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Posted: August 20, 2009

A passion for beer leads to The Kitchen

For restaurant GM, beer deserves the same attention as food

Jay Dedrick

Ray Decker came to appreciate the restaurant business via his family, which owned and operated a New Jersey seafood eatery since he was a kid. He came to appreciate what it takes to rise through the ranks during a four-year stint in the Marines, the only time in his life when he wasn’t working in a restaurant.

And he put the two together at The Kitchen, one of the hottest dining spots on Boulder’s food-filled Pearl Street Mall. Decker’s passion for beer started him on his career path as the bar manager. He soon took on the role of beer director, fashioning a gourmet beer selection that would reach the establishment’s culinary heights. Last year, after a couple of years on the job, Decker became general manager of the restaurant.

Decker hasn’t abandoned the beer side, though; he sees the bar and restaurant aspects of the business working in a perfect partnership.

“The restaurant is built around and driven by the community,” Decker says. “We try to develop relationships with everybody we work with, including local farmers and purveyors.

“The philosophy behind the beer program is to represent breweries from across the world that are focusing on quality and passion that’s similar to what we do in the restaurant. When I suss out beers, I’m looking for ones from small breweries that are not sacrificing quality.”

That description certainly applies to Boulder’s Avery Brewing Co. and Sonoma County, Calif.’s Russian River Brewing Co., the two labels featured earlier this month at “The Night of the Barrels,” a beer-pairing dinner hosted by The Kitchen.

Decker and his team of four chefs worked with four beers each from the breweries, and began by pairing them in contrasting combinations. Then they brainstormed four meal courses, each with flavors that would play off of the barrel-aged beers.

The second course alone was enough to impress the most discerning foodies and beer lovers. The food: hand-rolled herb gnocchi in sage brown butter with cherry tomatoes and butter beans picked fresh that day. The beers: Avery’s Brabant, a malty brew with sour berry overtones, and Russian River’s Temptation, a tangy, citrusy blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels.

While Avery founder Adam Avery and Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo offered informational toasts throughout the three-hour meal, Decker quietly worked in the background, making sure each course and its accompanying beers made it to the tables in timely, orderly fashion. His devotion didn’t go unnoticed.

“Ray gets the beer that nobody else gets in this town,” Avery said, offering praise for The Kitchen’s beer list of 55 to 60 varieties. Though only three of those are on tap, they tend to be rare, unusual beers not seen on the plentiful tap handles at other establishments. Prices reflect the rarity, too, ranging from $4 to $40 per bottle.

“When people see $25 or $40 next to a bottle of beer on a menu, they wonder, ‘How can beer be so expensive?’” Decker says. “When you explain to them what goes into making some of these beers -- that it might have gone through one to three years of barrel aging, that there are very small quantities of it in the world – they can see it. When you’re paying $40 for a bottle of beer, you’re getting one of the very best beers in the world. Think how much you’d have to pay to get the same in wine.”

Some have called Decker a beer sommelier, and there’s even a nationwide program aimed at giving such experts an official designation – beer cicerone – after extensive testing. Decker is self-educated, and prefers the simple “beer director.”

“It was a lot of on-the-job experience and doing a lot of research and study on my own time,” Decker says of his beer knowledge edification. “I studied wine in school, and I think that was a bridge for me in seeing beer as an integral part of a meal. A beer is so much more than just malt and hops. Breaking down and analyzing a beer style is pretty awesome.”

Click here to keep tabs on The Kitchen’s monthly beer- and wine-pairing classes, dinners and other events.

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