Forget all your images of frat-house suds sessions -- it's not about Bud, Miller and burgers anymore. These days, you can get a keg of the freshest, most recherché microbrews -- Anderson Valley Hop Ottin' India Pale Ale or Karl Strauss Red Trolley or Lost Coast Great White.
As a result of the craft beer explosion, two big things have happened: A lot of people are more comfortable pairing foods with beer, and a lot of food-friendly beers -- pale ales, Belgians, hefeweizens -- have become available in keg. One local beer merchant, Mr. Kegs in Huntington Beach, lists about 170 microbrews available in kegs on its website. And if you elevate the menu to match the quality of the beer -- think pizza with Serrano ham and wild arugula, say, or your cheese monger's best Epoisses or Pont l'Evêque -- it's a whole new way to entertain on the patio.
For a party, ordering a specialty beer keg has some wonderful advantages. The whole idea is inherently festive, to begin with. Keg beer is fresher than bottled -- unpasteurized and more likely to have been kept scrupulously refrigerated since it was made. On top of that, kegging it can save you money.
Beer is easygoing about what you eat with it, so you could serve a wide variety of things. A simple-to-arrange buffet of exquisite charcuterie. Smoked salmon with all the trimmings. Couscous aux sept legumes, with long-simmered vegetables on a properly fluffy couscous. Even that Pixar-anointed Provençal dish of the season, ratatouille.
And Labor Day's just the beginning of the sophisticated kegger season. As the weather gets cooler, we'll be in the mood for fuller-bodied beers and the heartier foods so delicious with them, such as sausages and roasts. Say, a grandiose Mexican sopa seca de fideos, the toasted noodles simmered with chorizo, chiles and cheese, or a choucroûte garni of smoked pork chops and a variety of German wursts stewed with sauerkraut. Or a pork roast, or even roast turkey.
The mechanics of serving beer by the keg are pretty simple. For a party of 20 people, you'd want the smallest size keg, 5 gallons, which provides a little more than 50 (12-ounce) pours. For larger events, some beers are sold by the quarter barrel (7 1/2 gallons) and most by the half barrel (15 1/2 gallons). A few, particularly imports, come in 50-liter kegs (13.2 gallons).
Any place that sells kegs should be able to rent you the equipment you need. The pump tap, that fixture of college keggers, is still the least expensive way to use a keg. Because the beer is pressurized with air, it will taste flat and oxidized within 24 hours, so this is only practical when you expect to use the whole keg at one party. You'll also need a tub for icing the keg down.
A more sophisticated system is the jockey box, which looks like an ice chest with a beer tap sticking out of it. Forced by a CO2 tank, rather than a hand pump, the beer chills as it flows through coils in an ice bath. To serve, you just pull the tap handle.
Crafts and importsIF you're looking to serve a local microbrew, contact a brewery or brewpub such as Craftsman in Pasadena, whose Biere de Blanco is a good choice, or Angel City Brewing in Torrance -- in our photos we used its Vitzen wheat beer.
For a wide selection of craft beers and imports, check out a specialist beer retailer, for instance Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa or Ramirez Liquor and Kegs in downtown L.A. (see information box). Some liquor retailers such as Beverages & More also offer a large selection of craft beers and imports in kegs; you can special order several days in advance.
Your best bets for Labor Day are pale ales, summer ales, wheat ales, light Belgian ales or steam beer. It's a fairly wide range, but basically crisp, moderately hoppy beers. "Crisp beers go with anything, especially piquant foods," says Mike Bowe, brewmaster at Angel City Brewing.
Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing in Escondido, which is known for its aggressively hopped India pale ale, says, "An IPA goes with spicy and oily foods because the bitterness and citrus qualities of the strong hop flavor combine and cleanse the palate. But for a party, you need a beer with a wider range, something with a good balance of hops and malt. I'd recommend a pale ale."
An elegant pizza buffet would be a great send-off for the season, whether you make your own or order from the best pizza maker in your neighborhood. Bloom Cafe in Los Angeles, for example, tops one pizza with lamb sausage, sweet red peppers, roasted garlic and kalamata olives and another with grilled eggplant, anchovies, thyme and rosemary. If making your own, take a cue from Viana La Place's recent "My Italian Garden" and layer red and green garden tomato slices sprinkled with garlic and oregano.
Add bruschette -- topped with tapenade or roasted peppers and white anchovies, and antipasti such as artichoke salad or burrata with heirloom tomatoes and basil.
But don't stop with Labor Day. The harvest season will offer some perfect times for refined kegger entertaining.
Try a twist on the traditional Oktoberfest, with its pairing of German beer and sausage by matching a keg of French or Italian beer with charcuterie.
Christina Perozzi, whose website (www.christinaperozzi.com) is called Beer 4 Chx, recommends Belgian beers with sausage. "I like some hops to cut through the fattiness," she says. "They provide the same dryness and astringency that the grape skins do in wine. Maybe an IPA or something in the style of a Belgian pale ale, such as Russian River's Perdition. Another good one is the California Ale from Telegraph Brewing in Santa Barbara. It has a nice tartness and acidity."
A laid-back companionWHEN we think of cheese, of course, we think of wine as an accompaniment. But beers can work beautifully too though, again, beer is more easygoing about what you serve it with than wine is. Still, the crispness of a hoppy beer such as an IPA can play off a creamy cheese such as Brie. Perozzi likes to pair a sweeter beer -- say, a strong, dark Belgian dubbel ale -- with a stinky cheese such as Pont l'Evêque.
With autumn, we go back to using our ovens and serving roasts and braises for larger supper parties -- another good kegger occasion. "When people roast pork," says Sang Yoon of Father's Office in Santa Monica, "they often flavor it with dried fruit such as raisins. For that, I'd use a Belgian dubbel -- not a Trappist ale, too cloying, but something like Maredsous."
Maybe you're beginning to see the point of accompanying a dinner party with a keg of beer, rather than with a rank of wine bottles. Let's follow this logic to the end. To the most wine-challenging meal of the year: Thanksgiving.
Every year, wine writers bemoan the difficulties of finding a match for the riot of flavors in the traditional roast turkey dinner: white meat, dark meat, cranberry sauce, stuffing and all the particular side dishes hallowed by every individual family's tradition. Beer, however, is more accommodating for this mixture of sweet, tart, savory and browned flavors.
So here's your solution: Get a keg of brown ale or German Oktoberfest beer or framboise (Belgian raspberry-flavored beer). There are even American breweries that make pumpkin-flavored beer. Then roll out the barrel.
That's right. Have a Thanksgiving kegger!