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Beer Advocates

How about washing down a juicy steak with Dogfish Head IPA, or finishing off a meal with Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence? Retailers interviewed by SN have made these and other suggestions as they increasingly pair craft beer with food. Beer is becoming like wine in that there are options for before dinner, during dinner and after dinner, said Dan Piron, store co-manager of Green Hills Market, Syracuse,

How about washing down a juicy steak with Dogfish Head IPA, or finishing off a meal with Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence?

Retailers interviewed by SN have made these and other suggestions as they increasingly pair craft beer with food.

“Beer is becoming like wine in that there are options for before dinner, during dinner and after dinner,” said Dan Piron, store co-manager of Green Hills Market, Syracuse, N.Y.

It's all thanks to the growing popularity and availability of craft beer, brews made by microbreweries and regionally based brewers.

Craft beer generated $287 million in sales in supermarkets for the 20 weeks ending Oct. 4, a 14.2% increase from the same period in 2008, according to Information Resources Inc. That makes it second to only sub-premium beer in terms of sales.

Although more expensive than sub-premium, sales trends indicate that people don't mind spending a bit more for a quality beverage, said Dan Wandel, senior vice president, beverage alcohol client solutions, IRI.

“People are willing to treat themselves to small indulgences, and craft is a beneficiary of that,” Wandel told SN.

Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas, is getting more requests for microbrews like Fat Tire from New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo.

“Craft beer is trendy right now,” said Phil Metzinger, Brookshire's vice president of specialty beverage.

He attributes the popularity to the unique flavors and aromas of craft.

“People want something different,” he said. “They want to experiment.”

Craft beer has a wide range of flavors like caramel, oranges, chocolate, peppers, bananas and honey, and color variety from pale straw to dark honey. Such versatility makes it conducive to food pairings much along the lines of wine.

“Craft has helped elevate the romancing of the beer category,” IRI's Wandel noted.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets is one of a growing number of retailers tapping into the craft trend. Over the last two years, Wegmans has doubled its amount of craft beer to 800 selections. Brands like Purple Haze, Hoptical Illusion, Blue Moon and Magic Hat #9 now fill its beer shelves.

Wegmans uses samplings, shelf signage and articles on its website and Menu magazine to educate shoppers about which crafts to serve with which food. Among other suggestions: Lindeman's Framboise, a sparkling rose-colored Belgian brew with a clean, light raspberry aroma, is perfect with sorbet; and Brooklyn Chocolate Stout, an imperial stout the color of dark chocolate, with a caramelized honey sweetness and hints of bitter chocolate and espresso coffee, goes well with ice cream or cake, Wegmans states.

“Absolutely there are beers that complement a sweet finish to a meal,” Mark Spagnola, Wegmans' category merchant for specialty beers, said in a statement.

Wegmans even organizes its beer department the way many wine departments are set up: by geography. There are sections for brews produced on the East Coast, West Coast, Europe and other areas.

“We're making a real effort to help customers with an interest in craft beers learn more about Atlantic, Europe and other areas,” Spagnola said.

Along with their unique flavors and aromas, craft beers appeal to retailers and consumers because many are produced locally.

“Just as we've cultivated relationships with local growers for decades to bring our customers the freshest produce and to support the local economy, we've reached out to local craft brewers,” Spagnola said.

Other retailers are doing the same. Green Hills, for instance, conducts frequent samplings of selections from two local craft brewers: Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, N.Y., and Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Green Hills uses shelf signage and other marketing materials to publicize the fact that the beers are made locally.

“A lot of people don't realize it's a local beer,” Piron said. “They think it's a Belgian beer.”

While samplings benefit all types of beer sales, they're particularly effective for craft beer due to its higher price points, said Piron.

“People don't want to spend $8, $9 or $10 for a six-pack unless they know they'll like it,” he said.

Green Hills takes it a step further by pairing craft beer with food items sold in store, such as steak.

“We ask our customers what types of food they eat, and suggest which beer would go best with it,” said Piron.

Microbreweries are helping in the effort by talking about the quality of their beer and food-pairing opportunities, said Giri Dodballapur, wine and beer manger for Dorothy Lane Market's Springboro, Ohio, store.

Dorothy Lane, Dayton, Ohio, has had success with regional and local craft beer, including those from Bell's brewery in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Mount Carmel Brewing Co., a family-owned brewery in Cincinnati.

“These breweries do great interpretations of blond ales and other beer,” Dodballapur said.

Craft customers generally are not put off by the higher price point because many are concerned more about quality than quantity, he added.

“People may not be going out to bars or restaurants as much, but they still want to enjoy a good beer that they've had at a bar,” he said.

Like Wegmans, Dorothy Lane educates shoppers about how to pair craft beer with food.

“The acidity and carbonation in beer make it a food-friendly beverage,” said Dodballapur.

The beer department recently prepared soup recipes provided by Brewery Ommegang. The soups were then served with samples of Ommegang's Belgian-style beer.

Another form of education is cross-merchandising craft beer in the meat and other perimeter departments.

Dorothy Lane is a big supporter of Dogfish Head craft-brewed ales. When the brewer recently ran a temporary price reduction that cut the price of a six-pack by $2 ($7.99 vs. $9.99), Dorothy Lane made the most of it with large secondary displays.

Directly in the meat department was a floor display featuring three Dogfish Head beers: 60 Minutes IPA (made with a 60-minute boil); Raison D'Etre, brewed with raisins and beet sugar; and Indian brown ale, similar to an IPA, only it's brewed with brown sugar.

“I love supporting Dogfish Head because it's producing some amazing beer,” Dodballapur said.

Dodballapur said the craft beer market is undergoing a transformation in that new, innovative types of crafts are hitting that market, such as beer aged in whiskey and wine barrels.

Dorothy Lane even carries craft beer made with wine grapes. Produced by Allagash Brewing Co., Portland, Maine, the beer comes in two varieties: Victor Ale, a tribute to the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center in Portland, made with chancellor grapes; and Victoria Ale, made with chardonnay grapes in tribute to the historic Victoria mansion in Portland.

Likewise, vintage-dated beer is gaining momentum, Dodballapur added.

“People will store these in the cellar just like they do with wine bottles,” he said.

Some brewers, including Brewery Ommegang, are even packaging craft beer in 750-milliliter bottles, just like wine.

Dodballapur is also seeing “collaboration brews,” or crafts made jointly by U.S. microbrewers in partnership with large foreign brewers.

“The beer community has come together and is producing all these unique craft brewers that we've never seen before,” he said.

One such collaboration beer is from Allagash. Its brewmaster traveled to Belgium to visit the brewery De Proef Brouwerij. The visit led to a partnership and the joint creation of Les Deux Brasseurs (meaning two brewers), a Golden Ale fermented with two strains of Brettanomyces, a yeast.

“The result is a beer of remarkable character with significant fruit tones, including pear, apple and pineapple,” Allagash said.