At this beer dinner, it's fine to feel a little 'Fuel'-ish

March 29, 2000|By Rob Kasper

I THOUGHT I had missed the last call, but then I got a second chance and tapped into the good stuff. It happened last Wednesday night at the fifth annual Maryland Craft Beer Dinner at Sisson's in South Baltimore.

In December, I missed a chance to taste a limited supply of Fuel, a small-batch winter beer made at Capital City Brewing in Harborplace. Then, last week, I got another opportunity to taste it. This time I cashed in.

What a beer! Fuel is the espresso of brews, a dark, smooth stout, the sweet malt notes of which perfectly match with the acid flavors of Sumatra coffee. That's right, coffee.

Usually, I wrinkle my nose with disapproval at the notion of putting any foreign substance -- berries, slices of lime, ginger ale -- in beer. But Fuel is an exception.

This brew-house union of coffee and beer is blissful. It is also potent, weighing in at almost 12 percent alcohol, according to brewer Mark Abernathy. He had saved a bit of December's 14-barrel batch and brought it to the dinner. Now, however, there is a Fuel shortage, until he brews more next winter.

Fuel was one of seven beers served during the five-course craft beer dinner, an annual affair organized by Sisson's proprietor Jack Callanan. It matched Maryland-made beers with fresh, regional fare, which was whipped up by Sisson's chef, Bill Rothwell.

The evening began with two crisp "starter beers" -- small glasses of Sisson's Celtic Red and Clipper City India Pale. As is the custom, when these beers are served, their patrons stand up and speak a few words on their behalf.

Hugh Sisson told us that his Clipper City India Pale Ale had been tweaked recently to bring it in line with American tastes. He explained that American hops, Cascade and Centennial, have replaced the British hops, East Kent Goldings and Fuggle, in the recipe. Such hop talk, I learned, is common at beer dinners.

Then bowls of fresh asparagus soup with lemon cream were served with DeGroen's Pils. Jamie Fineran, general manager of Baltimore Brewing Co., described this beer as "the Czech version of hoppiness." He explained that the hops used in DeGroen's Pils, Saaz, are the same kind used in Pilsner Urquell, the highly regarded lager made in the Czech Republic.

The hops give the beer distinctive bitter flavors, which, Fineran said, "You taste on the back part of your tongue." My tongue as a whole loved the pairing of the creamy asparagus soup and the pils.

The next course matched the old with the new. The old was a familiar mixed seafood grill with wild rockfish, local oysters and a crab cake. The new was the beer, Hoodle Head Pale Ale, made by the newest brewery on the local scene, the one in Johansson's Dining House in downtown Westminster.

The oysters, plump mollusks swimming in sauce, sent me into ecstasy. When I quizzed the chef about the dish, he said he simply grilled the oysters and splashed them with a "simple" sauce, made with wine, shallots, butter and lemon. Simple for him, delicious for me.

Later, when I called brewery owner David Johansson and asked him about the origin of his beer's name, he said it goes back to the days when he was a student at Hereford High School. When somebody acted up, you called him a "hoodle head," Johansson explained.

He liked the term so much that later, when he married and had children, he and his wife sometimes called their children hoodle heads. Then, about a year and a half ago, he opened the brewery operation and got a chance to name a beer hoodle head. He couldn't pass it up.

The next dish served at the dinner was a stunner. It was a salad made with orange slices and grilled red onions and topped with a dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander. The grilled onions were sweet; the orange was tangy. The overall effect was terrific.

There aren't many beers that can hold their own in the potent company of onions and oranges, but Resurrection, the Belgian ale from the Brewer's Art on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore, was more than ready for the matchup. Made with five malts and two hops, Resurrection is not a shy beer.

Brewer's Art proprietor Volker Stewart predicted it would be "the maltiest beer you will taste tonight." He turned out to be right.

During the meat course, medallions of veal mixed with bits of Smithfield ham, glasses of Oliver's Olde English Ale were served. Oliver's brewer, Steve Jones, who recently had arrived in Baltimore, said the dark, faintly sweet, chocolate ale was a variation of the beer he made while working for a chain of pubs in England.

This prompted a spirited discussion of whether Britain's Bass conglomerate would sell its beer-making operation to Heineken and use the proceeds to buy more franchise pub operations in England.

I didn't comprehend all the ins and outs of international pub finance. But during the discussion, I learned a new term, "scream pub." This is what the British call a pub frequented by the young and the loud.

When the dessert course arrived, I also learned what a "chocolate pizzelle" looks like. It looks like an ice cream sandwich for grown-ups.

The chocolate wafers of the pizzelle were thinner and more delicate than those on a normal ice-cream sandwich. And, instead of ice cream, the inside of the pizzelle was white chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries.

I also learned that a chocolate pizzelle goes very nicely with a glass of Fuel. As I devoured my pizzelle and sipped my Fuel from a brandy snifter, it felt good to be a grown-up.

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