When I was a kid, my mother occasionally made a beef brisket on Friday nights and on holidays. The beef was marinated in beer. I’ve since found that adding beef to brisket isn’t some family secret, but a time-honored recipe. A can of some non-dark beer, usually lager, per 1.5-2 kg of boneless beef brisket.
Contrary to what I believed all those years ago, beer isn’t in there to tenderize the meat. A 4-5% ABV beer is there to add flavor, just as citrus juices, vinegar, and wine do to other foods.
You don’t have to look very far to see beer creep into other foods. Beer battered fish and chips is a common recipe in the UK. Revered gastropub personality Trish Hilferty uses fresh yeast for her beer batter – four pieces of fish to almost 2 cans of beer, fine microbrews not required. This beer batter ‘innovation’ is also employed in less well known deep fried recipes like coconut shrimp, glazed rib of beef and beer batter Yorkshire pudding, Cajun fries, onion rings, grilled cheese sandwiches, zucchini blossoms, and cupcakes.
Actually, it’s quite astounding how many recipes use beer as an ingredient. A search at All Recipes unearthed more than 150, most being some kind of homemade meat dish you’d find in a country pub, things like pork chops in beer, beer butt chicken, chili, corned beef, gumbo, various steak marinades, ribs, curries, and lobster tails. Even a cheesecake – made with Guinness Irish stout.
Most of us would never have tried any of these beer supplemented dishes. We’ve had fried fish, chili, and corned beef, but not with beer added. Beer sounds superfluous, a gimmick, and it is most of the time. Yet why, when you think a little deeper about it, should beer seem to be such a novelty in food?
Wine surely isn’t. The Italian and French have made wine a normal ingredient in their cuisine. Chicken and mushrooms in marsala wine sauce, beef daube provençal, filet mignon with mushroom-wine sauce, beef braised with red wine and mushrooms, various risottos. You’ve seen them, you’ve tried them. Tomato-wine broths and red wine reductions are common on the table.
Wine has advantages beer doesn’t. The French and the Italians are the world’s number one and number two wine producers, respectively. What’s equally important is that both nations also rank in the top ten in the amount of wine consumed per capita. If you ignore small countries like Andorra and Luxembourg, France ranks at the very top. In addition, both France and Italy have world class exportable cuisines. People throughout the world have experienced wine cooked into their food enough times to think of it as normal.
But beer? China, the United States, and Brazil are the world’s top three producers, namely because all three have large populations. Per capita, none rank in the top ten for consumption. The big beer drinkers are in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and Poland — the beer, vodka, rye bread, and pork belt of Europe. The cuisines of these nations, consisting mostly of pork or beef with sauce and a side, are suitable for drinking with a beer but not cooked in one, although a few recent German bratwurst recipes do incorporate beer. None of these cuisines is internationally renowned on a scale that approximates the reach of French and Italian cuisine. And if Estonian or Polish cuisine made ample use of beer in indigenous recipes, few outsiders would ever bother visiting a Polish or Estonian restaurant overseas, if they could find one, to sample the cuisine. When’s the last time you passed a Polish or Estonian restaurant in your town?
Even if beer were more common in the culinary arts, the beers required for the recipes would be generic. Any lager or stout would do. Microbreweries don’t have the patience for that. If you won’t cook with their beers, they’re going to see to it that you buy products with their specialty beers already added. These are items you wouldn’t typically associate as having anything whatsoever to do with brews.
For instance, Rogue Ales in Oregon sells their own Brutal IPA Mustard, made with mustard seeds from their own farms and their own Brutal IPA; a Honey Kolsch Honey Mustard; and a Morimoto Black Obi Ketchup. You pay a premium to get Rogue’s beers in your condiments. Rogue’s products cost about 2½ times what a gourmet mustard or ketchup would cost elsewhere.
The granddaddy of microbreweries, Sierra Nevada, is in on the mustard act, too, at much more reasonable prices, offering three different mustards fabricated with their pale ale, porter, and stout. They also include their pale ale in bags of peanut brittle, which they call beer brittle. Deschutes incorporates their Black Butte Porter, Chainbreaker White IPA, Fresh Squeezed IPA, Inversion IPA, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Obsidian Stout into soaps, not a food product precisely but close enough since you can wash your mouth out with it.
All this is a stretch, and the microbreweries know it. Nearly all of them have an online store nowadays. Few stock any beer-derived food items, and of those that do, there are so few beer-in-foodstuffs to bother counting. The vast majority are content selling hoodies and glassware.
Beer can be added to things, like to the batter for cod or halibut, a brisket marinade, a pizza sauce, mustard or ketchup, peanut brittle, or soap, but in no single recipe of any popularity is beer absolutely essential , like wine would be in chicken coq au vin. For millions of earnest home cooks to start thinking of beer as a go-to cooking ingredient, you’d first need to see a new dish appear requiring beer as an essential ingredient and then have this new dish explode in worldwide popularity.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken,” wrote playwright Oscar Wilde. Beer is has evolved into the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. All of us would prefer it in a frosty mug than spread on top of a sandwich. It need be nothing more.