Wine’s fine, but beer’s nearer and dearer to my heart, so it took a beer event to get me to the storied James Beard House in Manhattan for the first time on Saturday. The Brewmaster’s Banquet was a pairing dinner organized by Beard House director of programming Izabela Wojcik that matched beers from Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery with food from chef Adam Dulye of San Francisco’s beer-loving Abbot’s Cellar and Monk’s Kettle gastropubs. For those who pay attention to such things, the event represents a milestone in the beer world: no less a culinary authority as the James Beard Foundation was recognizing something many of us have known for years: Far from being an inferior, uninspiring drink for the lunch pail set to pair with potato chips, football, and a duct-taped La-Z-Boy, today’s craft brews are brilliant complements to some of the most inventive cuisine in the country, with a range of styles broad enough to balance everything from smoked oysters to grilled bison.
The James Beard Foundation knew what it was doing when it selected Dogfish Head as the beer maker for the evening. I’ve long considered it one of the most inventive breweries in America, as does my fancy-beer-loving wife, Jenn, so we were particularly pleased to chat with owner Sam Calagione (pictured) as he filled glasses with Midas Touch, Raison D’Etre, and Shelter Pale Ale during cocktail hour. In a country now filled with great craft breweries, Dogfish Head still manages to stand out by focusing entirely on weird beers.
Think about it: almost every other small brewery makes at least one "normal" beer (a Budweiser-style lager) in addition to their more outlandish offerings. Not Dogfish Head. As Calagione explained, the closest thing would be their 60 Minute IPA, which is indeed a laid-back sipper, but still complex enough to make you realize that there’s a symphony going on in the glass. It’s a thinker. As he has probably explained a thousand times before, Calagione said he’s not interested in making a standard lager, because there are plenty of good ones in the market already. Covering new territory in beer is more interesting to him, although sometimes that means going way back in history.
Take Dogfish Head Ta Henket, for example, which I wrote about a few months ago. Not only did Calagione and crew study ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to come up with a recipe for the type of beer the pyramid builders would have guzzled 4,500 years ago, they even set out baited petri dishes in a Cairo date farm to capture the native yeast strain that would have been used at the time. That’s not just twee intellectualism for the purposes of marketing, that’s true beer enthusiasm. (For the record, the brew was light and refreshing and made me want to be a pharaoh.)
And so Sam Caligione brought his weird beers from Delaware to Greenwich Village to pair with five courses of equally inventive foods. We were seated at table 11, which was located in what was once James Beard’s elevated bedroom nook (complete with mirrored ceiling), and it gave us a great view of the action on the main floor. As soon as the first course arrived–Liberty Farms duck terrine, rye crusted duck confit croquette, poached apple, and tarragon, paired with Beard de Garde farmhouse ale–the room came alive, with people taking photos of their plates, clinking glasses, and chatting loudly. It’s hard to imagine the same scene at a wine pairing, not that quiet contemplation isn’t an essential element of a thoughtful life.
The food was delicious (big props to Chef Dulye) and the beers elevated it to poetry, or perhaps really gutsy rock ‘n’ roll. The duck was just the beginning. Course #2 was seared scallop, arugula and ricotta agnolotti, piquillo pepper, and kumquat paired with Namaste, a Belgian-style wheat beer made with dried orange slices, lemongrass, and coriander. I love scallops, and the bite of the beer danced with the sweetness of the shellfish. The third course was spinach-wrapped monkfish, dungeness crab, and bone marrow risotto, which was definitely a fancy plate of grub, and it was paired with an equally fancy glass of beer, the Noble Rot, which is made with botrytis-infected Viognier grapes (that’s a good thing). I could use flowery language, but at its essence they just tasted darn good together. The beer/wine blend worked well with the varied flavors of the dish, at once mellowing the monkfish while sharpening the risotto. Give me more.
Next came the meat, which is as good a test as any for beer as an accompaniment to food. After all, steak and red wine is a match made in heaven, with the tannins of the wine breaking down the fats of the meat. Could beer fare as well? It certainly did with the dry-aged bison strip loin, which came with salsify, gigante beans, and artichoke barigoule (I don’t know what those things are but they tasted good.) It came with Bitches Brew, a blend of stout and mead, which was strong and fizzy enough to stand up to the meat while having plenty of flavors of its own.
All too soon, dessert was on the table, a hazelnut cocoa nib mille feuille with ricotta mousse and salted caramel ice cream. It came with perhaps the most unusual and certainly the strongest beer of the night, the World Wide Stout, a dark, rich beer with an alcohol content of nearly 20% (your standard pub pint clocks in at around 5%). The experience was like drinking a port or a cognac, and it gave us just the right glow to stay warm on the trip back to Brooklyn.
And so the evening of fine beers paired with fine foods ended having proven its point beyond any doubt: chosen wisely, you can find a craft brew to go with just about any cuisine. But there was a secondary point that’s no less important. Just as James Beard helped define and raise the profile of American cuisine around the world, Calagione and craft brewers like him have taken American beer from a punchline (sex in a canoe, etc.) to what I’m confident in saying is now the best beer on the planet. Sure, Germany has its pilsners, Belgium has its Trappists, and England has its ales, but America has every one of them, in dozens of different varieties, made by brewers who care deeply about what they do and aren’t hidebound by centuries of tradition. If you don’t like one, try another. And another. That’s what we do, and it’s nice to see that chefs from South Beach to Seattle are trying them too. What a country.