Chicagoist at Great American Beer Fest: Of Cheese, Dining and Raised Expectations

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 21, 2010 7:00PM

(For Part 1, click here.)

In a convention center filled with tens of thousands of beer lovers wearing pretzel necklaces, Greg Hall and I can always manage to find each other. At the great American Beer Festival, we were discussing Goose Island's shift from excessively hoppy beers to the more balanced Belgian influenced styles they brew these days, and how the beers pair well with food.

Hall's appetite has always hovered somewhere between the clean running engine of "indiscriminate omnivore" and "food Buddha" red line, but he (along with former Unibroue "culinary attache" Jim Javenkoski) were early proponents of pairing craft beer with well-prepared food and supporters of the Slow Food/localvore movements. Food, particularly farm to table, was a notable presence at GABF. For a festival that featured 2,200 beers from 450 breweries, the longest line belonged to the American Cheese Society, which was doing yeoman's work in educating attendees on the basics of pairing cheese with beer.

It all seemed unfathomable even five years ago, when local breweries were making hop bombs for the trolls that dominate the Beer Advocate forums. "Ten years ago, everyone at this festival looked like you and me: burly and bearded," Hall said, "but shifts happen fast within the craft beer industry. If a brewery isn't thinking ahead, the industry will pass you by."

Goose Island wasn't the only brewery preaching farm to table. New Holland's Fred Bueltmann, a farmer himself, co-hosted a Friday discussion on the basics of pairing food with beer. Festival organizers set up a ticketed farm-to-table pavilion allowing attendees the opportunity to explore further the links between good food and good beer. Served on compostable plates and cutlery, organizers also added a sustainability aesthetic to the festival.

The marriage of beer and farm-to-table eating is a sensible progression that can only serve the further growth of the craft beer industry, which is seeing amazing sales numbers even as overall beer sales have declined in recent years. Part of the increase is due in part to a more educated consumer. Hall told me at the festival that 40 percent of Goose Island Matilda drinkers are women. Films like "Beer Wars" are also lifting the veil behind how the "Big Two" beer conglomerates - Anheuser-Busch/InBev and Miller-Coors - use sex and advertising to maintain their market share.

"The big beer companies have objectified women in their commercials for close to fifty years," Hall said. Just as seems they've taken that as far as it can go, Miller now is attacking gender diversity in "Man Up" commercials for its "Lite" brand, which essentially says men should drink Miller Lite lest they be branded pussies. That's when they aren't trying to sell the public on the beer being "triple hops brewed" (every beer is triple hops brewed) or touting the intricacies of the bottle.

With the increased consumer interest in craft beer, Ray Daniels's Cicerone certification program is one of the gold standards for industry professionals looking to burnish their resumes and move forward in the craft beer industry, as well as raise craft beer awareness to that of wine and fine spirits. Local beer professionals who have attained the level of certified cicerone include the Publican's Michael McAvena, Fountainhead's Phil Kuhl, Goose Island Clybourn chef Andrew Hroza and former Chicagoist contributor Andy Jenkins, now with Two Brothers Brewing. Daniels and the Cicerone team set up shop at GABF, running a basic smell test of three common factors in beer turned bad and answering questions from festival attendees interested in the cicerone and certified beer server programs.