The Great American Beer Festival descends upon the Mile High City every October, reaffirming Denver’s place as a beer beacon and craft-brewing industry leader. Our local brewers are among the most creative and respected in the world, and their creations attract beer geeks from all over the globe. So it’s only natural that as Denver chefs work to carve out a nationally celebrated culinary identity, they turn to beer — already our international calling card — for inspiration.
Chef, consultant and Brewed Food owner Jensen Cummings has been pondering exactly how to do that for several years. His Brewed Food venture now includes a food lab where Cummings and his team test beer-related experiments, pop-ups and tastings, beer-and-food partnerships and, new this year, a national tour, which Cummings used not only to expose diners to beer-inspired food, but also to collaborate with chefs and brewers around the country. A catering arm and a cookbook are in the works, as are consulting projects with like-minded brewers and chefs around the world.
As a lead-up to this year’s GABF, Cummings chatted with us about using brewing techniques and ingredients in cooking, experiments that are built to fail, why the restaurant industry will never climb out of the beer industry’s shadow in this town — and why that’s okay.
Westword: In the years since you stepped out of the full-time restaurant kitchen, you’ve launched Brewed Food, meant to push the boundaries of melding food and beer and to inspire others to do the same. What, exactly, does that mean?
Jensen Cummings: It’s basically taking the inspiration of brewing tradition and techniques and applying them to the philosophy of cooking. Instead of looking at the finished beer as the point where we begin to engage beer and food, I’m looking back at the brewer as a cook in the kitchen — those ingredients are culinary — and saying the process should start there. It’s taking brewing ingredients and techniques and applying them to food. That’s a big paradigm shift.
And we’re not talking just about cooking with beer, right?
Cooking with beer is not necessarily what creates continuity in beer and food. I’m talking integration from the very beginning. People have used wort, spent grain and hops in cooking, and we’re doing some of that and pushing it forward. But the most unique thing we’re doing is fermentation; there’s no one out there really pushing the boundaries of using yeast and bacteria in food. When I started doing this, I was scouring for a resource — a YouTube video, cookbook, blog, anything — but I couldn’t find anything. There was lots out there on fermentation, but no one bringing the story together.
So what, exactly, are you making?
Kimchi and sauerkrauts are the biggest successes. I’m still making sriracha, and with that, we’re doing some crazy, three-phase mixed fermentations. Like we’ll take fruit and blend it back into the sriracha. We’re doing misos, soy sauces and gochujong, a Korean condiment, where instead of rice additives, we’re using malt syrup and barley flours.
What sparked this?
The first time that Brewed Food ever manifested was in 2012, when I competed in and won the first Chef and Brew Festival. I got connected with Danny Wang at Caution [Brewing], and we talked a lot about applying beer ingredients to food. So we made a dish with spent grain. That was a big lightbulb moment. Then we won the competition, and I thought, okay, this is cool, we could be on to something. So I started quietly working on it. I have this fridge in my garage, and my wife, Betsy, won’t look in it because she’s pretty sure I’m Dexter and storing something terrible in there.
Sounds like a science experiment.
I got really good at tasting things that were awful that I had to learn something from. It’s hard for cooks to make a recipe that by design will fail, but if we don’t fail 50 percent of the time, we’re not pushing the boundaries enough. I work with Matt Brown and Brandon Muncy a lot. Matt Brown has a food-science background, and he got me to start taking the scientific approach to this. Brandon Muncy was the initial chef at the Rackhouse, which was the first place ever to utilize Brewed Food as a core philosophy. Brewed Food will never just be me again — I try to bring in other people.
You’ve taken Brewed Food on tour — are you trying to grow this into a vast movement?
We’ve tried to position this as a national food movement like farm-to-table, but also a Colorado-born movement. Right now, Denver’s identity capitalizes on the beer mecca but is underground as far as the food scene goes. This brings those two things together so that, hopefully, Austin, Portland, Vegas and L.A. are looking to Colorado as the catalyst for what’s next.
Speaking of which, beer is often viewed as the cornerstone of Denver’s culinary identity. How do you think that plays out with regard to the restaurant industry in this town?
Before I was here, I was in Kansas City working for Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, who were really pushing into the chef-driven, James Beard scene. They’re on the national circuit, and it was really cool to see restaurants that were about more than food, that put together the entire package of having a mission and having continuity of message. But we did this dinner with Boulevard in 2006, and I was really blown away by those beers. They were so unique, and so different from how people talk about beers. When I moved to Denver, all I knew about this city was that it had an amazing beer scene. I thought those Boulevard-like dinners were going to be rudimentary. I thought it was going to be chef-driven restaurants plus incredible beer culture. Instead, it was brown food and great beer.
But that’s evolving?
The beer scene and food scene are now both significantly better. Euclid Hall was really the first to bring beer and food together at an elevated level. But that sparked people who weren’t passionate about the continuity to say, “I’m going to have a restaurant with ninety beers on tap and, obligatorily, some food.”
That was rampant nationally. They’d say, “People love craft beer, so I need to have a shitload to be the most relevant.” So you’d get, yes, people like Chris Black at Falling Rock, who has a hundred beers on tap, but the list is so well curated. But there are plenty of places out there that have sixty beers on tap and only three I want to drink.
Will restaurants ever get out of the shadow of the beer industry here?
No. I think we will always be beer-first, and I think that’s okay. I think we can embrace that and create a scene around that. Just like Napa Valley: The French Laundry is there, but it’s still in the shadow of Napa Valley, even if it’s also in the shadow of nobody, if that makes sense. We’re the Napa Valley of beer, as much as I hate that categorization, and that’s okay — we need to embrace and rally around that.
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Ah, yes, the Napa Valley of beer. And yet, despite that bestowed designation, Denver still hasn’t quite leveraged beer to become the kind of distinct culinary place that Napa is. Why not?
I talk about terroir a lot with my buddy Jon Greschler [a sommelier once based in Denver who’s now in Raleigh, North Carolina], which is this mythical idea of sense of place. Take Burgundy, where it just feels so right to be drinking pinot and eating snails. When you’re there, you want to merge yourself into what that place represents. Wine evokes an emotional response that beer doesn’t. Because craft beer is so new, we’re drawing from a global pantry — so how do you create terroir? On paper, beer pairs with food better than wine, but who cares? How does it make you feel? This is how we’re going to take it forward. Not because beer is more technically sound; we need the emotional response. That’s a rallying point. I can create something that represents me, my city, the brewery down the street, something that really connects chefs and brewers and becomes paramount to place.
So you’re saying that our success as a culinary destination is directly tied to beer.
Yes. Beer people are really embracing the food side right now: I talk to brewers about how their ingredients create new flavors in food, and they geek out. When I first started talking to brewers, they’d say, “What? You want to cook with what?” My hope is that chefs here can now further influence the culinary aspects of beers. You see a lot of s’more porters or pumpkin-spice beers that were directly drawn from a dish the brewer had and applied to beer. Stronger relationships between chefs and brewers could enhance those. The number-one craft-beer style in America is IPA, but the second most popular is seasonal. People are hungry for what’s new and now. Brewer-chef relationships add another layer of inspiration.
For more on Jensen Cummings, go to brewed-food.com.