Beer Dinners Hit New Heights [Trends]

Labeling a special beer, Local 11, for a once-in-a-lifetime dinner at Eleven Madison Park (Photo: Nathan Rawlinson)

Here’s a report I put together for Food & Wine’s Mouthing Off site—CDB

American craft beer’s surge into the spotlight has taken many forms, but until relatively recently, beer dinners in ultra fine dining settings were generally considered oddities, one-offs, or experiments rather than the norm. No longer: American brewers from the likes of Allagash in Maine, Oregon’s Deschutes, and Deleware’s Dogfish Head are working with top tier chefs from Thomas Keller of Per Se to Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns to present beers and foods well-matched—and fun—to try together.

Recently the beer dinner concept hit a new zenith with a collaboration between New York’s Brooklyn Brewery and Eleven Madison Park, this year’s James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant – 2011. For the event, held on June 26 at the restaurant, Brewmaster Garrett Oliver worked with Chef Daniel Humm, General Manager Will Guidara, and Dining Room Manager/beer coordinator Kirk Kelewae to create a menu almost entirely from scratch, including a beer never before tasted outside the brewery, Local 11.

Made by aging the dark, abbey-style ale Brooklyn Local 2 in 20-year old Pappy Van Winkle whiskey barrels, it had bever been tasted outside the brewery before the dinner. “He [Garrett] really opened my eyes in a big way,” said Humm. “It [craft beer] works really well with food, and there’s so much to it,” said Humm, speaking of how beer pairs with the kind of rarified techniques and ingredients that make Eleven Madison Park number 24 on the list of the world’s top 50 restaurants. “And it’s not just rustic food the way you always think of it…sausages and stuff like that…but it works with really refined food, because the beers are really refined.”

Unlike most beer dinners—perhaps any other beer dinner that has ever taken place—the collaboration started with the beers, not the menu. “We’re getting a chance to show the real creative evolution of the brewery,” Oliver told me as guests sipped on an aperitif beer called The Concoction, inspired by the classic Penicillin cocktail and redolent of whisky, ginger, lemon, and honey. “Usually these things are done by email,” Oliver continued.”The chef sends me a menu, I send back the pairings, and then I’ll go do the dinner. And it often turns out wonderfully. This time, the Chef [Humm], Sous Chef, General Manager [Guidara], Dining Room Manager [Kelewae] and six people [restaurant cooks and servers] came out to the brewery and spent three and a half hours tasting with us, and then went back with the beers, and developed the menu in the other direction. This is a whole new way to do things.”

The event was entirely sold out and attended by numerous critics (including GQ’s Alan Richman) and guests who drove from as far away as Boston. Highlights included a foie gras terrine with strawberry, yuzu, and black pepper paired with Wild 1, a beer brewed in 2008 and aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels and then refermented with Brettanomyces, the earthy, fickle yeast strain prized by Belgian brewers, and Pennsylvania’s Four Story Hill Farm suckling pig with apricot and cardamom, paired with the Local 11. Oliver, for his part, was ecstatic. “I’ve done 700 beer dinners, but this is the ultimate.” What’s more, the evening felt relaxed and light, not uptight. Humm was enormously pleased as well. “It was really fun—we just really enjoyed it.” The diners did, too.

Here’s a photo gallery from former Eleven Madison Park Sommelier turned professional photographer Nathan Rawlinson and a short video report.

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