Anyone who’s read The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver’s eloquent, foundation-laying book on the relationship between food and beer, already understands that creative pairing can take what is essentially a good meal and turn it into a memorable event.

However, for some of us, how you go about determining what types of foods work well with different styles of beers to provide that eye-opening cuilinary experience can be somewhat murky. Tools like Great Brewers interactive pairing guide are very useful, as well as several other resources including Beer Advocate and the Brewers Association (found on the right side of this page).

But as I learned at this year’s media luncheon at the Great American Beer Festival, all you really need to remember about beer and food pairing are the three C’s, according to Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association and one of the country’s more than 50 certified Cicerones (the beer world’s version of a sommelier).

“Finding the beer styles that either complement, contrast, or cut the flavor profiles of food is the real key,” Herz said. “Matching the strength of the food with the strength of the beer is very important.”

For example, a classic complementary pairing would be a nice, malty stout with chocolate cake, as the rich, sweet flavor profiles work to elevate the experience of each. On the flipside, pairing an earthy bleu cheese with a hoppy, bitter IPA is an example of contrasting flavors, with the beer’s bitterness also helping to cut the fattyness of the cheese.

Beyond flavor, beer is also very useful for cleansing the palate, as the fine bubbles work to scrub the tongue with each sip and prepare you for the next bite, unlike wine which has no carbonation.

To showcase these concepts, we were treated to a fantastic five-course meal that included several expert pairings presented by brewmasters from around the country. As I discovered, it’s one thing to have a nice meal and appreciate how a fine craft beer augments the experience. It’s a whole different thing to sit next to the person who brewed that beer, as I did with Brett Porter at Deschutes Brewery, and discuss their thought process that went into making the beer and how they feel it works with the dish.  

Munich and Chocolate Malt, Cascade and Saaz Hops
Our meal started off with more of an educational session on the core ingredients of beer, using a handful of malts and different hop varieties to demonstrate how these components impart their flavors in the finished beer. Love the smell of fresh hops. 

First Course
Buffalo Carpaccio with Avocado Tile and Cajun BBQ Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits

Paired with Manana Amber Lager, Del Norte Brewing and Rocksy Stein Lager, Bend Brewing


A wonderful combination of sweet flavors from the thinly sliced meat and barbequed shrimp that worked well with both beers, but for different reasons. The Manana Amber Lager from Del Norte cut the Cajun spice in its slight bitterness, and the Stein Lager from Bend Brewing delivered a complementary profile thanks to the caramelized wort, a result of the 300 pounds of red hot granite brewmaster Tonya Cornett dropped into the seven barrel batch. 

DSC03065Second Course
Organic Greens with Macadamia Nuts, Colorado Peaches, Jicama and a White Balsamic Vinaigrette
Paired with Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, The Bruery

The acidic vinegar and fruit were fantastic with the biting sourness of the Berliner Weisse. The intense effervescence of the beer, akin to a champagne, helped to refresh the palate for each wonderful bite.


Third Course
Hibiscus Flower Granite with Fresh Horseradish
Paired with Long’s Peak Raspberry Wheat, Estes Park Brewery
While the beer was great, I found the food to be somewhat distasteful, what seemed like a raspberry snow-cone gone bad. I understood their intentions in coupling the sharp tang of the horseradish with the citric raspberry of the beer, but the dish didn’t do it for me.

Fourth Course
Three Day Beef Cheek with Mashed Potatoes and baby Root Vegetables
Paired with Black Butte Porter, Deschutes Brewery


As we savored this expertly constructed dish, Brett Porter at Deschutes entertained us with his favorite English saying, “beef steak and porter make good belly mortar.” The dish was anything but a lead weight in my stomach, perfectly complemented by Brett’s Black Butte Porter that he explained is the country’s best selling porter, even though they only distribute to 14 states primarily in the west (amazing!).

Fifth Course
Molten Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut Brown Ale Gelato and Garnish of Fresh Chinook Hop
Paired with Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale, Rogue Ales and Maracaibo Especial Brown Ale, Jolly Pumpkin
The density of the cake was amazing, with the gelato elevating the dish with a creamy texture that really worked for me. Sebbie Buhler at Rogue explained that Oregon is the nation’s largest producer of hazelnuts, accounting for 97% of production, and it’s clear they’ve perfected the incorporation of the ingredient in their beer. Both the Rogue Hazelnut Brown and Jolly Pumpkin’s offering were a nice way to cap off what was a very memorable meal.



