Recently, I was privileged to dine with some of the men directing traffic at the intersection of beer and fine dining. Over the course of several hours and several drinks, I got to see firsthand how far the idea of pairing beer and food has advanced. There are even those out there proudly claiming that it has the potential to overtake wine as the beverage of choice at fancy-pants food pairings around the world. It got me thinking that it was time to pit beer and wine against each other in a duel to the death—food-pairing showdown.
To help, I enlisted winemaker and NYC Wine Class founder Andrew Harwood and Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver to choose wine and beer. I also got Harwood's longtime friend and current Brooklyn Brewery chef Andrew Gerson to choose a menu. If anyone could cook even-handedly for this battle, it would be him.
We all decided that, considering the advantages a sommelier might have in choosing from a wider array of international wines than from any vintage, there should be a price ceiling of about $40 a bottle to level the playing field.
Under such circumstances, can a single brewery match a wide-ranging meal as well as wine? We're about to find out.
Scallop and apple crudo, brown butter gel, basil oil, grapes, apple cider dashi
According to Gerson, this dish "combines the freshness and acidity of apples, the sweet saltiness of scallops and an earthy but tart apple cider with some umami notes. The brown butter gel provides the sense of a cooked scallop." I ask if I can drink the delicious dashi instead of beer or wine, but my request is denied.
BEER: Brooklyn Cuvée de la Crochet Rouge Rose [Belgian Strong Ale]
Oliver presents us with what he calls a "ghost bottle." It’s an experimental beer not sold to the public. The Rouge Rose starts out as Brooklyn's Local 1—a Belgian-inspired strong golden—which he puts into a second-use bourbon barrel with dead yeast sediment called lees (not as gross as it sounds) from Redhook Winery. It spends a year in the barrel, then re-ferments in the bottle for a nice, big final ABV of 10.2 percent.
WINE: 2010 Weingut Aigner, Grüner Veltliner, "Privat," Kremstal, Austria
Harwood says of his first wine: “It has some really nice richness to it—it's pretty classic Grüner. Still, it's fairly dry." Just like its beer counterpart, the unoaked wine is four years old, but it's still clean and fresh with plenty of acid. Oliver adds: "I haven't had that many Grüners like this that are reaching in a Riesling-ish direction with the aromatics."
The cleanliness of the wine certainly does help clear the palate after each bite of salty scallop, but even Harwood agrees that the beer has "more of an affinity with the dish." The beer's acidity cuts through the scallop, and the rich flavors from its barrel aging harmonize with the umami flavor of the dashi. "In a pairing, you can have contrast and you can have harmony. I want both at the same time—that's like the Holy Grail," Oliver says. He goes on to mention that this reminds him of the British phrase "slap and tickle," and we all blush like schoolgirls.
Coffee-rubbed venison loin, squash puree, roasted mushrooms
Gerson presents us with "a slightly tart, sweet butternut squash puree; roasted earthy wild chanterelle mushrooms; and a very light coffee rub that cuts through the rich, irony gaminess of the seared venison loin."
BEER: Brooklyn Quadraceratops [Strong Dark Abbey Ale]
Oliver's next contestant is a "relatively new-ish take on a Belgian abbey quadruple…made with highly caramelized sugar syrup." Its aromas are reminiscent of the surface of a crème brûlée and dark, dried fruit like raisins or prunes.
WINE: 2012 Domaine Faillenc Sainte Marie, Corbières, Languedoc, France
Harwood says that "traditionally, wine from Corbières is made from coarse, high-yielding grapes such as Cinsaut or Carignane," but this version is 70 percent Syrah with some Grenache and Cinsaut blended in. It's also unoaked but does have a touch of funk due to the presence of some Brettanomyces (a wild yeast strain). Overall, Harwood summarizes, "it's firm, it's dense, it's tight—it's got meat, it's got spice."
The beer is delicious on its own; but although its charred flavor pairs nicely with the seared venison, the wine seems to work much better with the food than the beer. The beer and the dish are too similar, whereas the pop of fruit in the wine complements the sweet meat, and its subtle tannins cut through the very light fat. Plus, drinking wine with venison makes me feel like a wealthy Game of Thrones character.
