This article was originally written in March 2007 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.
According to Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, beer is better than wine.
OK, perhaps that’s both simplifying and exaggerating his stance a bit. I don’t know if he’s ever used the words “better than” to describe the relationship between the two beverages. But much of what Oliver has said and done in the past decade or so has made it quite clear that he feels that beer has gotten the short end of the stick for far too long, and that it is just as deserving as wine is to be paired with food of every sort. In fact, he’s been quoted as saying that beer has a much wider range of styles and flavours than wine does, and he attempted to prove it in The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, his 2003 book that has quickly become a bible to beer-friendly chefs the world over.
(I should also make it clear that Oliver is by no means an anti-wine zealot. On the contrary, he actually has great respect for the grape. He has been on several wine tasting panels, including one for the New York Times, and has travelled extensively in some of the world’s best wine regions. He just loves beer more.)
To mark the recent arrival of his brewery’s flagship Brooklyn Lager to LCBO shelves, Oliver came to town at the end of February for a sold-out six-course dinner at beerbistro. Together with Chef Brian Morin, he created a series of pairings that proved his beer-meets-food theories and showcased the diversity and quality of the Brooklyn Brewing line-up. And the pair also played around with the idea of “American” food to create some fun and unique dishes.
For example, the pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres included bite-sized gourmet burgers, chicken wings stuffed with blue cheese, and mini corn dogs made with duck confit. As we noshed on these morsels, Oliver gave an introductory speech where he emphasised the fact that craft beer is “real beer for real people”, and that the craft beer boom of the last two decades is not a new trend or a fad, but rather a return to the days before Prohibition and the World Wars when there were hundreds and hundreds of breweries in North America making a beer in a wide array of styles. But much like the food industry, big business consolidation and cheaper transportation led to the smaller brewers being taken over or shut down in favour of mass-produced, preservative-laden brews that bear little resemblance to real, traditional beers.
The talk also touched on a lot of the same themes that are held dear by the Slow Food movement, which probably jumped out at me more than usual since I’d spent part of the previous day attending the Slow Food Green Link conference. When I chatted with Oliver later in the evening, I noticed that he had a gold lapel pin of the distinctive snail logo, and found that that he was a founding board member of Slow Food USA and that he serves on the Board of Counsellors of Slow Food International. So the connections definitely weren’t coincidental.
During his talk, we were served Brooklyn Local 1, a beer so new that it had not yet been released in the US, and Oliver and brewery general manager Eric Ottaway had to smuggle a few bottles across the border to serve at the dinner. Described as being somewhere between a Belgian Strong and a Saison, this potent 9% ale undergoes a full re-fermentation in the bottle, making it a very lively beer that is chock full of yeasty goodness. It was intensely aromatic, with notes of orange zest and herbs, and had a big, warm flavour with notes of tropical fruit, chamomile, orange and yeast. I could imagine it pairing very nicely with some strong cheese.
The first official pairing of the night came in the form of a lobster taco served with Brooklyn Lager. The hard shell taco was stuffed to overflowing with chunks of tender, lager-steamed lobster, and topped with chipotle mayo, smoked cheddar and a tomato-avocado relish. Aside from the fact that I prefer my tacos in a soft shell, I couldn’t find much to complain about here, and the citric hop tang of the beer served as a perfect counterpoint to the spicy seafood.
Next up was the soup course, which featured an onion and mushroom broth paired with Post Road Pumpkin Ale. Pumpkin beers are often viewed as a gimmick nowadays, and many of them aren’t even made with actual pumpkin, but rather with spices that attempt to mimic the flavour of pumpkin pie. But according to Oliver, Post Road is an attempt to replicate the pumpkin ales that were often brewed by early American settlers. The result is a fairly robust brew, with strong notes of the cinnamon and nutmeg that is used to spice it. It’s a beer that I’ve enjoyed solo a couple of times in the past, but paired with the soup, it didn’t really work for me. The flavour of the broth on its own was somewhat bland, so the beer easily over-powered it, and while the soup improved when eaten with a spoonful of the gruyere that was baked on top, the beer and cheese didn’t work well together.
Thankfully, things improved in the next course, which had a playful ballpark theme. The beer was Brooklyn Pennant Ale ’55, a crisp and refreshing Pale Ale named for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series win, and the food was a mini hot dog featuring a Berkshire pork and ale frankfurter on a buttermilk beer bun, served with a small side order of beerbistro’s trademark frites. The frank was fantastic, with a creamy texture and a pure porky flavour, and the smoked ketchup that accompanied the fries was so good that I was tempted to pocket the jar that it was served in.
The main course followed, and it was another successful pairing, as both the beer and the food had big, aggressive flavours. The brew was Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, which Oliver explained was styled after the IPAs of the mid-1800s that were brewed with higher alcohol and hop content in order to survive the trip from England to India. Brooklyn even goes so far as to add special salts to the water to bring it closer to the unique water of Burton-On-Trent where the style was born. This big, hopped-up beer played a perfect foil to the ale-braised bison cheeks with American chili sauce. I did find the flavour of the meat a bit overpowering at first, but I chalked that up to the fact that this was the first meat-heavy meal I’d eaten since falling off the fish-and-veggie bandwagon after 5+ years. By the time I got halfway through, I was loving it, although the sauce was a bit on the tame side, especially since it was paired with a beer that’s tailor-made to stand up to spice. The cheddar jalapeño biscuit on the side added a bit of heat, while the sweet potato mash was, well, sweet potato mash, which was just fine by me ’cause I loves me some sweet taters.
The playfulness returned in the next course, which saw a delectable Ermite blue cheese formed into a small cylinder and served on a walnut almond crust as a “cheesecake”. Strong cheese demands strong beer, and it came in the form of the 2006 vintage of Brooklyn Monster Ale, the brewery’s annual Barley Wine. Strong ale and blue cheese is one of my absolute favourite beer and cheese pairings, and this one didn’t disappoint. Adding some nice complexity to the dish were a sour beer & fruit chutney and a shard of sweet honeycomb, although the small toast rounds on the end of the plate seemed extraneous to me and were left untouched.
After all, why fill up on bread when there is still desert to come? Or more accurately, three deserts: molten Black Chocolate Stout beignet, Black Chocolate Stout ice cream, and raspberry tower with Black Chocolate Stout mousse, all fittingly served with Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. The beer is a dark, rich brew that does not actually contain any chocolate, but is instead named for the variety of malt that is used to create it. There are, however, elements of chocolate in the flavour, although they don’t come to the forefront until the beer ages for a year or two. In its younger form, as we were served at the dinner, it has more of a roast coffee character, which paired well with the decadent desert platter. The crisp surface of the beignet yielded to expose a lusciously gooey chocolate centre that served as a fantastic sauce for the ice cream. The only disappointment was the raspberry tower, which was built upon bland, out-of-season raspberries that couldn’t hold up to the flavourful mousse. But hey, like the great Mr. Loaf said, two outta three ain’t bad.
So, the question remains: Is beer a better companion to food than wine? Frankly, that’s an argument that I’d rather not get into. But after enjoying this great meal with some near-perfect beer pairings, I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s an equal at the very least. Hopefully, some of Toronto’s finer dining establishments will start to follow the lead of beerbistro and improve their beer lists and knowledge to the point that they can offer up similar themed pairings on a regular basis.