Holiday Beer Dinner

Just prior to Christmas 2009, I organized a holiday-themed beer dinner at the Astor Grill, with the immense help of the F&B Director of the St. Regis Hotel, Oscar Martinez*.  In attendance were: Jim Boyce (aka Beiijing Boyce), Frank Siegel (of Sequoia Cafe), Brandon Trowbridge (executive chef at NOLA), and David Gray (photojournalist on assignment with Reuters, and wine enthusiast).  The goal of the tasting was to introduce some of the food-pairing potential of beer with a turkey-centric holiday dinner.


To start things off, I wanted to awaken the taste buds early on.  As an “amuse-bouche” of sorts, I had specifically saved one last bottle of Founders Harvest Ale from my previous tasting.  As a “wet-hopped” pale ale, meant to be enjoyed as fresh as possible, it was nevertheless still holding strong despite being more than four months old.  None of guests that night had ever tried anything like it before, and were extremely intrigued at the notes of fresh citrus and pine.  Dave however felt it would be tough to drink copious amounts of.  In his defense, I probably would’ve felt the same way several years ago – that is, before I grew to adore the grapefruit zest and fresh pine resin character of American hops.  A great pizza beer, or with a chunk of well-aged cheddar cheese.

Next came the salad.  With it, I knew the beer would be something special: a saison – arguably my favorite style of brewing.  Modern saisons are descended from the farmhouse ales which were brewed in French-speaking Belgian Wallonia.  Typically brewed in the spring, they were to be consumed by the farmers through the hot summer and early autumn, back when pre-refrigeration brewing was impossible.  Saisons often use unique yeast strains that ferment at temperatures warmer than your typical ale, sometimes approaching 95 °F (35 °C). This helps coax out fragrant spice notes, peppery phenols and tropical fruit esters, in addition to a funky, musty, barnyard character.  All this is then complemented by sometimes aggressive hopping (to preserve the beer through the summer months), imparting additional herbal, floral, hay and grass notes along with a crisp, dry bitterness.  The underlying foundation is usually a gently bready, cracker-like maltiness.

North Coast‘s Le Merle leans towards the sweeter, estery spectrum of saisons, but still maintains a good level of classic farmhouse “funk”, with floral European hopping.  While some of the Belgian originals are dearer to my heart, this beer helps to showcase just how far American craft brewing has come.  For a short time, DXCEL was in fact bringing very limited amounts of this beer into China, along with North Coast’s regular lineup (Red Seal and ACME Pale).  Unfortunately, most people remain uneducated and unaware of beers like this, and it had barely ever moved out of the warehouse.  As such, the commercial fate of saisons in China remains bleak.  (Although upon experiencing the greatness of saison, everybody immediately bought the few remaining cases.  Sequoia Cafe even sold a couple bottles at the bargain price of 50 RMB per cork-and-cage 750ml bottle – compare with the usual retail price of a 750ml of Chimay – but that was before Frank realized he’d better hold onto the rest for himself…)

Le Merle, even though it’s not my favorite saison, continued to wow everyone at the table – well into dessert time.  I only wish this beer could have been better promoted before it met its untimely demise in the Chinese market.  It is phenomenal with a multitude of foods, including with most Asian cuisines.  I feel that all of China could have a “beer epiphany” from this style of beer alone.  This is not to mention how well it pairs with Vietnamese, Thai or Indian (although if too spicy, beware that the complexity of the beer can get drowned- or numbed-out).  And don’t even get me started with how amazing saison is with cheeses – and not just the Parmesan in our salad…

There was a risk of tumbling down from such a high note however.  So for our next course I made sure to give everyone a “heads up” – to please keep an open mind.  Paired with our pumpkin soup… was a pumpkin ale.

Back in colonial era of the US, fermentable starch sources were sometimes at a premium (they could be used for bread, after all). Enter the humble pumpkin.  This “style” of ale soon died out by the time of industrialization however.  But a reinvention came about with the microbrewery movement, although this time using spices typical of pumpkin or sweet potato pie, which were likely not common in the pumpkin ales of yore.

Southern Tier‘s interpretation is a high-ABV “imperial” ale, full of actual pumpkin meat.  Many of the seasonal “pumpkin” ales more widely-available today (in the US, of course) actually use very little pumpkin, and sometimes none at all, relying purely on the spicing to give you a false impression.  (Although this is understandable, as pumpkin is an unwieldy ingredient to work with, often clogging up brewery equipment.) Alongside the robust and fragrant spicing, and a subtly sweet malt background, Southern Tier’s Pumking maintains an almost-savory, pumpkin/squash essence at its core, the result of using lots of genuine, pureed roasted pumpkin.  Everyone was surprised that this was still “beer”.  Nobody outright disliked it, but it was obvious that I had thrown them for a loop, so to speak.  In fact, the otherwise decent soup seemed almost muted and bland by comparison.  Brandon, being a chef, picked out notes of cardamom and mace.  Dave opined that perhaps one day the prospect of bringing fresh stock of pumpkin ale into China could be profitable for the autumn season – Beaujolais Nouveau is released around the same time too, after all.  Then again, “it’s just beer” – which regrettably doesn’t command the same status/respect as wine, warranted or not.  (EDIT: Better yet, somebody should simply try brewing it here in China!)

