By Victor Novak
Every spring, fall, and more recently, summer, TAPS Fish House & Brewery has conducted beer dinners. The events, going strong for over a decade, are eagerly anticipated by beer enthusiasts as each dinner is a unique dining experience with five separate courses created especially for the evening. According to TAPS’ Director of Culinary, Chef Tom Hope, pairing food and beer is no different than learning how to pair wine and food. It takes patience and a little research (code for sampling – never a bad thing!) but it is an incredible vehicle to showcase the versatility and complexity of beer. There are two avenues you can explore when pairing food and beer: one is to complement and the other is to contrast. When complementing, you are looking for neither the food nor beer to overpower one another, but rather create a seamless harmony. When contrasting, use hints in each to tie them together but don’t match flavor notes exactly.
When creating a beer dinner menu, two words count: plan ahead. About six weeks out, Chef Hope, his talented team of culinarians and I sit down to discuss the menu. Seasonality is key to making the dinner unique. I break down the flavor components of each beer so the chefs can get the wheels turning to determine what fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, seafood, and other proteins will be readily available. Soon the sparks are flying and chefs are offering tasty recommendations based on their unique culinary, cultural, and geographical point of view. Next, we hold a tasting with management and ownership, and refine the pairings until we’re satisfied.
With fall approaching, here’s a look at the Taste of the Harvest Beer Dinner menu from last year and what went into creating it. We started the night off with a light, crisp beer. Just as you wouldn’t want to blow out people’s palates by starting with a big, tannic Cab, the same logic applies to beer. Cream Ale is what I call the Chardonnay of beers and it is excellent to prep the palate for a gastronomic experience: light, a bit fruity, crisp, and clean. The amuse bouche pairing was “Bacon & Eggs,” a truffled egg custard served in an eggshell topped with American sturgeon caviar, creme fraiche, prosciutto, and toasted brioche. The crispness of the beer cut through the rich custard and the fruitiness of the Cream Ale melded perfectly with the full-flavored toppings.
The first course was a lightly curried coconut soup with Maine sea scallops, Mediterranean mussels, butternut squash puree, and pumpkin seed oil. It was paired with TAPS’ Pumpkin Ale. The objective was to complement the spices in the beer (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice) with the spices in the curry. The sweetness of the butternut squash was just right with the malty-sweet backbone of the beer and the layers of flavor worked well together.
Next came Berkshire pork osso buco with roasted chestnuts, escarole, pearl onions, heirloom carrots, and braising liquid. The rich, fatty pork shank with seasonal vegetables was cut with our crisp, hoppy Kellerpils, an unfiltered German pilsner.
The third course was Broadleaf Farms buffalo tenderloin with celery root puree, wild huckleberry gastrique, shaved fennel, and celery leaf salad. This was paired with Oktoberfest, a rich, malty amber German lager with a bit of sweetness on the finish. Here we had both complementing and contrasting elements. The buffalo tenderloin’s hint of gaminess was tamed by the caramel malt character of the beer, as was the slight bitterness from the celery root puree and salad. That same caramel malt sweetness played well with huckleberry.
Dessert is often the easiest course to pair because most people like coffee with a rich dessert. So we paired a Callebaut dark chocolate tart with our Imperial Russian Stout. The hoppiness of the beer overpowered the chocolate a bit, but overall the roastiness and malty sweetness of the stout matched well with the rich chocolate. We will substitute a smoother Oatmeal Stout next time.
Any multi-course menu that is paired with wine could be paired with beer, as we have demonstrated. It takes a little practice, but the payoff will be both surprising and exciting for your guests. Salud!
Victor Novak is brewmaster at TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea and Corona.