DSC02131Flat Earth Brewing has a pretty good thing going over in St. Paul.

Stopped in last week to check out their growler selection and have another sample of their Cygnus X-1 porter, which I recently reviewed. It was clear from my first experience with Cygnus I was the unfortunate recipient of one of their off bottles from the Flanders Red yeast incident. However, a completely different experience this time around fresh from the brewery…Cygnus is such a nice porter, rich and robust with the right balance of dark malts and subtle hops. I really enjoyed it, and felt a little like a freeloader taking more than my fair share of free samples they were offering up at the growler table. But I eventually bought a couple growlers, so it all evened out.

One of those growlers consisted of Flat Earth’s Xanadu, their fairly limited availability orange-infused version of Cygnus X-1 that proved to be endlessly intriguing the more I tried it. Xanadu kicks off with a potent citrus nose, which is of course not the kind of thing you’d expect in this style, but it’s exactly the reason why this beer is so delicious and unique. Owner Jeff Williamson mentioned they give each growler a shot of their homemade orange extract to give it that effect, a combination of orange fruit, zest, and maybe some kind of liqueur (if memory serves me correctly). On the back end, the roasted chocolate sneaks in to round things out in the aroma, giving the beer a deeply satisfying quality you come to expect in a well-crafted porter or stout. It’s such a nice combination.

The flavor is just as intense…some serious chocolate and roasted malt up front with a nicely biting, slightly acidic citrus finish. Reminded me of those orange truffles you get around the holidays. The more I drank Xanadu, the more I liked it. But after a couple glasses, the orange characteristic did overwhelm the senses, even giving me a bit of heartburn. In some respects, I’d almost consider Xanadu a dessert beer, something to savor slowly while paired with a nice vanilla cheesecake or even drizzled over ice cream.  

Rating: B+

DSC02091It’s American Craft Beer Week, sponsored by the Brewers Association. And for some reason, I’m not that excited about it.

Maybe part of it is the same attitude and tone I keep hearing from other craft advocates out there, who really like taking the David vs. Goliath approach to the macrobrewers and their herd of uneducated drinkers, talking about “dispassionate consumers” who don’t know much (or in my opinion, care) about what goes into their beer.


Quality of ingredients and traditional brewing practices certainly play a significant role in the craft movement. After all, it really is the defining differentiation from one beer to another. But I go back to my earlier post on the Greg Koch thing, and the discussion that ensued in the comments section, which I thought was a thoughtful conversation essentially focusing on the LOCAL angle to craft beer. Because as much as people want to take others to task on the whole “quality” of craft beer approach, I feel much more strongly that choosing to drink locally brewed, regional craft beer is going to be a much deadlier weapon in the war against beer mediocrity.

How can the big boys compete with that, if everyone patronized their local microbreweries? It rewards people who truly care about what they’re making, keeps money in the local community, and promotes the further innovation and creativity that we now know as a growing craft beer industry. Stop bitching about the fact that macrobrewers use corn adjuncts and focus their efforts on marketing a poorly developed product as “triple hopped” or replete with high levels of “drinkability”…because that’s never going to change. They’re selling an image, a consumer’s idealized perception of themselves, and it’s not about the beer. It’s about ensuring their shareholders get a dividend at the end of the fiscal year. Their bottom line is the almighty dollar. For the rest of us, who love craft beer, the bottom line needs to be about ensuring a strong local craft community, the definition of grassroots. As Tom over at Yours for Good Fermentables rightly said in his recent post on the same subject, “a loyalty first to local beer and to local brewers is the essential economic glue of our craft beer industry.”

But, I digress.

Befitting my soapbox gripes, I decided to commemorate the first official evening of American Craft Beer Week with a pretty unique local beer, Flat Earth’s Cygnus X-1 Porter, an homage to owner and head brewer Jeff Williamson’s favorite band, Rush. I’m surprised I’ve yet to review something from these guys based out of St. Paul, as I’ve already had a couple of their offerings such as the Pale Ale (decent) and Winter Warlock barleywine (satisfyingly complex). 

Cygnus X-1 poured with a nice deep brown coloring, and an overly active head that I’m not used to in most porters. But I’ve had the bottle for a while, so take it for what it’s worth. They brew this one with a bit of rye malt, and you definitely get that in the nose. Kind of a bready quality mixed with some light chocolate and roasted, smoky malt. They use some Fuggle hops, but I didn’t pick up much of it, which is somewhat expected I suppose. Interesting aroma overall, but not as rich as I’d like.

