A Craft Beer Epiphany in Wine Country

By Ashley Routson

When hearing the name “The French Laundry,” one automatically thinks of wine. After all, this top-ranked Michelin Guide three-star restaurant is located in the heart of Napa Valley. The French Laundry employs some of the most talented and knowledgeable sommeliers and boasts one of the best wine lists in the world. At The French Laundry, guests can expect world-class cuisine, service, wines, and errrr…beer?

For a few decades now, craft beer has played second fiddle to wine.

But not anymore.

The introduction and popularity of the gastropub concept has revolutionized the way people experience and perceive craft beer and food. Wine is no longer the only fine beverage that has found its rightful place at the dinner table.

Beer has evolved to become more than just a product made from malt, hops, water and yeast. Finding inspiration from both wine and culinary arts, brewers are continuously pushing the boundaries of craft beer by incorporating techniques and skills learned from winemakers, distillers, breadmakers and chefs into the brewing process. Unique ingredients, utilization of unique yeast strains, blending, and barrel-aging are just some examples of the latest trends in the craft brewing industry.

Craft beer is not trying to replace or become wine, despite some claims. Critics need to differentiate between inspiration and imitation. Craft beer is a completely separate entity from wine, successfully paving its own course.

The complexities and nuances in beer surpass those in wine, in many respects, and, as a result, beer is slowly but surely challenging wine as the quintessential food pairing beverage.

Case and point: The French Laundry Experience

The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurant, was named “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant Magazine in 2003 and 2004. To be honest, The French Laundry was the last place I ever expected to have the greatest food and craft beer experience of my life. Food and wine, yes. Food and beer, no.

For most, an opportunity to dine at The French Laundry is a once in a lifetime experience, if that. Honestly, I never thought I would ever have the honor, especially at this stage in my life. However, the fates smiled on me and a good friend of mine and his brother made my dream a reality.

FoodThe French Laundry follows a pre-fix menu system, meaning that each guest is locked into a nine-course tasting menu that changes on a daily basis for a set fee of $250 (not my typical dinner bill for sure). You get one of two menu options—the Chef’s Tasting Menu or the Tasting of Vegetables.

Essentially, there are two ways to go about the beverage pairing process. Guests can either select bottles on their own, or they can allow the sommelier to create pairings based on a set price range. We chose to allow our sommelier, Christopher Hoel, to pair each course for the group.

It is customary for the sommelier to ask questions to help gauge a person’s palate and create custom pairings. The group yielded the wine discussion to me, which I gladly accepted.

After articulating my wine preferences, Christopher made the observation, “You must like brett (Brettanomyces).” To which I responded, “I love brett. My favorite beers are brett beers.”

From that moment on, it was all over.

My friend told Christopher that I was a beer connoisseur. Christopher then offered to pair my courses with both beer and wine. At first I was hesitant, since there were only four beers listed on the menu. Christopher assured us that The French Laundry had additional beers hidden away in the cellar. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity to drink craft beer at The French Laundry, so I accepted the “challenge.”

Beer and FoodSeven out of nine courses were paired with beer. Instead of presenting the beers in a standard format, Christopher covered each beer with a white linen napkin, and poured them blind. Before revealing the beer, he had me guess the style. Two of the beers were unmistakable, as they were two of my favorite beers from one of my favorite breweries in the world — Pliny The Elder and Consecration from Russian River Brewing Company.

After nearly four hours of orgasmic food and equally amazing wine and beer, the night ended on a perfect note with a mini tour of the kitchen and a brief introduction to the chefs.

A few days after our dinner, I contacted Christopher to thank him for the experience as well as request a list of our pairings. Much to my surprise, he mailed me a package with four printed menus, including the pairings, signed by Thomas Keller himself.

I cannot help but think that if one of the most renowned and prestigious restaurants in the world is acknowledging beer as a sophisticated beverage worthy of pairing with the finest ingredients, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the industry follows suit. In fact, I anticipate a day when every top-tier restaurant has a Certified Cicerone™, the beer equivalent of a sommelier.

Craft beer in a way is like Cinderella, below the rags and disheveled appearance, is a beautiful girl worthy of wearing glass slippers and dancing with the prince. She just needs a fairy godmother or two to help guide her to the ball. To me, this is where craft beer evangelists and advocates come into play.

We need to bring craft beer to the mainstream by challenging local restaurants, bars and retail shops to take their craft beer selection and presentation to the next level—just like The French Laundry did for me.

Ashley V. Routson, known amongst the craft beer community as The Beer Wench, is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist and social media puppeteer on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. When she is not preoccupied with the craft beer revolution or her addiction to the Internet, Ashley enjoys cooking, artisan spirits, boutique wines, fine cigars, and college football (she bleeds Scarlet and Gray for The Ohio State University). She is Chief Beer Blogger at the inaugural Beer Bloggers Conference this November in Boulder, CO. You can find her musings at Drink With The Wench.