The fine beer experience
Wednesday, March 2, 2005
By JOHN PETRICK
Neill Acer's ability to pair food with beer has nothing to do with hot dogs and pretzels.
With a zeal that rivals a fine wine aficionado's, Acer selects just the right brew for just the right dish.
"It's a hard concept to get comfortable with," says Acer, brewmaster at The West End bar and restaurant in Manhattan. "When people think of beer, they usually think of a can and a cooler and a stadium."
At The West End's ale-pairing dinners, fine house-brewed beers are associated with six-course gourmet meals. The purpose is simple: Pair each beer with each dish to bring out the best in both, matching contrasting or complementary flavors.
"It's a great way to introduce people to the complexity of beer when paired with food," said Acer, 33, a Waldwick resident.
After studying at the World Brewing Academy in Chicago, Acer went on to win two gold medals from the World Beer Cup and has contributed to similar beer-pairing evenings at such restaurants as Oscar's in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "I've done everything from crocodile gumbo paired with a German-style Grolsch all the way to chocolate beers paired with a nice chocolate dessert," he said.
The West End's $60 ale-pairing dinner on a recent Saturday started with an Oktoberfest beer and tiny chicken-stuffed risotto cake hors d'oeuvres served by a roaming wait staff. As patrons noshed and sipped, they socialized in the restaurant's gritty back room, where vintage photographs fill the walls and a big, old-fashioned beer barrel hangs from the ceiling. It was an impromptu cocktail hour in saloon tradition.
Acer poured the first-course beer from behind the bar as he talked with diners about the art of beer-making.
"If you went to get fresh bread, you went to the bakery. What Prohibition did was, it shut down all the bakeries, and all that precious knowledge was gone," he said. "When Prohibition ended, you had stronger breweries that now had technology on their side. They produced beer faster and cheaper than ever before. The wilder, funkier, artisanal beers fell by the wayside."
Microbrews and brewpubs like The West End have brought some of that tradition back. Now brewmasters like Acer are teaming up with chefs, such as The West End's Conrado Ramos, to bring fine beer to the dining table.
Patrons - seated for the remaining courses, and a little chattier thanks to the Oktoberfest's kick - sampled Imperial Stout served with a light wild mushroom and fennel soup.
Then came a pale ale, with grilled scallops, roasted corn and red pepper relish. The salad was almost a meal in itself: arugula, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, Anjou pears and balsamic vinegar, served with Kero Whack beer. For the main course, a Christmas beer accompanied smoked breast of Muscovy duck in fresh sage and merlot reduction. And for dessert, a dark, sweet chocolate beer came with assorted fresh berries and sabayon sauce.
All that beer and food sound a little intimidating? Not really. The portions are modest so you don't feel bloated. Given there are six courses, you don't leave the table feeling hungry, either. The steady stream of food also tempers the effects of alcohol.
"We're looking to give you a taste experience, not get you loaded like you're at a fraternity party," Acer said, noting that people can, of course, drink as much or as little of each course's ale as they wish.
Wine and food pairings get a lot of attention, but all beverages play an important role at the table by stimulating and refreshing the palate. Beers most often considered food-friendly are those with refreshing acidity that cleanses the palate and prepares it for more flavors.
The process of pairing food with beer is an ethereal one. A lot of it comes down to taste-testing. That, and a little verbal improvisation between chef and brewmaster - just bouncing ideas back and forth, says chef Ramos.
"He's Irish, I'm Mexican," he said with a laugh, noting that their eclectic sensibilities somehow match up perfectly when planning a menu together. "He would say, 'Well, how about a chocolate beer?' I would say, 'I like it, but I don't know if I can serve chocolate cake with a chocolate beer. What about blueberries?' He'd say, 'I like it!'Ÿ" And so on.
"It's wonderful for me, because I can sit down with the chef and talk shop," Acer added. "I'm not a chef, but I've done a lot of cooking. I sit down with him and talk about the different spices, and what the beer has to offer ... it all depends on what you want to bring out of the dish - whether you want to complement, or contrast. If you want, for example, a spicy dish to be cooled by the beer, or if you want that spice profile enhanced by a hoppy beer," he added.
West End co-owner Katie Gardner said the concept was new to her, but she immediately warmed to it.
"We just figured it would be fun, different, and in our minds it would be something original. In some ways, it works even better than wine," said Gardner, whose co-owners are her husband, Jeff Spiegel, and Kirk Michel. The restaurant and bar, located just across from the Columbia University campus, is a 90-year-old institution on the Upper West Side and has been hangout to such legends as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac - for whom a beer is named.
The owners decided about two years ago to start brewing their own beer on the premises as a way to freshen the spirit of the place. The idea of pairing those beers with the menu seemed like an interesting next step, Gardner said.
"To me, it was a very original idea and one that would give us a chance to highlight our food and our new beers," she said.
Gardner admitted she was a little nervous about the debut of the dinner. And though the first round of beer tapped out a bit on the foamy side, getting the night off to an inauspicious start, the event quickly found its tone and the kinks gradually worked themselves out.
The beer dinners, which will be held monthly and feature different menus, are a work-in-progress. Gardner said they had toyed with the idea of having community tables, where strangers would be seated together to add some spice to the evening. While they opted not to do so the first time out, they may have a community table in the future for those looking to discover not only a new dining experience, but new people.
The next ale-pairing dinner at The West End in Manhattan takes place on Saturday, March 5, 2005. For information visit TheWestEndNyc.com or call Katie Gardner at (212) 662-8830. The West End is at 2911 Broadway, between 113th and 114th streets.
Golden or blonde ale, American wheat ale, lightly hopped lagers. Good with super-hot food, such as blackened redfish, Buffalo wings, chili.
Weissbier, dunkelweiss. Stick with delicate foods: cream soup, pasta primavera or light cheeses, as well as lightly flavored vegetarian dishes such as grilled vegetables.
Amber ale. Good all-around beer for savory dishes: sandwiches, hearty soups and pizzas. Also a good thirst-quencher for barbecue or Mexican food.
Bitter, pale ale, India pale ale, German/Bohemian pilseners. Good matches are fried seafood or anything with vinegar as a main ingredient. They complement smoked, boiled, steamed or broiled seafood. The fruitier pale ales complement lamb, beef, game and liver pâté.
English or American brown ale. Hamburgers and sausages are hearty enough for either of these. English brown matches nicely with smoked fish, while game dishes can stand up to American brown.
Porter, dry or oatmeal stout. These go well with hearty fare: meat dishes with gravy, barbecue, shepherd's pie, stew. Oysters are also ideal. Both these beers and the brown ales stand up to stronger cheeses such as sharp cheddar and blue.
Cream or sweet stout, imperial stout. These are made for chocolate, and imperial stout pairs especially well with dark chocolate. Also chocolate-and-fruit desserts, or something with caramel or pecans.
Vienna lager/Oktoberfest/Marzen, dark lager, bock. The lagers cut the heaviness in sauce-based meat dishes - chicken paprikash, goulash or pork rouladen. Also pair with pretzels and mustard. Sweeter bocks, such as doppelbocks, complement heartier, spicier desserts, such as pumpkin pie or spice cake.
Fruit beers, lambics. Pair with light fruit desserts such as soufflés or chiffon cake, but sour ones will probably overwhelm fruit flavors. Lambics also pair well with dark chocolate and entrées prepared with fruit such as raspberry-glazed duck breast.
Old ale, barley wine. Try with a really strong cheese or a piece of super-dark chocolate.
Source: Beertravelers .com