A line snaked casually from the entrance of Generations Hall through the landscaped courtyard, populated with the well-heeled patrons one often discovers in society circles… or was it. No, this was not some debutante ball or a court meeting of an ancient Mardi Gras krewe. In fact, this was a collection of the most well-dressed beer geeks ever assembled. Truly, there was not a single pair of cargo shorts to be found. Instead, an eager group of men and women, adorned in suits and dresses (and yes, at least one brewery hoodie) awaited their chance to beer-and-dine quite fancily at the first incarnation of a new brew-centric event in its first visit to New Orleans. Namely: Nuit Belge.
With over a dozen of the finest restaurants represented, each creating a dish to pair with a specific Belgian beer, the Nuit Belge (or Belgian Night) works, purposefully or not, to elevate beer-drinking… or rather, to inform the curious drinker, as well as the restaurateur, of the brilliant heights readily attainable through the pairing of beer and food. With just about every local beer geek and brewery employee in attendance on that Friday in late February, you would have to call this evening a rousing success. And yet this gathering, with its phenomenal cuisine and swanky vibe, also highlighted (highlit?) something generally lacking in the New Orleans beer scene: the restaurants.
Think about it. There are hundreds of restaurants in this city, and to be honest, not a ton of beer within. Menus featuring a wide variety of wine may offer a handful of seemingly arbitrary (and rarely local) bottle selections. Pairing dinners are few and far between, usually driven by the breweries, and local beer events are all too often catered by cheap pizza joints, or those temporary kiosk diners seen mostly during Mardi Gras. If you’re lucky, there will be food trucks. Overall, if it’s any good, it is either prohibitively expensive or bereft of decent food. What this town needs is an investment by the event planners in good food, and by the chefs in good beer, which we are gradually seeing more and more of in our stores and bars.
This is not an indictment of the Nuit Belge, nor the restaurants who participated. In fact, this occasion and several other recent beer events (e.g., Parish Brewing dinner at Bourbon House, St. Arnold pairings at St. Roch Market) have been top notch. The problem lies with accessibility. Not many people new to drinking the beer world are willing to shell out 75 bucks or more for a fancy meal, but having quality brews on the regular menu, as well as creating more reasonably priced, albeit less ambitious events (perhaps in the 20-40 dollar range) that still highlight the excellent ales and lagers available throughout the region, might just help guide a new generation of beer drinkers to the dark side. (That’s where we sometimes drink brews darker than a pale yellow.)
I’m no evangelist, nor do think our little scene isn’t trying to improve, but I simply feel we can do a better job, especially in a city that prides itself on its food, of blurring the line between the food and beer worlds. In the end, I just want the fine people of New Orleans to be able to enjoy a tasty brew with their delicious dinner without waiting several months for the next special event. We’re moving in the right direction, but there is plenty space ahead for further progress.