American Craft Beer Week wrapped up last week but enthusiasm for beer isn’t slowing down. While craft brews aren’t as ubiquitous as wines (yet) in fine dining establishments, many chefs are sharing their love of the fermented beverage by elevating it to the same level as its more “sophisticated” cousin on their menus.

The Brewer’s Association also adjusted its guidelines for "craft beer" last year to include breweries that produce up to 6 million barrels annually.

Chef Adam Dulye, executive chef for the Brewer’s Association, thinks the rise of quality craft beers and consumer education is helping the beverage overcome its lower-status reputation in fine dining. But beer presents a slightly different tasting experience than wine, rooted in a bacteria that’s present during fermentation called brettanomyces.

“In wine it’s a bad thing. A sommelier would say the wine is ruined if it gives off a distinctive sour smell from the bacteria, but in beer it’s a coveted thing,” said executive chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen restaurants, based in Colorado. “So if you have people who are used to wine, that’s an obstacle.”

Beer tastings and pairings also differ on the issue of terroir—or in the case of beer, a lack thereof.

“Sommeliers have an emphasis on terroir. Beer tends to be more about styles, since beer isn’t as reliant on terroir. It’s a different approach,” said Julia Herz of the Cicerone Certification Program, the beer equivalent of sommelier certification, which more and more restaurants are tapping into. There a currently over 38,000 certified beer servers, cicerones and master cicerones the U.S.

Alcohol content and aroma also play a role in pairing beers with food, just like wine, but unlike wines, there are no grape varietals to suss out and no oakiness spectrum.

“With beer, you have the carbonation and yeast” instead, says Dulye, and you “can control temperatures to bring out the flavors and aromas of beer.”

In general, all this complexity found in beer leads Dulye to build menus around the beers that he wants to serve, rather than pairing beers to the menu afterwards. To illustrate this, he organized a six course beer dinner on May 7 with half a dozen other chefs at the Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico, Calif.

Todd Shoberg of Molina created a king salmon dish with cold smoked morels, ramps, bacon plank and a douglas fir miso to pair with Sierra Nevada’s River Ryed IPA.

Even dessert had its own brew: Angela Pinkerton of Craftsman & Wolves paired roasted strawberries with coconut mousse, lemon sable and oregano caramel with a Terra Incognita.

(See the full menu below.)

A saison beer by HenHouse Brewing Company, based in Petaluma, Calif. Photo by Sara Bloomberg. 
Chicago-based chef Jared Wentworth of Longman and Eagle is all about highlighting craft beers at his newest restaurant, Dusek’s. Chicago’s Craft Brew Week took place last week and Wentworth was hopped up and ready for a good time.

“People are doing things now (with beer) that they weren’t doing even 10 years ago,” Wentworth said, such as offering beer pairings with fancy tasting menus.

Beer drinking is becoming a more sophisticated experience but is still accessible; whereas one bottle of a rare wine vintage could set you back hundreds of dollars, the most expensive microbrew six-pack will only cost $15 at most, Wentworth said.

“Our inspiration is really to get people together that really enjoy beer, presented in a more sophisticated setting,” Wentworth said.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though—he loves craft brews as much as the next guy but he’s no snob. At the end of a long, hard night of service, what he craves most is a cold Miller High Life, and most of his coworkers would probably say the same thing, he said.

Story and photos by Sara Bloomberg