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Raise a glass, er, a fork to culinary beers made with actual food
Culinary Beers
Photo: Tasting Table 

Maybe you haven't sipped celery- and carrot-laced gravy beer or marshmallow fluff-loaded key lime beer, but chances are you're already familiar with culinary beers. Or at least one of them: pumpkin ale.

Culinary beers are basically brews made with and paired for food, and they aren't exactly new. Think of all the oatmeal porters and oyster stouts on the market. But what is notable is that more and more brewers are approaching this type of beer making like cooks.

"Culinary brewing is using a chef's mindset to highlight flavors and aromatics in balanced beers," Jared Rouben, the brewmaster and owner of Moody Tongue, says."This philosophy rests on three principles: sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, understanding how to handle those ingredients and knowing when and where during the brewing process to incorporate these ingredients."

Rouben, once a chef, focuses solely on culinary beer at his pioneering Chicago brewery.

"I worked in several kitchens, but I've never viewed brewing any differently than I have cooking," Rouben says. "It's just as an extension of what many chefs do with dishes in restaurants."

Nowadays, culinary beer is less about one-off ingredients or playing up stout's already chocolaty notes and more about relying on techniques gleaned from years in the kitchen to make the most of ingredients and to mimic the flavor and texture of actual dishes.

"I was inspired to make key lime pie, because my wife said that I couldn't do it!" Tony Hansen, the head brewer at Short's Brewing in Bellaire, Michigan, remembers of his first culinary beer. "My intention was to create a beer that had the creaminess, sweetness and tartness of a key lime pie, including the graham cracker crust flavor. I remember being surprised by how well a lot of the flavors of pie came through in beer form."

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Naturally, chefs are getting in the mix, too. Kevin Hickey, the chef/restaurateur behind Chicago's The Duck Inn and Rockit Ranch Production and frequent collaborator with Moody Tongue, looked to Thai cooking for his lemon verbena hefeweizen made with Pollyanna Brewing Company in Lemont, Illinois.

"When you're making a French sauce, you start with everything. Herbs, like bay leaf and thyme, go in at the beginning," Hickey explains. "But with Thai food and all the wonderful aromatics—if you add that at the start, your end product is dull."

So instead of dropping the lemon verbena into the initial mash time and losing all the flavor of the delicate herb, he tosses the dried sprigs in the secondary boil.

"Beer making is so much like cooking. You're making a soup almost," Hickey says. "It's pretty easy to incorporate flavors, but you learn by trial and error how to get the most flavor out of the ingredients."

Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione is working on the brewery's 20th anniversary beer, Higher Math, a high-alcohol ale made with cherries and cocoa nibs. He remembers when it wasn't always this way.

"We decided to be the first commercial brewery in America focused on incorporating culinary ingredients from around the world into our beer recipes instead of bowing down to militant beer style guidelines," Calagione reminisces. "For the first five years, we were mostly looked upon as heretics and weirdos for doing these beers. Now, it is great to see hundreds of craft breweries if not thousands coloring outside of stylistic guidelines."

Clearly, the tides have changed.

"Now, it seems like every new brewery has its own version of a culinary beer," Hansen continues. "The biggest change is that it seems normal now, almost like a requirement for a brewery to make culinary beers."

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