Top chefs team up with craft brewers for increasingly popular beer dinners.
The chatter in Pig & Fiddle’s packed dining room slowly subsides like a theater audience at curtain time. Owner Mark van Wie steps to the front of the room to introduce the evening’s attraction. The south Minneapolis gastropub has orchestrated a five-course beer dinner in concert with fan favorite Surly Brewing.
Pig & Fiddle has hosted 10 of these dinners since opening in the fall of 2011, and they are hardly going rogue. As the Twin Cities’ brewing culture is popping like a Belgian bomber cork, restaurants and breweries are collaborating on dining events pairing specially designed dishes with artisanal beers.
“It’s a great way of getting people involved in good food and beer,” said Corey Shovein, Surly’s sales manager and certified cicerone (the beer version of a sommelier).
Shovein, who helped organize the event, and brewer Jerrod Johnson are there repping Team Surly, leading the convivial occasion, dishing beery details and fielding questions from the thirsty crowd of 50.
It’s showtime, and Act I is an amuse bouche of strawberries, aged goat cheese rubbed with cocoa powder, watercress and an apple cider gastrique on grilled sourdough bread. Its liquid companion is Diminished SeVIIn — a low-alcohol Belgian ale made from the malt and mash runoff of the then-unreleased SeVIIn.
Other edible entertainment includes an eye-brightening baby beet salad alongside Surly’s Bitter Brewer — hardly a side of fries schlepped with a Primo — chicken apricot sausage poached and paired with Furious and a smoking-bat, home-run entree of pork ribs with the loved and limited sour ale Pentagram.
Executive Chef Stephanie Kochlin, who occasionally emerges from the kitchen to discuss her pairings, returns after the ribs and receives a boisterous ovation. “I’m glad you guys liked it,” she says before giving the lowdown on dessert — a bitter-chocolate pudding cake sensually matched with Surly’s divinely rich Darkness.
Beer dinners have been springing up across the metro area, everywhere from Butcher & the Boar to Bar Abilene. While most involve local brewers, out-of-state beermakers are sometimes featured.
When Executive Chef Jeff Anderson opened Eat Shop Kitchen & Bar last September, the Plymouth restaurant started doing a dinner a month, selling out most of the 45-seat events. After a brief hiatus, Anderson is bringing them back with a Badger Hill beer dinner on Tuesday.
Since opening last summer, Minnetonka’s Badger Hill has participated in a few dinners. Co-founder Brittany Krekelberg said the nonpretentious pairing parties are both informal and informative, with beer geeks and makers eager to talk craft. “I don’t ever want to do a beer dinner that feels like a presentation,” she said. “That’s not fun.”
Local brews, local chefs
While wine pairings are a dining-out convention, beer dinners are still on the rise. Amid the Twin Cities’ brewery rush, beer banquets are occurring almost weekly. “Three or four years ago, you didn’t see them as much,” said Matty O’Reilly, co-owner of the Republic beer bars in Seven Corners and Uptown, which have hosted about 10 beer dinners. “That comes with the territory. We’ve got more local companies vying for their position in town and looking for draft lines. It’s good exposure for the new companies to show their versatility.”
Beer won’t supplant wine as dining’s top pairing partner anytime soon, but beer dinners are carving their culinary niche. Aside from being more accessible for consumers, Anderson says there are creative advantages to working with beer. “There are certain things that you can’t do with wine that you can do with beer,” he said. “You really don’t want to do a lot of spicy food in your wine pairings, but that’s something that’s totally cool to do with beers. You end up washing away some of that heat.”
Chefs often incorporate the showcased brews into particular dishes for special-event beer dinners. But at Nightingale in south Minneapolis, it’s done daily. Chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston steams her mussels with Boom Island’s Brimstone instead of a more traditional white wine. The Minneapolis-made Belgian tripel adds a “richer quality,” she said.
Finding new combinations
Figlio Executive Chef J.P. Samuelson recently brought suds suppers to the West End, launching a monthly summer series with local breweries in May that continues with a Lucid Brewing dinner Aug. 15. The former Solera chef said pushing beyond “no brainer” pairings — i.e. anything fried — can sometimes be challenging. Unlike wine, beer lacks the acidity to counteract its residual sugar abundance, he said.
Still, the less-obvious couplings can be the most rewarding, Samuelson said, recalling a time he teamed a strong pale ale from Excelsior Brewing with a caramel and tropical mango cheesecake. “It was one of the best food pairings I’ve ever had — beer or wine.”
Both Samuelson and Anderson start by dissecting the beer’s profile — sniffing and sipping as they would wine — and synchronizing their dishes with its flavors. Kochlin either aims to accent the beer’s notes or find contrasting combos, like slicing a fatty meat with a tart, sour beer.