The taste is also interesting, in a good way. Not sure if this was their intention, but somewhat reminiscent of a milk stout in the sour, lactic quality*. Not the kind of thing you’d expect in a porter, but definitely unique and pretty enjoyable. The rye kicks in a bit toward the end, smoothing it out with some of the biscuit and bread flavors. A fairly thin mouthfeel that leaves you wanting a bit more, especially considering the style.  But at 6.5% ABV, it’s definitely a very drinkable beer.

Not bad, not great.  

Rating: B-

* Thanks to a few folks for pointing out the Flanders Red issue they had a while back. It seems clear I got one of the infected bottles. The sour quality wasn’t intended, so I’m hoping to give Cygnus another shot soon.

dsc017121Had a great time at yesterday’s FirkinFest at the Happy Gnome. Lots and lots of great beers, and very good conversations with some of the local brewers and other craft beer lovers.

I did a short write-up on the event for Heavy Table, which was a lot of fun to do and a nice way to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon.

In no particular order, here’s the full list of the beers I tried that may not have made it into the article:

  • Steamworks Oak-Aged Conductor IPA – nice and oaky, well-done
  • Dark Horse Plead the 5th Russian Imperial Stout – solid chocolate notes, nice finish
  • Surly Bitter Brewer – haven’t had this one before, and really enjoyed it, nicely balanced biscuit flavoring
  • Tyranena Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter – excellent, one of the better beers I had all day
  • Lift Bridge Kimono Girl Saison – very enjoyable, nice and citrusy
  • Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA – a hop blast
  • Brau Brothers Sheap’s Head Imperial Lucan Ale – very nice hop character, could be the best offering I’ve had from them
  • Bell’s Hop Slam – it’s Hop Slam…what else is there to say
  • Big Sky Dry-Hopped Scape Goat Pale Ale – smooth and refreshing
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Amarillo – great hoppy nose balanced by caramel malt
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Kent Goldings – more earthy and subtle version, enjoyable
  • Rush River Bubblejack IPA – have had this once before, not too impressed
  • Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout – surprisingly hoppy for the style, enjoyed it
  • Lagunitas Old Gnarlywine – not sweet enough for me, a little too much heat from the alcohol
  • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Year Reserve – definitely get the scotch cask in there, really liked it
  • Surly Tea-Bagged Furious – good, but not as hoppy as I’d expected it to be
  • Surly Oak-Aged Bender – fantastic
  • Left Hand Milk Stout – very enjoyable
  • Furthermore Three Feet Deep Dry Irish Stout – smokey and peatey, pretty good
  • Surly 16 Grit – amazing beer, slightly different than the first time I had it

dsc01681Tyranena Brewing out of Lake Mills, Wisconsin puts out some nice beers.

From what I can tell, they don’t get a very wide distribution in the Twin Cities compared to some other Wisconsin beers like say, oh, Miller Lite. But it’s around if you look. Of the three or four Tyranena offerings I’ve tried over the past few years, including Bitter Woman IPA and Rocky’s Revenge, they’ve all impressed me with their complexity and originality. Their Brewers Gone Wild Series takes this tradition one step further, giving us over-hopped, barrel-aged, imperialized beer hounds something to savor. And as part of the series, their Devil Made Me Do It! Coffee Imperial Oatmeal Porter didn’t disappoint.      

According to Tyranena, 60% of the beer is brewed with coffee beans (although I swear it smells like cold-pressed) and then aged in bourbon barrels, while the remainder is simply brewed with coffee beans and normally conditioned. Bring the two together, and you get an expertly balanced porter that makes you glad that the Devil was so persuasive.

Poured into a snifter with a jet black body and very minimal head. A big and robust coffee aroma hits you right away, and if I had to compare, very reminiscent of Surly Coffee Bender. No real hops to speak of. Some chocolate notes and a beautiful roasted quality also come through. So far so good. 

Taste is more of the roasted flavor and bittersweet chocolate. They certainly used some black patent malt, but not enough to give it a burnt, acidic quality like you get with some stouts. Heat from the 7.5% ABV does come through a bit, slightly accentuated as the subtle oaky bourbon flavor kicks in near the end. Finishes nicely with the help of the silky oatmeal to smooth out all the big flavors.

A truly enjoyable and drinkable beer.

Rating: A