How to have a beer-pairing dinner at home

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 3:29 PM

Editors' note: This will be David Hagedorn's last Real Entertaining column. His new monthly column, called Sourced, begins April 6. He will feature producers of interest in the Washington area and develop recipes highlighting their ingredients.

By way of toasting myself and the lessons learned from throwing Real Entertaining parties over the past two years, I raised a glass of beer. Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale, to be exact, from Flying Dog, an independently owned brewery in Frederick.

That I would toast with beer is odd, because until recently I never considered myself a beer guy. I used to put beer in the same category as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: something that I had to have every now and then but that generally provoked ambivalence.

Then something happened: the undeniable, unavoidable explosion of craft beer as a hot commodity. I began to take notice at beer-pairing media dinners. Greg Engert, the resident beer aficionado of Neighborhood Restaurant Group (ChurchKey, Rustico, et al.), deserves a lot of credit for dissolving my indifference with quirky quaffs. Where I used to consider beer bitter and off-putting, I started to appreciate its complexity and tastiness.

It's safe to say I succumbed to beer pressure.

So a beer-pairing dinner party was in order. But first I needed an education, so last month I headed to Flying Dog. Terms such as wort, sparging and lautering are now part of my tasting vocabulary. I conferred with Gwen Conley, the brewery's 44-year-old "quality assurance director and sensory goddess," as her business card states. She has a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Colorado and underwent two years of sensory training in food and beverages.

Conley explains that sensory training is essentially profiling.

"You learn how to pick things apart," she says. "If you have six bowls of mayonnaise, you have to tell if they have whole egg or just yolk; olive oil or canola; what the acids are; and whatever else is in there. Then you put descriptors on those things and match them with intensities using precise numbers."

Conley's theory about beer pairing is clear: If there is a beer you think you don't like, you just haven't paired it with the right food. Conversely, if there is a food you don't like, maybe you haven't paired it with the right beer.

She lost me there. No beer was going to make tripe taste good to me.

To prove her theory, Conley set about matching Flying Dog ales with various cheeses, snack foods, cookies and chocolate items. (Greasing the wheel with pecan caramel turtles and triple-cream brie was a cheap ploy. And highly effective.)

Beer's basic ingredients are at play: malts (mostly barley), hops, water and yeast. I quickly learned that I could sound vaguely knowledgeable by mumbling "malty" or "hoppy," and downright brilliant if I mentioned saison yeast, pondered the hardness of the brewing water and stated with conviction that "Aroma is 80 percent of flavor!" - a line I purloined from Conley.

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