Somewhere over DaNang, on SQ 837, it hit me. I need a beer. Badly. Three days of cross-pacific travel, followed by horrid food in a overpriced Chinese hotel, and a whole month of worrying about getting work done ahead of me adds up to one stressed girl. This is not surprising. What is surprising is the manifestation of the need for stress relief in the form of beer craving. This is new. In the past, stress drove regrettable binges of homemade cookie dough, financially ill-advised trips across the planet, and questionable romantic endeavors. Even a craving for a good whiskey or lots of bad gin and tonics. But never before beer.
Why the sudden prominence of beer in my consciousness? One word- Savor. Haochi DC was lucky enough to swing passes to this fabulous event, featuring craft beers paired with delicious food a few weeks back in a delicious worship of everything beer.
I was totally and utterly blown away. I mean, I liked beer ok, and had progressed beyond the natty-light-in-a-garbage-can-full-of-ice-at-the-party-of-that-dude-I-accidentally-made-out-with years ago, and liked a good stout, but I hadn't really given much thought to the nuances of good beer beyond, well, it being good.
I can even pinpoint the moment that all changed. Haochi DC was offered a seat in one of the sideline seminars during the event featuring beer and chocolate pairings. Best case scenario in my imagination was that this would be like a wine tasting, where things were good together, but my palate was sadly unsophisticated, and I would leave not really understanding why or having any hope of replicating the pairings myself. More likely, I figured this was just a lame attempt by the beer industry to move in on the wine market by making up their own lexicon of fancy-words. This fit right in with the trashy-is-hip, PBR-is-cool trendy demographic I feared would make up the main body of attendees. But hey, free beer? Im no snob, that was enough to get me to give it a try.
What I discovered with the first pairing felt like coming in from the darkness. After years of desperately trying to pretend I understood what the difference between 'oaky' and 'woodsy' was when tasting six different seemingly identical mediocre chardonnays, it was like a light bulb came on. Hoppy. Now there is a taste I can identify. When beer is said to have hints of chocolate, it has hints of fucking chocolate! I get it! It wasn't my tongue that had failed, it was the medium! After years of being a fraud at wine tastings, suddenly I actually got it. This was right up there in the revelation department with understanding fractions and decimals were the same thing, my parents were winging it more often than not, and that nothing about The Wall is really all that profound without heavy drugs and the mind of a 15 yr old (warning, those two are often related).
Not only did the beer bring out certain flavors in the chocolate, as one expects with a paired tasting, but the chocolate actually pulled things out of the beer that would have been otherwise overlooked. I have never had paired wines that so delightfully and comprehensively intermingled flavors with the food they were paired with. Its as though beer were made for chocolate, and all these years I totally missed it. Of course it helped that the beers in question were all from New Holland Brewery, my vote for the Best in Show at the event. Each beer was complex, interesting, and eminently drinkable. The brewer, Fred Bueltmann, was on hand and accessible to all my bumbling inquiries (thankfully forgiving of my newly-in-beer-love swooning and patient with my myriad of questions). Gail Ambrosius, a choclatier from Madison WI brought her A game as well, and the chocolates were exquisite. You can see all the pairings below, but my top pick?
Dragon's Milk, a rich ale brewed in old bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill, one of our favorite Bourbons, with one of the most unusual, yet natural chocolates I have ever tasted, Shitake. The combination was earthy and rich, almost like a cream sauce. Dragon's milk brought out the sweetness in the chocolate, and the Shitake balanced the creaminess of the beer. Interestingly, the Dragon's Milk would have been right at home paired with something richer as well, my vote would be the sea salt caramel, but would have been a totally different beer.
The other strong contender was the Black Tulip Trippel Ale and the ginger and Lemongrass chocolate. The Black Tulip cut the spiciness of the chocolate, resulting in a strong leading taste with a quick end of sweetness, rather than the lingering gingery-ness that would otherwise overwhelm the chocolate. The chocolate brought the fruitiness of the Ale forward. It was perfect, and meant for Thai food. Asian food sorely lacks dessert, but this would have made up for it 50 times over.
For now, I'm going to flag down a stewardess and bitterly drink my Tsing dao, dreaming of better brews and better days
A few other winners:
Steamworks 'Backside Stout'
Schmaltz Hebrew 'Original Pomegranate Ale'
Schlafly Reserve 'Oak-Aged Barleywine'
Rock Art Brewery 'Vermonster'
Oskar Blues 'Old Chub' (in a can!)
Southernmost Pale Ale (from Key West)
Coney Island "Sword Swallower"
General Guide to beer pairing:
For more info on all the beers and foods at the event, please check out the Savor homepage. or check out the info sheet below.