On a bitterly cold December night, I was huddled in a booth at Freshcraft. In front of me at bar seats and high tables, a lively crowd was sipping from pint glasses and conversing jovially with the bartenders. Behind me, a massive group of beer brewers filled most of the back dining room, which was ringing with laughter. That left just a few parties dining in the narrow space separating the back from the front, a hallway lined with wooden booths underneath Christmas lights.
But I was trying to tune out all distractions, because I was facing an impossible decision: I had to choose my beer.
Was I feeling a sweet, smooth Belgian? A crisp local pilsner? Something rare from upstate New York? They were all there, on a massive, 120-offering list that balances Colorado beer against European offerings, as well as geeky selections from across the country. I'd already sent my server away once, and I felt immense pressure to make the right choice. Although the menu offered helpful suggestions — match this dish with an IPA, that one goes well with a brown ale — I still hesitated. My companion had long ago made up his mind and was growing impatient.
When did beer drinking get so tricky? It wasn't that long ago that drinking a beer meant sucking back something relatively flavorless, usually at a sporting event or party. And even when I was drinking the good stuff, I was often doing so at a low-key bar, one where the only possible food pairing was a fried-food snack. Beer was once low-maintenance and self-sufficient and anti-snob. It wasn't a special-occasion beverage; it was more like an anti-occasion beverage.
Not anymore. Beer is in the middle of a major image makeover and is now being subjected to the same haute treatment that wine and cocktails recently suffered through. Last year saw an emphasis on cask-conditioned ales, high prices for rare bottles, and beer-pairing dinners. This year, beer's going to be more integrated into our dining scene than ever before, building off 2010's trend of beer-focused restaurants, spots that amassed extensive cellars of interesting selections and crafted their menus to fit the ale and lager offerings.
Freshcraft was a member of the class of 2010, the creation of brothers Lucas and Jason Forgy. Lucas was working as a chef in Milwaukee when Jason, a self-described beer geek, approached him with the idea of opening a casual, comfortable restaurant that would serve a menu of homemade comfort food paired with craft beers. When the Thunderbird BBQ address opened up on a hot LoDo restaurant block, the Midwesterners took on the space and opened Freshcraft there in August.
The Freshcraft concept is more casual than fine-dining, but more upscale than a sports bar. The menu features familiar bar-room appetizers, as well as soups, salads, sandwiches in a couple of sizes and a handful of hefty entrees. The roster is mostly American: burgers and Reubens and just about anything that can be battered and deep-fried. But there's an international influence, too, seen in the tacos and schnitzel and other foods that go well with beer. Including cassoulet, that hearty winter dish of beans mixed with meats and slow-cooked for hours. On a cold night, a warming stew was exactly what I wanted. Settling on a sour Orville Ale from the Wynkoop Brewing Co. to match the cassoulet, I put down my menu triumphantly, ready to tell our server what we wanted. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.
Our server meandered from the front door to the back of the hallway, checking in on a couple of his guests and giving the rest of the room a perfunctory look before he disappeared through the swinging silver doors to the kitchen. I couldn't blame him for skipping us; after all, I was the one who'd sent him away in the first place. But as the minutes ticked by and the server made a few more laps without approaching our table, I started to get impatient. Finally we waved down a host, who sent our apologetic waiter over. He made good immediately by bringing tastes of beer, then delivered our starters almost as quickly.
We'd opted for a trio of bar snacks: fried pickles, wings and pretzel bites, soft nuggets of dough that we dipped in a sharp, housemade four-cheese sauce and a sweet, pungent honey mustard. The pretzel bites were fine, but the chicken wings were so bland that we abandoned them quickly. And while we ate all the fried pickles — I'll pretty much inhale any fried item — the house-cured pickles inside were cut so thin, you could hardly taste them.
We'd barely had time to sip enough beer to wash away the salt and fat of our appetizers before our now very attentive waiter was back with dinner. The cassoulet came in a cast-iron skillet, topped with croutons and plated with crusty bread; Freshcraft finishes its cassoulet with a little brown ale, which gave it extra sweetness and bite. The stew was well cooked and well textured — firm beans, juicy sausage, crispy bacon and tender roasted duck — but under-seasoned. Traditionally, the ingredients are cooked separately, then combined and allowed to blend for a few hours (or days). When you're cooking a dish like that, you've got to salt in layers, seasoning each element when it's cooking and then tossing a little to the pot each time you plunk in another element. That's what makes each flavor distinct and rich, even when combined with the rest of the stew. Adding salt at the table helped, but it couldn't bring out the full spectrum of what had gone in before. And for as much work as cassoulet is to make, you want to be sure you taste that full spectrum.
Slightly deflated, I stabbed at my companion's pork schnitzel, a thin slice of pork that had been breaded and fried, then served with a warm potato salad full of tart pickled cabbage and capers. The seasoning of this dish was perfect, and it was delicious paired with a crisp Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat and lemon (which had also been used to deglaze the pan).
Even though those recommended pairings had been successful — the Orville is now off the menu, replaced by Boulevard's See You Later Doppelbock as a suggested mate for the cassoulet — on a return visit, I just decided to order whatever beer interested me on the list. A lot of things looked interesting, and our table was soon filled with glasses. We ordered a round of sandwiches to absorb some of the alcohol. The best was the steak au poivre: thin slices of sirloin topped with sweet caramelized onions, spicy horseradish mayonnaise and a savory, creamy au poivre sauce, stuffed between two halves of a soft, airy roll and served with a pile of pencil-thin crispy fries. Though I wouldn't pit it against versions from traditional barbecue joints, I also liked the whiskey BBQ chicken sandwich, which took shreds of the bird and bathed them in a tangy barbecue sauce, then put them on a baguette and added creamy coleslaw and cheddar cheese, which melted over the warm meat. But the turkey sandwich, served with out-of-season avocado and tomato on a waxy pretzel bun, just didn't fly.
To console myself, I drank some more beer.
I know I'll return to Freshcraft, drawn by the prospect of sampling a world-class brew in the company of friends. But dinner will be optional.