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Friday, October 05, 2007

The Session #8: Beer & Food

The Session #8 this month looks at the relationship between beer and food. Captain Hops over at Beer Haiku Daily is the host of this edition of Beer Blogging Friday and has selected an important topic because, even as the public’s appreciation of craft beer has increased greatly in recent years, it is still difficult to get a decent beer at many restaurants.

It’s hard for me to figure out why so many restaurants fail when it comes to doing a good job in offering a food-worthy selection of ales and lagers. It takes just as much effort to pour a mediocre beer as it does to serve a great beer. The bottles take up the same amount of refrigerator space. They require the same amount of handling. And, in most cases, the restaurants literally leave money on the table offering inferior beers. Taking time to match beer with the foods they serve will mean more sales and happier customers. It should be a no brainer, but it’s not.

Even more frustrating is that some restaurants feel they are doing a great job if they offer one or two craft beer options. I’m happy when a restaurant offers a Samuel Adam’s Boston Lager or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but why do so many stop there? For every place like Tim Shafer's At Lake Norman in Sherrills Ford, N.C., or Chez Sophie in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that treats beer seriously there are dozens that come up short. It really does not have to be this way.

Last week I had the chance to attend a luncheon hosted by Anheuser-Busch at Blue, an upscale restaurant in the Hearst Tower in Charlotte, N.C. The theme of the event, held during the annual Charlotte Shout culinary festival, was matching food and beer. Blue’s Executive Chef Gene Briggs prepared five wonderful courses and A-B’s Paul Mancuso, brewmaster at its Newark, N.J., brewery, and Gary Dronen, brewmaster at its Williamsburg, Va., brewery, took a group of local media through a mini beer appreciation course. This photo is Mancusco, on the left, and me talking about growing up in Upstate New York and our mutual professional experiences with the Matt Brewing Co.

Briggs commented during the event that he feels beer is a much more food friendly beverage in many regards than wine. He pointed out that beer will stand up to spices, vinegar and a wider range of food preparations. “We host both beer and wine dinners at Blue and the beer dinners sell out faster,” Briggs noted.

Some of the beer and food pairings featured during the A-B and Blue luncheon worked better than others. The first course was served as hors d’oeuvres and featured oyster shooters and charmoula shrimp that was matched with Bud Light Chelada and Michelob Ultra Fruit Infused Cactus Lime. For those of you who have not yet experienced A-B’s take on a chelada, it features Clamato juice, lime and salt flavorings. This was not my favorite brew during the event. On the other hand, the Michelob Ultra Cactus Lime was actually refreshing and perfect as a wash for the oyster shooters. It was my first encounter with the fruit infused Michelob Ultra products and, while I’m not about to head out and buy a case, I would not turn down one on a hot sunny afternoon.

The second course featured seared diver scallops with local pumpkin caponota and green beans, served with Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale. The pair went together quite nicely showing that spicy food and spiced beers can coexist.

The third course was applewood bacon wrapped Bay of Fundy salmon that was paired with two A-B brews, the newly reformulated all-malt Michelob and Skipjack Amber, one of the regional specialties that the company has rolled out around the country. Both beers could work with the salmon, but I felt the Skipjack was actually a better match because it stood up to the smoked bacon flavor. Skipjack uses four varieties of malt and is a nice amber color.

The fourth course was lamb loin rubbed with ras el Hanout over eggplant frittes and a Tunisian Tastira sauce. The beer matched with this plate was Brew Master’s Private Reserve, a rich holiday seasonal beer. The beer was firm enough to stand up to the meat and sauce. A pretty decent match for a holiday meal.

The final course was a wonderful molten chocolate cake with Italian cherries, paired with Michelob Celebrate Chocolate and Michelob Celebrate Cherry. I had previously tasted the chocolate variety, but this was my first encounter with the cherry version. I felt that both beers went fairly well with the cake, but I still believe that the Michelob Celebrate Vanilla Oak is the best beer in this series.

The A-B event at Blue showed how a thoughtful chef can match a range of cuisine with beer in a fun and creative way. I wish that instead of local journalists being in the seats that the group was made up of local restaurateurs.

Finally, I thought I'd offer up one of my favorite beer as an ingredient recipes discovered a few years back during a visit to Vermont. This is perfect for a crisp Fall day.

Old Grafton Inn Vermont Cheddar Cheese Soup

2 12 oz. bottles of beer (I'd suggest using a good New England IPA from Otter Creek, Magic Hat or Harpoon)
1 qt heavy cream
1 lb. Grafton Cheddar Cheese -- grated (If you cannot find Grafton Cheddar, go for Cabot)
2 Tbsp. flour
1/3 cup of melted butter
1/8 tsp. ground white pepper
1/4 tsp. salt

Heat melted butter and mix in flour to make a roux. Cook until smooth, remove from heat.. Boil beer and whisk in roux. Cook until thickened. Add cream and bring to just under a boil. Whisk in cheese until melted. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serve with croutons - Serves 8

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