The hottest word in food, beverages and music over the last decade has easily been ‘local.’ Local is good, so the conventional wisdom goes. National is, if not bad, inferior. Forget that — like politics — all food, beverage and music is ultimately local to someone.
What’s a multinational burger chain to do?
If you’re Smashburger, you start looking local. Specifically, to local beer. The Colorado-based chain with more than 200 locations across the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, and Saudi Arabia has made a bit of a splash in the U.S. better burger scene with its introduction of burger-and-beer pairings featuring local burger variations and local craft breweries. Last Thursday Smashburger founder Tom Ryan and Richard Dubé, Brewer Maximus for Christian Moerlein, unveiled the pairings for Cincinnati. Here they are:
- Burger: Classic Smash Beer: Lager House Helles
- Burger: Mushroom Swiss Burger Beer: Barbarossa Dark Lager
- Burger: BBQ Bacon & Cheddar Burger Beer: OTR Ale
- Burger: Buckeye Burger Beer: Exposition Vienna Lager
- Sandwich: Spicy Baja Black Bean Burger Beer: Northern Liberties IPA
- Sandwich: Classic Chicken Beer: Barbarossa Dark Lager
- Sandwich: Avocado Club Chicken Beer: OTR Ale
Anyone who’s met me can figure out pretty quickly that I’m not a particularly picky eater. I had a taste of each burger and beer combo listed above and I thought they all worked pretty well together. You either go for contrasting flavors or complementary flavors when pairing beer and food, and I’d say this menu emphasizes the complement side of pairing for the most part. I don’t claim to have any special insights into food — or beer for that matter — so what follows is strictly my opinion. It’s not a review or a rating or anything like that. It’s just what sticks in my mind almost a week later.
The Mushroom Swiss with Barbarossa was probably my favorite pairing of the night mainly because the Mushroom Swiss Burger is a carnivore’s delight. It’s meat, cheese and baby portabellas, which practically qualifies as more meat. There might be some grilled onions in there; I wasn’t paying that close attention. The Barbarossa is has such a smooth, malty character that you start to feel like you’re doing it wrong if you aren’t alternating between a bite of burger and a sip of beer.
If you’re ever in the position of trying to explain to someone ‘not from ’round here’ (as in ‘not from this planet’) why beer and burgers go together, the Classic Burger an the Helles would be a pretty good way to try to explain it. The veggies on the burger really make it pop, and the Helles has just that hint of spiciness to set that off, but not so much as to be anything but accessible.
The surprise of the night for me was the Spicy Baja Black Bean Burger. I like black beans as a rule, but I’ve never had a meatless burger that I’d particularly want to have again unless personal safety or monetary rewards were involved. Until now. Does it taste like meat? Nope. Is that a problem? Not in the slightest. It was spicy and tangy (and had fresh jalapeños on it!) and tasted like — wait for it — black beans. And that was just fine. The Northern Liberties worked with it because, while not a hop bomb by design, the spiciness of the hops stood up to the spiciness of the sandwich. A couple of our dining companions pointed out that the black bean patty was a bit dense, and I think that’s certainly a fair observation. It didn’t bother me, but I can see where some folks might be a little off-put by it.
The (free) press event we attended was at the Smashburger location near NKU, but these beer pairings will be available at all Cincinnati metro Smashburger locations. Dayton locations will feature pairings with Great Lakes Brewing Co., while Louisville locations will feature BBC Brewing Co. beers.
So what’s the bottom line? Well, the burgers were good and the beer went well with them. I’ll go back. I know some folks won’t be able to get past the fact that Smashburger is a national chain founded by a guy who was once with both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and who is at least partially responsible for unleashing the McGriddle and the Stuffed Crust Pizza on an unsuspecting world. I also know that there are going to be some turning up their nose and sniffing that Christian Moerlein isn’t really local even when every drop of the stuff is eventually produced in OTR (which is well in progress and has always been the goal). And to them I say: Cool. Enjoy yourself. Whether from deep conviction or latent snobbery, knock yourself out. No one’s making you go there. The world will keep turning whether you decide to eat there or not. If it helps you sleep at night …
It’s just a burger and a beer pairing menu after all. I happen to think it’s a pretty good one. Your mileage may vary. That’s why it’s never boring on this here temporal plane of existence. You get to choose.
[For more photos and Carla’s take on the food, check out her post on RadioCarla.com.]