Though he didn't make it himself, Gerson is excited to bestow upon us a cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont made from whole raw milk. It's dense and creamy, with a fudgy texture and sweet grass and toasted nut notes.
BEER: Brooklyn Hand & Seal (20th anniversary Barleywine)
The Hand & Seal, which is part of the Brooklyn Quarterly Experiment to celebrate Oliver’s 20th anniversary at the brewery, is a "classical British barleywine aged about nine months in Four Roses barrels and then re-fermented in the bottle." The intensely rich caramel flavors are not owed to caramel malts but the result of a long boil—or, as Oliver calls it, "earned caramel."
WINE: 2013 Conte Vistarino, Sangue di Giuda dell'Oltrepo Pavese, "Costiolo," Lombardy, Italy
At 7 percent ABV and with plenty of residual sugar, this wine is as easy drinking as it gets. "It's soft, slightly effervescent…sweet and delicate," Harwood explains. He points out that there are "tons and tons of wild strawberry notes upfront. It's young, it's fresh, it's elegant…but there's a cotton candy nature to it as well." Oliver jokingly braces himself for the war between the drinks: "Oh, boy…you're saying you’ve got ‘cotton candy,' and I'm like, 'I have a novel by Dostoyevsky!'" He obviously doesn’t think it will be a fair fight.
Oliver's Crime and Punishment triumphs over Harwood's Hop on Pop! Hey, Dr. Seuss was a genius in his own right—much like this wine, which is simple, sweet and certainly lovely on its own (I later went for a second glass). But the rich, dense, caramel flavors of the beer provide an absolutely perfect balance to the funky cheese. If I have to wait another 20 years for Oliver to brew this again, I'm taking him hostage.
Blue Stove pear-ginger fruit pie
For dessert, Gerson recommended we pick something up from The Blue Stove, which serves up some of Brooklyn's finest baked goods and rolls out each of their small batch pies by hand. Their fillings are made from only seasonal ingredients, such as the fresh pear and ginger that went into our pie tonight.
BEER: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
One of Brooklyn's all-time classics, the Black Chocolate Stout has a dark chocolate aroma from its six-malt bill and months of aging. Bursting with roasted chocolate flavor, blessed with a thick and creamy mouthfeel and weighted by its 10 percent ABV, this "imperial" stout deserves its appellation.
WINE: 2013 Eric Bordelet, Sparkling Perry, "Poiré Granit," Normandy, France
"Perry" is technically pear cider, but we'll all agree that for our purposes, this perry is close enough to sparkling wine. It was made with heirloom pears from 300-year-old trees in southern Normandy, and due to the tannin and acidity of the pears it drinks like a very dry wine.
Gerson points out how the pear in the wine elevates the pear in the pie, while the stout brings the pie "back down to earth." Each beverage provides a different solution to the same problem, but I happen to agree with Oliver here, who likens the relationship between the pie and stout to the relief from cookies brought by milk. (Although I can't remember ever getting this drunk from milk as a kid.)
So? Who won? Can hopheads rejoice in crushing their grape-loving nemeses? Or did beer have an unfair home-court advantage that nullifies this competition as a draw?
The truth is, no one alcoholic beverage can be the universal champion of pairing. Harwood, for one, seems deeply excited by the beers tasted tonight, vowing to seek out a bottle of the Hand & Seal in the future (although he may have to fight me for it). Meanwhile, Oliver, impressed by the wines, questions why anyone would want to limit their options to hops and barley alone: "You're writing a symphony. Do you want half of the instruments and half of the notes, or do you want all of the instruments and all of the notes? I want everything."
So the next time you're tasked with choosing what to drink with dinner, forget about which beverage is "superior" and think about which might potentially best heighten each course for you in that very moment. Forget the rules your parents taught you and have a beer with your apps, a glass of wine with your main course,and Kool-Aid with dessert, if that's what you’re into. Why cheat yourself when you can treat yo self?