Buffalo Wild Wings helps create a game-changing craft beer
As craft beer continues to gain in popularity, it is beginning to make inroads to the heart of American beer culture on a pretty grand scale.
For example, sports-themed wing emporium Buffalo Wild Wings, which serves more draft beer than any other chain restaurant in America, has collaborated with Redhook Brewery to create a new brew designed exclusively for the sports bar environment called, appropriately enough, Game Changer.
"We've always talked about creating a Buffalo Wild Wings beer, and as we pursued it, we realized we needed someone to work with," said Patrick Kirk, director of beverage innovations for Buffalo Wild Wings.
"We found out Redhook was working on a sports bar-friendly brew, and knew we could help them realize which beers work best with sports and food," Kirk told TODAY.com.
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Having a local brewery create a beer in collaboration with an independent restaurant is nothing new, but this is the first time it's happened on a national scale.
"The rules weren't written on how to do this, because it's never been done before," said Andy Thomas, president of commercial operations for Craft Brew Alliance, the parent company of Redhook.
"It turned out to be a lot of fun, because there was a good working chemistry from the beginning—we just clicked," Thomas added.
Both Redhook and Buffalo Wild Wings had the same priorities for the beer: It had to taste great on its own, pair well with spicy foods and it had to have a reasonably low alcohol content so a sports fan could responsibly enjoy a couple over the course of a ballgame.
They also were looking to hit the sweet spot between domestic lagers and hopped-up craft beers, aiming to create a beer that every beer drinker might enjoy, regardless of what's in the fridge at home.
"Working with Buffalo Wild Wings allowed us the benefit of testing the beer in the environment it was designed for," said Thomas, who noted that several recipes were whittled down to three final contenders. "We put the three beers on tap and let people try them—the first keg to be kicked was an indicator of what was working," Thomas told TODAY.com.
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The winning brew is a 4.6 percent ABV pale ale with a deep golden amber hue. Bring it to your nose, and there is a little sizzle of hops and the sweet scent of caramel.
A sip reveals a light-bodied brew, one that leads with a thread of sweet caramel malt, joined mid-palate by a peppery hit of hops—it's hard to detect flavors of citrus and pine in Game Changer's hop profile, it's more like a dry sparkle on the roof of your mouth.
While just "crafty" enough to satisfy a beer geek on its own, Game Changer really shines when paired with flavorful foods, as the sparkly hop bite acts like a whiskbroom on the palate, clearing the deck for the next bite.
I recently tilted a couple of Game Changers at my local Buffalo Wild Wings, paired with three styles of chicken wings of various spiciness—Chipotle BBQ rub, Jamaican Jerk and medium heat Buffalo style.
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In all cases, the Game Changer played nicely with others—it pulled out the sweetness of the cinnamon in the Chipotle BBQ, nicely balanced out the vinegar base of the Buffalo sauce and its peppery hops melded with the spicy kick of the Jamaican Jerk wings to take the flavor to an interesting new place.
Game Changer also did a nice job of cleansing my palate as I switched from one style of wing to the next, allowing me a fresh start to enjoy the flavor of each.
While Game Changer was developed with Buffalo Wild Wings and debuted there nationwide on Monday, the beer isn't exclusive to the 925-location restaurant chain. But that doesn't mean it will be popping up in your local sports bar any time soon.
"Given the role Buffalo Wild Wings had in the process, we'll be giving the majority of resources to them," said Thomas.
It remains to be seen if Game Changer will create a new model for brewers and restaurant chains to follow, but given how well this new brew works in the environment it's been designed for and the attention its release has garnered for both Redhook and Buffalo Wild Wings, it wouldn't be surprising to see others follow suit.
Game Changer might turn out to be quite the game changer indeed.
—By Jim Galligan, TODAY contributor.