Triangle residents, known for their outsized enthusiasm for good food and drink, can take pride in seeing familiar names among the semifinalists for this year's James Beard Foundation Awards. Magnolia Grill in Durham, whose owners, Ben and Karen Barker, both hold individual awards, has been nominated again for Outstanding Restaurant.
Ashley Christensen of Poole's in Raleigh, Scott Howell from Nana's in Durham and Aaron Vandemark of Hillsborough's Panciuto are all repeat nominees for Best Chef in the Southeast.
And, making his first appearance on the list is Durham's Sean Lilly Wilson, a semifinalist for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional.
If this newspaper column were a radio piece, the words "wine and spirits" would cue the noise of a needle screeching across a vinyl record, the conventional (if outdated) sound effect indicating confusion. This is because Wilson is the founder of Fullsteam brewery and his passion is beer: no wine and spirits in sight.
Like many other bastions of fine food, the venerable James Beard Foundation seems slow to adjust to the dramatic change that has overtaken beer in the past 25 years. The creative drive behind today's specialty brewing is perfectly consistent with the foundation's mission "to celebrate, nurture and preserve America's diverse culinary heritage and future." What the foundation—as well as many major culinary schools and their graduates—has still to take on board is that beer can now be as much a part of a great food experience as wine is.
Known as the Oscars of the culinary world, the James Beard Awards have no category that addresses beer specifically. The small print describing the "Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional" specifies "a winemaker, brewer or spirits professional who has had a significant impact on the wine and spirits industry nationwide"—but the word "brewer" is an inclusion that reads like an afterthought.
This is not to begrudge the recognition that the foundation has extended to craft brewing. In 2003, Fritz Maytag, the founder of Anchor Brewing Company, won this same wine and spirits award; five years later, he received the foundation's lifetime achievement award. By then, Maytag had not only helped redefine and recreate American beer, he had extended his activities into artisanal spirits and fine cheese.
In 2004, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, reached the finalists' round in the book awards for The Brewmaster's Table, still the most influential book exploring the pairing of beer with food. Two years later, the foundation honored Michael Jackson, the groundbreaking English writer who practically invented beer journalism, with one of its top book awards. Unfortunately for beer, it was for Jackson's Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide.
This year, six of the 20 semifinalists in the Wine and Spirits category come from the realm of beer, a record number.
Oliver has been named a semifinalist every year for the past five and has made the cut onto the finalists' list twice. He hosts beer dinners, including at the James Beard House, often going head-to-head with local sommeliers. In presenting courses matched with both beer and wine, Oliver's selections often win over surprised diners.
Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer and the Samuel Adams lines, represents the largest craft brewery and the biggest American-owned brewery operating today. Sam Adams Boston Lager is the country's largest-selling craft brand. Its success funds a plethora of experimental beers, including Utopias, recognized as the strongest commercially available beer, which often bests ports and cognacs in blind competition.
The creator of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Ken Grossman, opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1980; this is one of the oldest craft breweries still operating and the inspiration to many of the more than 2,000 American breweries that have opened since.
Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, is another multiyear semifinalist and one-time finalist. Despite brewing "off-centered ales for off-centered people," Calagione has reached a wide mainstream audience with his impassioned advocacy for the craft brewing industry.
The fifth semifinalist does not reach a nation-wide audience with his efforts, but customers at any of the 10 restaurants in the Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group have appreciated the beer selections sourced by beer director Greg Engert. He is credited with according beer the same pride of place in the restaurants as wine.
Finally, Wilson himself has created at Fullsteam brewery a community gathering place that in less than two years seems to have become a Durham institution. Fullsteam's plow-to-pint philosophy links agriculture and beer a connection that is commonplace in the wine business but surprisingly novel in brewing. The approach infuses the brewery's recipes with local flavor, literally.
Interestingly, none of the six semifinalists is primarily a hands-on brewer (even if most were). Instead, they all invest substantial time and creativity as ambassadors on behalf of beer to the broader world of food and drink. Surely, those efforts are what caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation. Whether or not any of these men win the Wine and Spirits award this time around, doesn't their growing number warrant a name change for the prize?
Correction (March 8, 2012): The headline and reference in the final paragraph incorrectly stated "finalist" instead of "semifinalist."