Big Beers Belgians and Barleywines Oh My!

By Julia Herz

Working for the Brewers Association definitely has its perks. I sometimes have the good fortune to receive invitations to sample craft beer in interesting situations, often with craft brewers. Due to work deadlines, events, projects, my two young children, etc., I cannot always attend the tastings no matter how enticing the experience sounds. However, on a day in late 2009, in preparation for the 10th Annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival held in Vail, Colorado, my BA colleague, Andy Sparhawk, and I received an invitation we couldn’t refuse. We were offered a chance to talk beer and food while sampling craft beers from both Avery Brewing Company and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery at the Avery Tap Room located in Boulder, Colorado, near our offices.

The purpose of the tasting was to provide input to Chef Adam Votaw of the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa, who will create a pairing menu for the Big Beers Brewmasters’ Calibration Dinner to be held on January 7th, 2010. Others present at the tasting included Adam Avery, JoAnne Knipmeyer (Big Beers assistant organizer), Laura Lodge (Big Beers organizer), Amy Phillips (Vail Beaver Creek Magazine), Chef Votow and several members of the Avery sales and brewing team, all with amazing palates.

From the Big Beers Web Site: The format of the Brewmasters’ Dinners is rather unique. It is a “double” beer pairing in the full sense of the term. The chef for each dinner is challenged to design a menu around the creations that the Brewmasters offer. Each course features one beer from each brewery, therefore considerably more difficult than a single pairing for each.

By the way, if you’ve never attended a beer dinner, now is the time as small and independent American craft brewers  (this includes more than 90% of the 1,525 breweries in the US) are making some of the best beers in the world. Craft brewery personnel commonly help orchestrate the dinner menu and are often present at the events. In my opinion, since craft beer is so complex, versatile and diverse, beer dinners are much more interesting than wine dinners.

How did the tasting go? We sampled five beers from Avery Brewing Company. This included their barrel aged Sui Generis, a sour ale fermented with Brettanomyces (a wild yeast that creates barnyard-like characteristics), and DuganA, a new earthy IPA brewed with three hops producing 93 International Bittering Units. We also sampled five beers from Dogfish Head including Burton Baton and Midas Touch. Burton Baton is a very smooth blended beer with a bitter base rounded out nicely by malt sweetness. Midas Touch is a dry ale with more flavors than are possible to describe!

The process of sampling each beer then trying to decide which beers to serve together alongside the same dish is a cerebral challenge, but one that finds a natural order when you commit to the rule of matching strength with strength. Personally, I feel you cannot go wrong if you serve two beers together that have similar alcohol strength. That way, one beer does not barrel over the other (forgive the pun). The biggest challenge belongs to the chef, as he must decide what food to serve with two beers of similar alcoholic strength but vastly different flavor and aroma profiles.

During the tasting, we offered suggestions for foods that would either compliment or contrast with the 10 world class beers we sampled. We went around the room and stated flavor profiles of each beer we were tasting. Then we would suggest what food sounded good to either complement or contrast. Then we would all begin to salivate as Chef Adam or one of us in the room sounded out a vision for a complete dish that would work with the beer. Have you ever been camping and as you finish your journey and head back to your car you think about what food is going to be amazing to eat? I could practically taste what was going to be prepared as we discussed a dish to serve with each of the 10 beers!

Insider tip: Before leaving the Avery tasting room, I had to sample Old Jubilation, as I’m a sucker for seasonal beers and especially English strong ales during the cold winter months.

Photo © 2010 istockphoto.com

Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, is a homebrewer, BJCP beer judge and Certified Cicerone®. Despite her extensive experience, she will always consider herself a beer beginner on an unending journey to learn more about craft beer.

Read more from Julia Herz