As a way to differentiate itself, the Denver-based company localizes its menu, creating a sandwich for each market. Offering local craft brews enhances the connection. Smashburger is taking that a step further by pairing certain burgers and sandwiches with local beer. The first market for that was Colorado, where the chain has a strategic relationship with New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colorado.
“New Belgium beer is being paired with every burger,” Ryan says. A similar program is planned for Chicago with Goose Island, with pairings such as the Classic Burger with the brewer’s 312 Urban Wheat Ale.
Pairing beer with food is something more restaurants are considering, says Ray Daniels, director of the Craft Beer Institute’s cicerone certification program, which trains people to become beer experts.
“You definitely want to have a beer that is compatible with the food you’re serving,” he explains. “With a burger and other menu items that have a rich food base and umami flavor, you want a beer to cut the fat.”
In that case, a good pairing would be beer that has some bitterness, good carbonation, and a certain amount of roasted malt or barley flavor, he says, like a pale ale. With other sandwiches, a toasted grain–flavored beer offers good resonance. That means a brew that has less bitterness—perhaps a wheat beer—would pair nicely.
Smashburger isn’t the only limited-service company to serve New Belgium brews, which include the flagship Fat Tire amber ale and Somersault seasonal. Other chains serving the beers include fellow Colorado operator Noodles & Co., as well as San Francisco–based Boudin SF.
“Our beer plays well with a wide variety of menu items,” says Bryan Simpson, media relations director for the brewery. “In fast casual, I think you want a beer that is approachable. Fat Tire is perfect to start people down the path of craft beer exploration.”
At Noodles & Co., beer provides an “adult experience,” says Dawn Voss, head of research and development. “It enhances the experience for those who want it.”
Noodles & Co.’s beer selections differ from market to market, and the suds are selected from 20 different brewers. Each restaurant typically has a local or regional craft beer, a foreign offering, and a light one.
“Here in Colorado, we probably use five different beers from New Belgium, with four of those rotating, depending on the season, and Fat Tire all year,” Voss says. “In Iowa, we have Peace Tree [Brewing Co.] beer, Goose Island in Illinois, [and] Great Lakes in Ohio.”
Several pan-Asian fast casuals sell Asian bottled beer such as Sapporo or Tsingtao, while many Mexican restaurants offer Corona, Dos Equis, and other south-of-the-border beers.
Mexican imports are among the top sellers at Freebirds World Burrito, but the Austin, Texas–based chain also sells Texas favorites Shiner and Lone Star, plus local craft beers.
“We love to support local breweries,” says Peter Gaudreau, vice president of operations. “In Fort Worth, it might be Rahr & Sons. We sell a great amount of St. Arnold in Houston. In Austin, we have several really cool brewers, like 512 Brewing Co.”
Freebirds, with more than 80 units in four states, offers up to eight beers in a restaurant, with draft making up some of these.
Other chains also give a nod to their roots. At J. Gumbo’s Cajun and Creole Cookin’ Co., locations that sell beer are asked to carry several varieties brewed by Abita Brewing Co. of Abita Springs, Louisiana.
“Abita provides a little bit of New Orleans, and it’s a natural pairing,” says Ronnie Dingman, president of operations for the Louisville, Kentucky–based J. Gumbo’s. “Take Abita Turbodog (a dark brown ale). With spicier entrees, it helps give the palate a break.”
Beer also goes well with pizza. A number of quick-service and fast-casual pizza places, like Uncle Maddio’s and MOD Pizza, offer a variety of brews.
But craft beer is more likely at restaurants geared toward more upscale offerings. When Boudin Bakery launched its Boudin SF concept with a more extensive menu and kitchen than its bakery units, wine and beer became options, says Gayle DeBrosse, executive vice president of business development for the company. “We were now able to compete in the dinner business,” she notes.
The eight SF units feature a San Francisco local favorite, Anchor Steam, along with Fat Tire and some others. “Anchor Steam pairs well, because of the sourdough bread [in the sandwiches] and the fermentation of the brewing,” DeBrosse says.
Another small Bay Area chain, Gott’s Roadside, initially only offered half bottles of wine, but later determined that “draft beer was a natural extension,” says company project leader Matt Anderson. “And we are big fans of American microbrews.”
The four-unit business added bottled and canned beer a few years ago.
Anchor Steam draft has been on the menu since the chain began selling beer around 2000, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is another favorite. “These are the granddaddies of the California microbrewing revolution,” Anderson says.
Other local craft brewers selected by Gott’s include Lagunitas Brewing Co., Anderson Valley Brewing Co., and Trumer Brauerei. The chain regularly rotates seasonal beers, and beer amounts to about 8 percent of sales at Gott’s.
A place like New York’s Shake Shack embraces the concept of burgers and beer to the point that each of its 17 locations along the East Coast includes beer from a local microbrewery, as well as a draft beer crafted for the chain.
“We always have at least three taps at each location, and one is for our Shackmeister that was created with Brooklyn Brewing Co.,” says Mark Rosati, culinary development manager. “It’s delicious and designed to pair perfectly with a Shackburger.”
The beer was developed after Brooklyn Brewing’s brewmaster tasted Shake Shack’s burgers. The beer includes a specific amount of bitterness to cut through the burger’s sweetness.
The other two taps host an artisan root beer brewed by Abita and a local craft beer.
“Having a local beer is a way of adding dimension to the menu,” Rosati says. “Whether you’re local or a tourist visiting, that local beer tells you something about the area.”