(FORTUNE Magazine) – Imagine a betoqued, heavily accented chef presenting an haute five-course feast--and eschewing his excellent wine cellar for beer. Try very hard, because it's becoming a common image in serious restaurants around the country. Diners are learning, for instance, that Pilsner is great with fish, and porter is just the thing to go along with chocolate cake. "Beer," explains Ken Turow, associate dean of the Culinary Institute of America, "is where wine was in the Seventies."

Why the beer rush? Michael Jackson, author of The Beer Companion, reckons that the obsession with beer is part of a broader trend in America of people willing to spend more on upscale drinking and dining. Also, chefs are able to experiment more with beer because, thanks to microbrewers, the number of varieties has exploded. Less than 25 year ago, the U.S. produced essentially one kind of beer, a bland if harmless Pilsner. In the 1970s and 1980s, craft brewers like Anchor Brewing in California and Boston Beer, the parent company of Samuel Adams, emerged to offer British-style pale ales and German hefeweizens (literally "yeast wheat" beers), as well as unique concoctions like pumpkin or chile beer.

Now U.S. craft brewers, which today number in the hundreds, are producing more styles of beer than those in any other country on the planet; it's a beer boomlet. Britain, Germany, and Belgium stick to a dozen or so brewing styles apiece. According to the very British Jackson, "Americans are making all of those styles, and then some."

A good example is Goose Island Beer in Illinois, which is taking stout beyond simple, hearty pub fare and transforming it into an after- dinner drink. Bourbon County Stout, made in limited batches, is aged in Jim Beam bourbon casks to mingle the liquor's bite with chocolate and coffee notes. It's so dense in flavor, not to mention so highly alcoholic--10%, vs. 3% to 5% for a Pilsner--that the Blackhawk Lodge in Chicago serves it in brandy snifters.

According to Jackson, another "world-class" American beer is the Belgian-style white beer (named for its pale, cloudy appearance) made by Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas. A wheat beer, it is flavored with coriander and orange peel.

Craft brewers have made Americans more aware of beer's possibilities, which has in turn brought about renewed interest in exotic imports--the most complex of which are Belgian beers.

Tiny Belgium produces some 400 beers, all blended with mind-boggling attention to detail. For example, the Chimay Trappists' ales from the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Scourmont are made with a special yeast that was isolated by one of the monks after World War II. An extra dose of the yeast is added to the beer at bottling time to heighten the flavor. The result: toasted flavors when drunk with meat, smoky and spicy tones alongside rich desserts. The most unusual Belgian style is lambic, a light, effervescent brew often infused with fruit flavors, which is made only in a small region near Brussels. Unlike the modern steel-tanks-and-gauges approach to brewing, lambics are left to ferment naturally in shallow open containers.

The beer glut is offering chefs some unusual options. Louis's Charleston Grill in South Carolina offers Lindemans Framboise, a raspberry lambic, as a dessert beer. A gueuze lambic, which can resemble dry sherry and may be cellared like wine, complements cheeses.

Several heavy-linen restaurants, such as Le Chantilly in New York City, offer beer-tasting dinners. Chef-owner David Ruggerio likes to pair Belgian and northern French ales with elaborate French and international dishes. At a recent dinner, manager Marc Puil popped the cork (many specially conditioned types of beer are bottled Champagne-style) on a yeasty triple-fermented Belgian ale called Affligem Tripel Abbey. Crisp and light on its own, it took on honey and vanilla flavors when paired with seared-scallop-and-black-truffle risotto. Next came Fischer La Belle, a high-body lager from Alsace, which stood back to let the flavors of the gingery bass with Asian vegetables come forth. With squab, Puil poured a Chimay the color of brandy.

Ironically, the best way to learn about more exotic beers is to ask a sommelier for advice. (And while you're asking, find out about kick--these beers can have an alcohol content as high as 17%.) Or visit some of the restaurants, like Sanford in Milwaukee, that are beer-savvy. According to chef Sandy D'Amato, who offers an eclectic range of dishes, from Moroccan to Thai, "With spicier, more complex foods, wine can be a real bust. But beer will actually enhance the flavors of the food, and vice versa."

Take that, Robert Parker.