Ghostfish Brewing Company Debuts Gluten-Free Menu
If you’re a brewery, making a name for yourself in Seattle is no easy feat. The city has effortlessly, flawlessly, and quickly captured the essence of craft beer. Nearly 100 breweries falling within the King County limits. With so many local watering holes to choose from, how does a brewery stand out amongst the rest?
Well, for Ghostfish Brewing Company, it’s pretty easy. Being unique within the community is actually a pillar of their business model, their mission, and their pride. You see, Ghostfish Brewing Company is a completely gluten-free brewery. No barley allowed.
(Officially) started by Brian Thiel, Randy Schroeder and Jason Yerger in February of 2015, Ghostfish emerged as a major player in the Seattle beer scene by making it a goal to get excellent craft beer accessible to the masses – whether you’re gluten intolerant or not. And have they succeeded! In less than two years, Ghostfish has racked up plenty of gold stars on their resume, including gold and bronze medals at GABF, proving that craft beer doesn’t need barley to be delicious. And now they’ve taken it one step further.
This summer, Ghostfish announced that they would be making an addition to their taproom by launching their very own in-house restaurant. As you may have guessed, it will be completely gluten-free as well – staying completely in-line with that humble, original intention. We were lucky to get the inside scoop from Schroeder, Yerger and Thiel – along with their new chefs Michael Bockelmann and Lisa Wildrick- and we’ve got to say, it’s making us pretty hungry.
You’ve been quite a busy team in the last year. What was it that prompted you to put more on your plate (quite literally) in opening up the restaurant?
Schroeder: We’ve planned this from the beginning, the timing just had to be right – and the timing is right now. A great craft beer experience needs a great craft food experience to be complete! We wanted to focus first on the beer, and now that the beer is solid and well received it was time to bring in the culinary side to make the picture complete!
Thiel: Yes, it is always busy at Ghostfish Brewing! Timing is everything and we simply felt that it was the appropriate time to open the restaurant to continue pushing boundaries on the food side just as we’ve done on the beer side.
Yerger: The restaurant was something we always envisioned being a part of the brewery. We all love food and are all great home cooks, so we always thought that our brewery should have an amazing restaurant component to complement the beers. In fact, our initial business plan called for opening the restaurant right away—we originally thought we could handle doing it all ourselves, just the founders and one employee! I’m glad we came to our senses and waited until we found a pair of skilled and experienced chefs to handle it, because that would have been a truly insane amount of work!
You’ve already set yourself apart by being a gluten free brewery. Now you’ve set yourself apart once again by opening up a restaurant in-house. Was that differentiating factor top of mind when adding in the food component?
Schroeder: It needed to be amazing food by anyone’s standards. Our mission with the beer was to create craft styles that would appeal to and be safe for everyone, and the same is for the food – that’s why it works – there is nothing quirky or faddish about it. Pairing great food with great beer in a safe environment makes for a winning combination.
Thiel: We take the same approach with the food we serve in our restaurant as we do with our beers. Quality is priority #1 followed closely by taste and flavor. If any of these components don’t meet our high standards, we don’t intend to serve it, gluten-free or not.
Yerger: Just like with our beers, we wanted the food to be sort of “secretly” gluten-free… as in, if you didn’t know it was gluten-free when you tasted it, nothing about the taste would really give it away. We wanted a diverse menu that offers something for everyone, using fresh local ingredients to create dishes both familiar and a bit more exotic. Perhaps most importantly, we wanted food that not only complements our beers, but also incorporates them, and chefs Michael and Lisa have been absolutely stellar in that regard! If we could mass-produce the Vanishing Point BBQ sauce they make, watch out!
Tell us how the vetting process for the chef team worked. What was it about Michael and Lisa that sealed the deal?
Thiel: Michael and Lisa’s combined experience in the restaurant business was certainly important, but a few intangibles such as creativity and passion for their craft sealed the deal with our team.
Schroeder: Once we narrowed the choices down to a few chefs that we thought could pull this off, we gathered our entire team and had the finalists do a “cook-off” (we love Iron Chef and Chopped!) for us as their final interview. This was of course to taste the food, but more so to hear their passion and see how they interacted with our staff. Michael & Lisa were punctual, presented well, were engaging with the team and above all, their food was killer!
Yerger: Randy interviewed tons of applicants with all kinds of different ideas about how to work the restaurant portion of our business. Michael and Lisa stood out from the beginning, but what really sealed the deal was their “audition” lunch. Right off the bat they were interested in cooking with our beers and creating pairings, and their proposed menu hit all the right notes as far as the mixture of classic and innovative dishes. Beyond that, they were organized, professional, energetic, and enthusiastic, and their presentation of their dishes was immaculate. We all agreed that everything they put before us was perfectly portioned, perfectly seasoned, and beautiful to behold. It was a slam dunk!
Michael & Lisa – speak to your history and how you came to be involved in the food industry. Where did it all begin, and was beer always a love of yours as well?
Bockelmann: I was going to school for physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa. While there I worked in my first real kitchen. At first the production kitchen and bakery, then later moved into the fine dine restaurant working for a crazy French chef. He taught me how to cook! It was during that time that I developed my passion for cooking fine food thanks to Andre. As I looked at my life, I decided that perhaps a career in physics was not the thing for me. I took a year off from school (after 4) and during that time looked into getting culinary training. As I moved back to the midwest and was working in a fun little bistro in South Bend doing some amazing food, I found out about the ACF culinary apprenticeship program. I signed on with a country club for my three years of training. Working 40 hours a week and taking time for classes when not working was what the program was about. I gave it everything I had as I had decided not to pursue my previous educational direction. It had become my dream to run kitchens!
