Nestled on the outskirts of the cavernous hangar at the Great American Beer Festival is something we can all get behind, where educated guesses have been made for our pure, hedonistic enjoyment. Paired is an extracurricular activity offered to a limited quantity of fest-goers that unites 21 breweries and notable chefs from around the country to create a dish for each of two beers. 42 beer-food pairings. It offers the answer to an ultimate question: is life a hallucination?
The answer, based on my experience at Paired: probably.
Given my residence in Oregon, I chose to focus on the two Oregon breweries, Ninkasi and Ecliptic, that took part in Paired. Looking at a menu like this one can be daunting, confusing, and supremely appetizing all at once. But these chefs are no slouch, and arranged seemingly diametrically opposed flavor notes into multi-track harmonies.
From my adopted home of Eugene, Ninkasi Brewing was hooked up with The Granary ‘Cue & Brew from San Antonio, Texas. The Granary produces scratch barbecue using local, responsibly sourced meats and vegetables, as do most of the restaurants represented at Paired.
These pairings were anything but “slathered.” Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA drank alongside a bite of smoked brisket pastrami, sauerkraut aioli, and a dusting of crisply toasted rye bread crumbs. Yes, a reconstructed Reuben. In this case, the meat, gloriously tender and smoky, won out over the balanced nature of the beer. But it occurred to me: hops and smoke? How does that work?
On a molecular level I don’t know, but the second pairing took the concept and turned it to 11. Tricerahops is Ninkasi’s Imperial IPA. Brashly bitter and hoppy with a sweet-ish malt sensation, I imagined it screaming hoppy metal over the savory lullaby of smoked black cod on a brushing of hopped miso paste, and topped with a simple blueberry (which may have been pickled). Instead, a new spectrum of flavor happened in my mouth. Suddenly, Tricerahops was tamed. Instead of reeling from the fire a la Frankenstein’s monster, it made friends—even cuddled—with the smoky, still-saline codfish. The savory, bitter miso and sweet, mildly acidic blueberry lent lively staccato.
Hops and smoke are rarely paired that way even in beer, but I now look forward to the opportunity to try more.
Moving on down the line I found Ecliptic’s John Harris grinning impishly, pouring samples of Carina Peach Sour and Quasar Pale Ale. The pairings at this table, with Shift FLG in Flagstaff, Arizona, were novel in both flavor and texture. Chefs Dara and Joe Rodger know the importance of paying attention to and adjusting the levels of all the elements of taste, as a studio engineer uses a mixing board. At Paired they spliced beer seamlessly into the bites.
Carina is a pale kettle-soured beer with a juicy-but-not-sweet dose of peaches, tart but dignified. Dara Rodger made a duck liver mousse and sandwiched it in a bun of quarter-sized pickled peach macaroons. Having a mirror image of the beer in the macaroon was fun, and duck is a perfect meat to pair with fruit. Once bitten, the macaroon took on a gummy, chewy texture that stuck in my teeth… until the beer came along and dissolved it tout de suite with a bright flourish.
Quasar (‘quasi-stellar radio source’ for you astronomy novices) is a pale ale hopped neo-classically with Simcoe and Mosaic. Joe Rodger made a daring move and went vegetarian. His vegetable “rillettes” with lemon ricotta and a spent grain cracker, all topped with a carrot “bacon” dust, played call-and-response with the tropical hop notes of the Quasar. The carrot bacon dust lent a good bit of saltiness and smokiness to the dish, and with the beer (here’s hops and smoke again!) played a tug-of-war between thirst-inducing and -quenching. The texture of the vegetable rillettes was a trifle awkward (culinary zoomorphism is rarely effective, or appetizing), but found its friend in the humble malt base of the beer. The cracker’s toothsome crunch kept the pairing from stagnating by breaking up the rillettes like granola in yogurt.
Of the 13 other pairings I was able to… you know the feeling… my overall favorite was also one of the most simple in execution, and exemplifies how high quality ingredients make all the difference. At that moment, the ambient volume decreases and your body hums with the rapt pleasure of discovery.
Grand Teton served up its dry-hopped, barrel-aged Brett Saison with an Emersum oyster on the half-shell, and an a la carte dosing of a mignonette made with the beer, from Jax Fish House in Denver. No, not Rocky Mountain oysters.
Bookending the tasting experience with beer is always best; a sip, a bite, a sip. This was no exception. The Brett Saison was a pairing on its own, with mellow wood tones and bright, new hop aroma in a simple, well-carbonated beer. When I slurped in the oyster (in an appropriately awkward fashion) and the mignonette rolled over my taste buds, the beer gods sang Hallelujah!
Events like Paired are rare, and very hard for chefs, who have to make about 1,000 good-looking, good tasting mini dishes for the two-day event. But the act of conceptualizing and actualizing a great beer-food pairing falls in the realm of genius. And should we, the willing and curious masses, choose to open our mouths and minds and allow flavor, aroma, and texture make untold connections between the nebulous memory packets in our brains, our collective consciousness (I’ll be unconscious later) increases in rhythm and harmony, and we grow.