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The Berliner: Pairing Suds and Sausage

The Berliner, Georgetown’s new modern German beer hall, opened last December with Chef Mike O’Brien at the helm of the beer and food menus.

O’Brien has excellent credentials, most recently at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s North Bethesda tavern Owen’s Ordinary but formerly of The Salt Line (under Chef Kyle Bailey), San Francisco’s Monk’s Kettle and Mikkeller Bar, and before that Birch & Barley (also under Bailey).

With such a rich beer and food pedigree, DC Beer wanted to catch up with the chef to hear his thoughts about the new spot and its intersection of food and beer. What follows below is our email conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. It all kicked off when O’Brien wrote back to us, “I finished work a little early and picked up some beers on my way home. I am sitting here eating spicy noodles and drinking an Allagash Sun Drift, seems fitting to finally answer your questions.”

Away we went.

DC Beer: Alright, so give us The Berliner’s elevator speech. What should readers, and most importantly, beer fans, know about your spot?

MO: The Berliner is our take on a “Modern German Beer Hall” with a focus on hand crafted food and well curated beverage. The beer selection primarily consists of 24 taps that are a mix of German imports, local stuff and really anything else that I think is high quality. At the end of the day, that’s what it is really all about, providing the highest quality product that we can to our customers.

Also, that is one of the reasons that I love German beer, the quality, the consistency, the fact that for the most part there are no “bells and whistles” just well made beer. I wanted the focus to be on lagers, because I love to drink them, but also because I think, and really really hope, that craft beer will start moving back toward lagers and away from the current trends. So I wanted to highlight German lagers and domestic lagers. I buy those beers and try to get my customers to buy them to further my pro-lager agenda.

DC Beer: Any hooks about The Berliner we should know about? Good happy hour, live music, rotating specials or menu, etc.?

MO: We offer happy hour Tuesday-Thursday 4-7 pm, Friday 12-6 pm, and Sunday 8 pm-close. I select six draft beers that we offer at $3/6/12 (.25L/.5L/1L). We also have specials on wine, cocktails, and food. The happy hour food highlight to me is a $5 chicken hot dog that I usually [offer] 3-4 times a week. I am currently working on doing live music and some cool events. I will keep you posted.

DC Beer: Did you personally build out The Berliner’s menu from scratch? How did you go about doing that in terms of achieving a balance between the food and beer flavors? What’s your philosophy on pairing food and beer, generally? How do we see that play out on The Berliner’s menu?

MO: I did build out the food and beer menus personally. My general philosophy with food and beer pairing is to not overthink it. I generally divide pairings into two types. The first is complementary pairings: “this stout has notes of chocolate and coffee, so I will pair it with pork ribs rubbed with coffee and served with a mole-like barbecue sauce,” or “this fruited beer pairs with the fruit that is in it.” These pairings work great, and, if done well and subtly, can be amazing.

The other type of pairings are contrasting or putting things together that at face value might not make a lot of sense, but when you taste it, it’s like an “Oh wow” moment. One example is that hoppy beers go great with spicy foods. I don’t know why; I am no scientist, but it’s true. Generally, when I am thinking about pairings or putting together a tasting menu, the first question I ask is, “What can this beer add to a dish?” I like to look for flavors that are missing from a dish and add them with beer. For example, I have a golden sour fruited beer (let’s say Cantillon’s Fou’Foune). I might want to pair that with a dish that is high in fat, has some heat and some bitterness, and incorporates apricots in a subtle way. Off the top of my head, seared foie gras with brioche, frisee, and an apricot and Aleppo pepper compote.

It is honestly hard for me to think about pairings at The Berliner. I think it is because I am doing both the food and beer programs, which I know probably sounds counterintuitive, but again, I am not a scientist. There are the obvious pairings, of course. Take The Berliner Brat topped with sauerkraut paired with the Kulmbacher EKU Pilsner. The crisp, bitter finish of the pilsner cleansing your palate after tasting the fatty, subtly-spiced sausage or our pretzel with beer cheese sauce and the Mahr’s Ungespundet, which is a little more malt forward and complements the crust on the pretzel.

There are also some not-so-obvious ones: Manor Hill Grisette and the soy cured eggs. The beer is light and citrusy and complements the umami flavors of the eggs. I am rambling now and should move on but, obviously, this a subject I like to talk about.

(Beer update: at this point O’Brien moves on to Crooked Run’s Heart and Soul IPA.)

DC Beer: You’ve got a bunch of different housemade sausages on the menu. This is something that you’ve kind of become associated with as far as I can see, dating back to your time at Mikkeller Bar and Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco. Have you always enjoyed sausage making? What do you think it is about what you’re doing there that people get psyched about?

MO: I have been making sausage since I started cooking professionally since culinary school really. Even at school, I was drawn to the butchery and charcuterie stuff. I’m not exactly sure why, I guess I just like to know how things are made, and the process of making sausage is interesting to me. I think people are psyched about my sausage because they are of good quality. The flavor, texture, even the look are how I think sausage should be.

DC Beer: You’re no stranger to the DC beer scene. You’ve worked at Birch & Barley, The Salt Line, and Owen’s Ordinary (that I know of). How have you seen the beer scene grow and change during your time here?

MO: The most obvious change to the beer scene in DC is the growth. I was lucky enough to already be a part of the scene when the laws changed and we were finally able to have production brewing in DC again. That was an exciting time to be in DC. I think this area still has some catching up to do, but areas like Northern California and New York City had a huge head start. We are getting there though, and it is exciting to see more good spots opening in DC and in the DMV in general.

DC Beer: What are some beers that have caught your attention recently? Any of them local?

MO: I am lucky enough to get to try a lot of beer. In general, if I am not drinking a German lager, I am drinking a local beer. Let’s see…

Diamondback Atmospheric Changes Kolsch

DC Brau Joint Resolution: I love crushable hazies

Ocelot Sanitarium: a great Pils and I love Metallica \m/

Attaboy Creek Life: hoppy pale ales are my jam

DC Beer: You’ve got a wall of condiments at The Berliner, right? Any favorites among them and what are some of the top sausage/condiment suggestions you’d offer to would-be guests?

MO: Favorite condiments that I make are the Grainy Mustard, Garden Relish and Curry Ketchup. The Wurtemberg Brat with caramelized onions and garden relish is my go to at the moment.

Thanks to Chef Mike for making the time for us. You can check out his menus (food and beer) at The Berliner.

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