Beer had always been an integral part of my lifestyle and I was one of those folks that adventured out into the realm of ‘craft beers’… when MGD came out, I explored it, when Michelob Dark came to be, that’s what I drank. Then came the evolution of the micro brews…Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, and New Belgium soon became the beer of choice for me. Now with the craft beer world hitting hard, even in Montana, I can say that I truly enjoy the wonderful variety that craft beer has brought to the world!
Wildrick: I grew up with a father that owned a vineyard and was hosting dinner parties by the age of 13 for various people that appreciated the knowledge I was able to put into the food and wine pairing ideas for those events. After graduating from one of the two top culinary academies in the country at the time, CCA – I took my training and ventured off to France to study more under the great masters of modern cuisine. Three years later I returned to the states and opened a highly successful restaurant, the Renaissance Cafe. After a couple of years running that kitchen and creating spectacular food for the California locals, I started ‘Let us entertain you – a catered affair’ and ran a highly successful catering business for over 10 years. As growth continued, so did the headaches and it was time to head for a more controlled environment. Off to Vegas! Eight years in Las Vegas in various restaurant and casino kitchens gave me insight into the food trends and production techniques of the modern diner.
While not a beer connoisseur I am able to appreciate the fine flavors that Ghostfish produces in their beers. It is exciting to be able to bring my knowledge of flavor pairing with wines into the growing arena of craft beer. I am looking forward to more collaborations with Jason to produce some great food to pair with his great brews.
Give us more insight into the process of crafting a food menu around the Ghostfish beer line-up.
Bockelmann and Wildrick: After tasting a wide range of the Ghostfish beers, we were amazed at how food friendly all of them are. We sat down and began creating a fun, suitable menu that would fit the casual environment of the brewpub. We knew we need to have some staples like the fish and chips, and the flagship grapefruit IPA was just the ticket for the batter. We wanted to have small plate and sharing concepts that would fit the sit-with-your-friends-and-drink-beer environment that is fostered at Ghostfish. We also knew there was a need for more substantial plates that would serve as a meal for those looking for a more complete dining experience. We picked beers for the food that had the proper profile for the dishes we were considering and incorporate them into the dishes themselves. The beautiful roasted flavors of the Watchstander Stout was begging for the sweet richness of pork belly and the earthy spices are set off well with the sweet parsnip puree and the earthiness of the truffle. The hint of hops and malty freshness of the Vanishing Point Pale Ale was just the ticket for our BBQ sauce on the pulled pork sandwich.
And while everyone does French fries, our taro ‘frips’ are a more complex and interesting dining experience for those looking for something different. Their earthy sweetness is matched perfectly with several of the beers on the line up.
Additionally, how long did it take to create the perfect menu for what was on tap? We can imagine it would be a process of trial and error. Can you speak to that?
Bockelmann and Wildrick: It is certainly a matter of refining each recipe to fit perfectly with the beers we use or pair. We have made small adjustments to many of our recipes as we have greater experience with the beers we are using as well as input from Brian, Jason, and Randy. Guest response is also looked to for helping us adjust things so it better suits the beer we are working with.
What are your top food and beer pairings that we have to try? If you could provide your top suggestions on what dishes to try with what beers, that would be fantastic.
Yerger: Personally, I think our seasonal Kai Dog Red IPA paired with the pulled pork sandwich is an absolutely perfect combination. Our Ghost Pepper Saison also makes an excellent accompaniment to the Stadium-Style Nachos.
Bockelmann and Wildrick: We would suggest that the fish and chips are best set off with the crisp, fruity citrus of the grapefruit IPA or the Peak Buster double IPA. The pork belly absolutely needs the richness of the Watchstander stout. The Kai dog red is the perfect foil for the pulled pork sandwich. The Shrouded Summit whit beer is often enjoyed with the freshness of the edamame hummus.
Will the menu be changing depending on season and availability of ingredients?
Yerger: Absolutely, as well as changes to our seasonal and experimental beer releases! So far there have been some slight changes to the menu each week, which I think is great—we release a new experimental beer every week, and Michael and Lisa are getting into the habit of developing a weekly dish to complement each one. We definitely want to make sure the signature dishes are available year-round, but giving our chefs free reign to play creatively with new ideas whenever they want is a big part of what keeps the restaurant fresh and exciting for all involved.
Bockelmann and Wildrick: We are planning on keeping the flagship menu items that fit so well with the flagship beers that Jason produces. We also intend to mirror his experimental program to keep things exciting and fresh for the regular guests. As they roll out experimental beers each week, we also create a dish that pairs with that beer. This allows us to use great in-season ingredients as well as adapting the menu to what is best for the time of year. The new dishes may mirror the flavors of the beer to create harmony of all the flavors involved, or it may use flavor combinations that are the perfect foil for the interesting flavor notes the beer has. It will be exciting to see what beers the future will bring for us to pair with!
Finally, we gotta know, what’s your favorite dish?
Schroeder: I love the Ghostfish & chips, and the pulled pork nachos are a close second. But then there is the ahi tuna cooler… or the crispy pork belly…or the street tacos… or man, that burger. Can I have six favorite dishes?
Thiel: Such a hard question, but I am digging “The Burger” loaded ( with Tillamook cheese and crispy pork belly added). Pure heaven!
Yerger: As someone who grew up in a small coastal fishing village with more seafood restaurants than anything, and who has thus deeply missed good fish’n’chips ever since my celiac diagnosis, the “Ghostfish” & Chips they make with Grapefruit IPA tempura batter is a slice of heaven for me! Gluten-free tempura anything is particularly hard to find, let alone tempura as good as this.