! You don’t need to do that.”

Anheuser-Busch has sponsored dozens of beer dinners across the country to trumpet that message and capture upscale ambience.

“I don’t think people realize that beer and wine are very similar in the way you can enjoy them,” said Geoff Dill, general manager of the Ruth’s Chris in Clayton. The beer dinners “are a great way to get customers excited about beer.”

Small brewers are helping stoke the trend. O’Fallon Brewery, a small operation based in O’Fallon, Mo., participates in about a half-dozen beer dinners every year. St. Louis Brewery has held beer-cheese pairings at the Tap Room in downtown St. Louis. Next up is a Mardi Gras beer dinner at the Forest Park Boathouse.

Beer dinners are not completely new in St. Louis — they’ve been a staple for years at Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar in University City, for example. Now, however, more restaurateurs and chefs are jumping into the game.

Monarch, a restaurant a few blocks from Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, is planning a Schlafly beer dinner later this year. Newstead Tower Public House may hold monthly beer dinners after the big response to its inaugural event.

On Wednesday night, Anthony Devoti, Newstead’s chef and co-owner, popped out of the kitchen and eyed the nearly full restaurant. “Give ’em a beer,” he said, “and they’ll be happy.”

That’s the hope of the craft brewing industry in general. Four dozen craft breweries such as Dogfish Head and the Brooklyn Brewery are planning to team up to showcase their porters, pale ales and stouts at a food-tasting event in Washington in May.

“Chefs are on board now in emphasizing beer’s ability to go with food,” said Julia Herz, spokeswoman for the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, a trade group sponsoring the event. There is also “trickle-up economics” — consumers asking for beer with their order.

A survey of more than 1,000 chefs by the National Restaurant Association found craft and microbrew beer the sixth-hottest culinary trend of the year out of 194 items such as Latin American cuisine and free-range cooking.

“What can you do with beer? You can do anything — you can do entrees, you can do appetizers,” said Christopher Van Norman, a chef instructor at Ladue’s L’ecole Culinaire who has taught a brewing class. Beer dinners are hip, he said. “For the chef, we know wine goes with food, but beer does as well. It’s kind of fun for us.”

It’s unclear how much beer dinners and similar efforts to polish beer’s image have increased sales. But recent numbers have encouraged the sellers of suds.

U.S. beer shipments grew 2.1% in 2006 — the best performance since 1990. Industry sales were up 1.8% in the first 10 months of 2007, according to A-B.

“We’ve come a long way from ‘Beer is dead’ in just two years,” A-B’s chief financial officer, W. Randolph Baker, said at a recent conference with analysts. “We see a resurgence in interest in beer.”

Said Wachovia analyst Jonathan Feeney, “The category is finally turning the corner.”

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Miller Brewing Co. has not been idle. Representatives have traveled to major cities to conduct beer dinners promoting brews such as Pilsner Urquell, a swanky Czech import from parent company SABMiller PLC of London. Some dinners pair the beer with lobster and caviar. A glossy booklet from Miller extols Urquell’s pairing with artisanal cheese.

“In a lot of European countries, the consumers know a lot about what they’re drinking,” said Ryan Johnson, U.S. trade brewer for Miller’s import division. “That’s our challenge here.”

Johnson, who helps run Miller’s beer dinners, said their educational content jibes with the emergence of a more-informed consumer attuned to beer’s variety.

“It’s one of those things,” he said, “that was way overdue.”

Copyright © 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.