Berkeley's Hops and Pie is cooking...with beer!
Are you going to eat that?" I asked, eyeing the golden-brown crust my companion had abandoned after she'd eaten the rest of the slice, the part with all the toppings.
She glanced at me. "Uh, no," she said, then looked away, as though I was embarrassing her.
I was too consumed to care. The pizza crust at Hops and Pie is simultaneously feathery, dense and crackly, swiped with a little grease, redolent of malt. It's unlike any crust eaten before, reminiscent of beer batter — if beer batter were given some heft. That's because it's actually made with beer: 50 percent of the liquid is India pale ale.
At Hops and Pie, craft beer isn't just something you pair with your food. It's a key ingredient in your food.
Drew and Leah Watson had worked in fine-dining spots all over the country, crisscrossing the United States from Boston to Napa. But when they decided they wanted to run their own place, taking the simple combination of pizza and beer and upgrading it to something exceptional, they cast off the starched collars and white linens and moved to Denver. They found a sliver of a spot amid all the restaurants popping up in the Berkeley neighborhood and opened Hops and Pie there last September.
The space is half filled by the bar, which lines one wall and boasts a colorful array of tap handles. The Watsons share a mutual love of craft beer, so in addition to several rare bombers, they offer 22 varieties on tap, including the specially made Hops and pIe P.A. from Strange Brewing Company that's also what they pour into that pizza dough. The beers, which range from saison to stout, rotate frequently and are listed on a chalkboard by International Bittering Unit (IBU) count — the higher the number, the hoppier the beer. (Strange's special IPA weighs in at 62: hoppy, but not as hoppy as, say, the Maharaja from Avery, a hop bomb that boasts 102 IBUs.) And on every First Friday, Hops and Pie brings in a firkin, a small keg of cask-fermented beer that usually has an ingredient — like raspberry or vanilla beans — added to the base beer, in effect creating a small, one-off brew. The beer list keeps the bar seats full of microbrew geeks, chatting with the bartenders about the technical aspects of brewing.
But the tables stuffed into the rest of the space are usually full, too, taken by a diverse group of neighbors, families and fans who are just as enthusiastic about the pizzas at Hops and Pie. To match their formidable beverage program, the Watsons focused on crafting pies from quality ingredients, including sausage from Il Mondo Vecchio, high-quality cheeses and a tangy housemade tomato sauce, all on top of that beer-infused crust. Hops and Pie offers everything from a simple cheese slice to elaborate specialty pies, combinations like fig compote, buttermilk blue and local honey, or skirt steak, mashed potatoes and Gruyère. The pizzas are supplemented by a half-dozen or so salads and snacks, among them a kick-ass macaroni and cheese.
When we'd stopped in that night, just before the evening rush hit, I'd placed an order for the mac before I even started thinking about the pizza and beer, which requires considerably more effort — and often the help of a server, who will shower you with descriptions of what's on tap and even let you taste the possibilities. "Good choice," the waitress had said, and returned quickly with a blocky ceramic dish overflowing with elbow macaroni, delivered on a Sicilian pie pan to catch any stragglers. We didn't want to miss a bite of this dish, with a spackling of breadcrumbs over that mountain of pasta, glazed in a sharp cheddar sauce mixed with pudgy peas and strands of smoky braised ham hock. There was something else, too: a deeper bite that lightened the heaviness of the creamy roux, leaving a seductive tartness lingering on the tongue; that something was more India pale ale. We matched our app with a roasted-pear salad, the lightly caramelized fruit served over a bed of mixed greens with sweet-tart goat-cheese crumbles, spicy red onions potent enough to make our eyes water and a dusting of toasted pine nuts, dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette that lightly coated each leaf.
Along the way, we'd ordered a pizza, our own combination of prosciutto and fresh basil on a basic cheese pie, which arrived before we could finish the salad (though we'd managed to scrape the macaroni and cheese dish clean), accompanied by two additional pizza trays to use as plates. The beer-infused dough had been spread with thin, garlicky tomato sauce, sprinkled with just enough shredded mozzarella to cover the sauce, speckled with thinly shaved, porky prosciutto and baked until crispy, then topped with a handful of fresh basil strips. The beery flavor embedded in the crust elevated the entire combination, and the flavor nuances were further enhanced by the beer I'd selected: more Hops and pIe P.A., which played nicely with the cured meat and cheese.
On earlier trips to Hops and Pie, I'd learned that the simplest pies here are the best ones, the ones that emphasize those good ingredients that the Watsons select so painstakingly; the specialty pies tend to combine strong flavors that work better in an entrée than piled on a pizza. For example, one day's special pie came loaded with thick slices of hanger steak smothered in the sauce from the macaroni and cheese, which was oppressively heavy against the delicate tomato sauce. Another overload was the special combo of sticky fig compote sprinkled with buttermilk blue cheese and crisped bacon, further augmented by a bouquet of arugula and a drizzle of honey. The overpowering compote was almost offensively ambrosial when topped with honey, and the blue cheese and bacon were too sparse to provide savory balance. Under all this, the decadently delicious crust seemed lost. The kitchen would have been better off losing it altogether and just serving the mix as some kind of salad.
But while a few of its pies don't fly, Hops and Pie has really taken off, and with good reason: The Watsons have managed to improve on the timeless match of pizza and beer.
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