Matching fine food with craft beer is, I have been told, the next big thing. This is one trend I do not want to miss.
So, a few weekends ago, I hauled myself down to Washington for Savor, an event that paired 36 dishes with 86 craft beers. The dishes were developed in consultation with Lucy Saunders, author of The Best of American Beer & Food. The beers came from 48 craft breweries scattered across the United States. The event, sponsored by the Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colo., was open to the public, and some 2,100 people attended three separate sessions, with tickets to each session going for $85 each.
I have been to a lot of beer tastings, and this one was different. First of all, the setting was exquisite. The classic architecture and gilded halls of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium gave the event the feel of a state occasion or - perish the thought - a fancy wine tasting. Beer samples were served in 2-ounce glasses that looked like small brandy snifters. Appetizer-size portions of cuisine were served with the beer snifter samples. It was a long way from beer and pretzels.
The well-dressed crowd, which was easily one-third female - high for a beer tasting - was in a spirited, collegial mood. A handful of notable craft brewers were there, such as Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Brewing Co., maker of Samuel Adams beers; Garrett Oliver, founder of Brooklyn Brewery and an author of the well-regarded The Brewmaster's Table; and Sam Calagione, owner of the popular and ever-experimenting Dogfish Craft Brewery.
"Craft beer is the new wine," Boston's Koch told me. The Washington event, he said, was designed "to make a statement that beer has a place on the American table along with fine food and good wine."
I sauntered from serving station to serving station, sampling the beer, nibbling on the food, chatting with brewers. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?
Some of the matchmaking was logical. The traditional coupling of beer and cheese, for instance, was a simple winner. A snifter of the prize-winning India Pale Ale from Odell Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colo., proved to be an ideal companion for the puff pastries filled with scallions, Stilton and bacon. Moreover, a glass of Brooklyn Local, a Belgian-inspired strong golden ale from Oliver's New York brewery, was a happy pairing with some Brillat-Savarin artisan cheese.
I never would have thought of pairing pan-seared steak in blue-cheese sauce with the inky, powerful, unfiltered Palo Santo Marron brown ale from Dogfish, but the combo worked. I was less taken with the matchup of figs and prosciutto on toast with Fireside Imperial Pilsner.
I liked the beer, and I had a sentimental link to the town where the beer was made (Lawrence, Kan., home of my alma mater, the University of Kansas). But the beer made me jealous. When I was in college, the beer was never this good.
I had trouble getting my head around the notion of drinking beer with chocolate. But the Flying Dog Imperial Porter from the Frederick brewery, served with large pieces of spicy artisan chocolate, both stretched my mind and could have added a few inches to my waistline if I had not moseyed along to another serving station.
The food-beer pairing that was the best of the show was the lemon-flavored chicken breasts and the Hefeweizen from Boscos Brewing Co. in Memphis, Tenn. The light wheat beer, only 3 percent alcohol by volume, perfectly complemented the citrus tang of the chicken.
In addition to my hands-on sampling, I also read some publications and attended a seminar that dealt with the theories on how to match beer and food.
A pamphlet published by the Brewers Association, and passed out at the Washington event, spelled out broad concepts of pairing. One was that you match strength with strength, that is, you match delicate beers with delicate dishes and strongly favored foods with assertive beers.
A chart in the pamphlet got down to particulars, matching 26 beer styles with entrees, cheeses and desserts. At the light end of the scale, a Kolsch was matched with salads, while at the heavy end, a doppelbock would be the classic match with Limburger cheese.
Hugh Sisson of Baltimore's Clipper City Brewing Co. led a seminar on pairing beer with Chesapeake Bay seafood.
An ideal beer to serve with oysters is a dry Irish-style stout, he said; the stout provides a delightful contrast to the salinity of the oysters.
For crabs, Sisson recommended taking a multi-beer approach.
To cope with the peppery spices that cover steamed crabs, Sisson suggested a beer with good malt content and a mild amount of hops. Such beers in the Clipper City lineup would be McHenry, Pale Ale and Uber pilseners. If your beer is too big, it overpowers the crab meat, he said. If the bitterness in your beer is too high, it will emphasize the peppers, he said.