Now onto the main course.  Gobble gobble

I’m personally not a huge fan of turkey.  I like it, but it’s nothing special, even when cooked tenderly and with a crispy flavorful skin.  I’m all about the stuffing, to be honest.  It was with this in mind that I chose a biere de garde. Well, that and the fact Garrett Oliver (renowned beer author and the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery) considers biere de garde THE drink to have with Thanksgiving dinner.  Let me explain…

As with saison, biere de garde is also a farmhouse ale style.  However, in northern France (French Flanders, Nord-pas de Calais, Picardy) the style that grew out of their agrarian tradition is often less spicy, less hoppy, and more herbal, more bready, more earthy.  The malts used are often kilned longer than those in saisons, and therefore many bieres de garde (but not all) come in a coppery, light amber color, with notes of biscuit, toast, or sometimes even toffee or caramel.  Two Brothers’ Domaine DuPage adheres to this style, and again is a showcase of how American craft brewing now produces beers that can stand up to the best that Europe has to offer.

It is precisely in the herbal, earthy tones, accompanied by a subtler fruit presence (less tropical, and more towards pears and caramelized apples), that I find biere de garde shines when paired with holiday meals – especially if the bird’s stuffing is filled with herbs like sage or thyme.  Gentler in bitterness than saisons (generally speaking), this is also of benefit since the Western, turkey-centric holiday table usually isn’t about bold or audacious flavors.

Interestingly, Dave noticed hints of maple syrup, while Brandon detected notes of honey in his glass.  I believe I remarked that Domaine DuPage is Two Brothers’ best-selling item, despite biere de garde remaining practically unheard of or at least under-appreciated – even in some craft beer circles.

Back to the stuffing… if I had anything at all even remotely “negative” to say about the food that St. Regis prepared for us, it would only be that they “skimped” somewhat on the stuffing, perhaps since I had hoped to emphasize that aspect of the pairing.  All we got were a couple small, haute-cuisine-inspired, reshaped “medallions” of stuffing on our plate.  (Then again, maybe I’m just accustomed to my mom making extra heaps upon heaps of Southern-style, cornbread-and-chestnut stuffing  – she first encountered Thanksgiving in Texas, where she was going to university.)  That said, the giblet gravy was nice – the subtle organ/offal character was a nice match with both the sweetness and the rustic farmhouse notes in the beer.  Between this and the saison, I think it’s safe to say that farmhouse ales scored a victory this evening.

(As another side note – biere de garde is another fantastic partner with cheese, including the smelliest washed-rind varieties that France has to offer…)

For dessert, I introduced Southern Tier’s Mokah Imperial Stout.  It’s essentially a blend of their Javah and Choklat imperial stouts, the former brewed with Jamaican coffee and the latter with Belgian chocolate.  Again, few of the attendees had ever had an imperial stout before, and I admittedly chose quite a brash one for their “initiation”.  I had a choice of chocolate or coffee flavors for the cake itself, but opted for chestnut – I wanted the beer’s ingredients to speak for themselves. (For instance, look at how the pumpkin soup got slightly overwhelmed by the Pumking.)Boyce quickly remarked how it reminded him of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.  Not that I – or anyone at the table – regard Hershey’s as “good” chocolate, but we all agreed the resemblance was striking.  The beer was indeed syrupy – a high gravity, combined with heavily roasted malts and lots of residual sugars, contributed to a thick and viscous mouthfeel.  The roasted malt, cocoa, coffee and hops added up to an intense bitterness that arguably surpasses even the “typical” imperial stout.  This was a shot of espresso and an intense dark chocolate all rolled into one.

With our esteemed guests intrigued once again, I stayed along this path and proceeded with one of the extra beers I had brought along.  As some complimentary cookies, coffee and tea were being served to close out our evening, I cracked open a bottle of Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel.  Originally meant as a gift to Boyce, the sole Canuck in our midst, we just couldn’t help ourselves.  From an iconoclastic Quebecois brewery, this imperial stout is also brewed with coffee, although this time a “fair-trade” variety (region unspecified).  Without the chocolate, and with much less residual sugar than the Mokah, this was truly the “beer for caffeine addicts” (Dave’s words).

A round of applause for Oscar, assistant manager Vicky Dong, and our head server for the night, Ivy.  And of course our gratitude to the rest of the staff, both inside and outside of the kitchen.  It was a great evening.

(NOTE: Thanks to Jim Boyce for the additional photos.  When he finds the time out of his busy schedule, he will try to provide some of his extensive tasting notes as well.)

*UPDATE: Oscar has since moved onto another assignment within the Starwood Hotels network (parent company of St. Regis).

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