One of the surest signs of how far beer culture in Atlanta has progressed is the number of fine dining restaurants that now treat beer with the kind of respect once reserved for wine and spirits.
Recently, Woodfire Grill bar manager Blake Morley invited me to taste a trio of dishes he and chef de cuisine E.J. Hodgkinson were trying out as pairings for three different large format beers.
“We put together some nice dishes, two savory and one dessert, to go with the beers,” Morley explained as we sat down one afternoon and munched on an amuse-bouche of spiced Pink Lady apple and caramel popcorn.
“This is kind of meant to mimic what we’d do on a tasting menu.” Morley said. “Where we want to go with this is to be able to do a five-course or seven-course menu. The large format beers give us the flexibility to do that.”
For those not familiar with the term, large format simply means bigger bottles — usually 22 ounces or 750 milliliters, sometimes with yeast added, and often corked and caged, like champagne.
Fine dining restaurants often favor large format bottles because they can be shared and make for a more elegant presentation, especially when served in a wine bucket.
For the first course, Morley and Hodgkinson paired the Belgian classic, Westmalle Tripel Trappist Ale, with wood-grilled, honey-lacquered local quail, chestnut puree with cardamom, red cabbage with charred onion, chestnuts, medjool dates, and za’atar spice mix.
Westmalle Tripel is strong but refined and very food friendly, with an aromatic, herbal character that plays well with spice and perfect for the sweet, slightly gamey flavor of the quail and all the varied notes of the cardamom, cabbage, chestnuts, dates and za’atar.
The second course brought together North Coast Grand Cru and wood-smoked Berkshire pork loin and belly, plated with sunchoke and black truffle puree, braised greens, candied quince, celery root gremolata and quince gastrique.
Grand Cru is brewed with pilsner malt and agave nectar, fermented with Belgian yeast, and aged in oak bourbon barrels. The result is a big beer with a subtle complexity and a champagne-like presence. The pairing slowly revealed the dynamic aromas and flavors of the beer around the smokiness of the pork and the earthy essence of the sunchoke, truffle and greens.
Finally, the third course made a playful match of Lagunitas Bavarian-style Doppel Weizen with pretzel sugar-covered doughnuts, caramel, candied apples and ale ice cream made by pastry chef Chrysta Poulus.
The hazy German-style strong wheat beer exhibits lots of bready-yeasty flavor, along with fruity and spicy notes of banana, clove and nutmeg that all together made a outstanding match for the doughnuts and candied apples.
“I look at these beers in the same way I would wine,” Morley said. “I choose beers that can go with the variety of foods we serve. Food will always be No. 1. But what I bring to the table helps complement the food and expand the experience. I believe that fine dining and fine beer go hand in hand.”
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog
Bob Townsend is editor of Southern Brew News, a bimonthly beer publication distributed throughout the Southeast: www.brewingnews.com/southernbrew