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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.

When asked to explain the main difference pairing wine and beer, Conley doesn't hesitate: "With beer, you don't have to go from light to dark or light to heavy. You can mix it up. There are no rules." She attributes that to carbonization, the "scrubbing bubbles" of beer. "Beer lifts and separates; the molecules of beer and molecules of food commingle to create something different." After that, the experience is over, and the palate is reset.

"Take, for example, the Snake Dog India Pale Ale: a big, hoppy beer with a sweet maltiness and a piny, grapefruit herbalness," Conley suggested, doling out bites of fruit and cheese. Mango made the beer taste better; the beer made sharp cheddar seem buttery but reduced pepper Jack to flat spiciness. I understood in that moment how the same beer could temper, complement or contrast with different foods.

That all changed, of course, when I got home and my newfound smarts evaporated as I endeavored to create a beer-pairing menu. I spent an afternoon sipping beers over and over, but the more I tried to break them down, the more they blended into one big, malty, hoppy, yeasty, worty, sparging lauter mess.

Being tipsy might or might not have been a hindrance.

In the end, I created a menu, rationalized every pairing with suitable jargon and even managed to incorporate beer in three of the recipes. I kept in mind the ABV (alcohol by volume) and bitterness of each beer, as indicated by its IBU (international bittering units), which top off in the 100 range.

The hors d'oeuvre: a creamy hot chicken dip with artichoke hearts, water chestnuts and sharp cheddar cheese. I matched it with Old Scratch Amber Lager, the idea being to cut the tartness in the artichokes with the maltiness and caramel of the beer.

The first course: zesty Caribbean-spiced jerk mussels steamed with Snake Dog India Pale Ale, served with Raging Bitch Belgian-style India Pale Ale. To be honest, I paired them because I thought "raging" and "jerk" belonged together.

As the latter IPA was strong (ABV, 8.3 percent; IBU, 60), I planned an arugula and cranberry cheese salad as a palate cleanser, paired with a light In-Heat Wheat Hefeweizen beer.

For the main course, I used Gonzo Imperial Porter in the braising liquid for a Brussels sprouts choucroute of pork shoulder roast, Black Forest bacon, and merguez and pork sausages, matching the dish with Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale. Conley promised that the beer combined nicely with everything, so I figured I couldn't go wrong there.

Dessert: I incorporated Flying Dog's Coffee Stout, an imperial stout flavored with Black Dog coffee from West Virginia, in a butterscotch pudding layered with buttered pretzel crunch and topped with crushed chocolate-covered cocoa beans.

From an entertaining standpoint, serving only beer makes life a lot easier once you map out the glassware you're going to need. (I used highball glasses, V-shaped cocktail glasses, pint glasses, Italian bicchieri and small Waterford snifters.) There are no twee cocktails with complicated garnishes and obscure tinctures to compose, no bags of extra ice to amass, no aerating or decanting required.

It would have helped matters if I hadn't made the mistake of serving the salad beer with the hors d'oeuvre and vice versa, which pretty much sabotaged my grand theories about why I paired which beer with what course.

The beer-savvy couples I invited didn't seem to care. The mussels/IPA matchup provoked the only negative comments of the evening. Everyone found the former too spicy and the latter too bitter. Thankfully, the coffee stout-pudding duet left a pleasant taste in the mouths of my guests.

The whiskey-imbued Gonzo Barrel-Aged Imperial Porter I served as an after-dinner drink fell flat, literally. It had somehow lost its carbonization and was therefore undrinkable.

As I did the dishes, I took inventory of all the Real Entertaining parties I have written about. Wine is just a beverage, and food is just something to eat; good company and a warm environment for storytelling are what really matters.

Table settings, flowers and music are set decorations. They should be simple, tasteful and even clever, but they should never take away from the guests, who are the real stars of the show.

I hope readers have discovered the same things I did: Make as much of the food as possible in advance; incorporate prepared items into the menu to take the pressure off; be organized; and start every party with an empty dishwasher and a dry sink. If you don't already live with an indispensable "accessory," enlist someone to help you. Keep the bathroom and the bar stocked, sweep the front steps, make sure you have a place for coats and use place cards at the dinner table.

Above all, keep in mind that parties, like stories, rarely transpire as expected - a fact that invariably increases their value as entertainment.

You can browse an online archive of Real Entertaining columns. Hagedorn will join Free Range chat on March 2 at noon: washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

Recipes

Butterscotch Pretzel Pudding

Jerk Mussels

Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Choucroute With Pork Shoulder, Sausages and Stout

Hot Chicken Dip

Arugula Salad With Mango Vinaigrette and Cranberry Cheese

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