This fall, a group of friends have been gathering in Shelter Cove to sample bottle after bottle of "Pacific Rim" beers. Red rice ale. Salt ale. Wheat beer. Citrus and salt beer. Their goal: Choose the six best, and then turn a chef loose to create a five-course meal that pairs each beer with an Asian-Pacific-inspired dish.
They are gearing up for a Nov. 14 pairing dinner benefitting the Beginnings Inc. schools in Briceland. They are also raising a flagon high for great food wedded with great beer.
I remember beer's dark ages and the frustration of reading a deliriously good dinner menu without a single beer that would do it justice. I drank a lot of water in those places, when I was dying to order a well-made, interesting beer.
Now, beer pairing dinners have gone from almost unheard of to merely infrequent. High-end restaurants are less likely to limit their beer lists to pathetic pilsners as mass produced as they are flavorless.
If you haven't given much thought to the ways that food and beer can best complement each other, this is a great time to get started.
This month's Ales 4 Nails 2.0 dinner, so named because it supports school building projects, should be fascinating, from the food to the brews to a brief talk on the beers being served. It's being organized by Julie Peacock and Josh Monschke of Shelter Cove (the couple behind Gyppo Ale Mill, now seeking an alternate site after failing to secure a water supply in Redway), and chef Harley Charron, a Miranda-based caterer.
Farther north this spring, look for a multi-course beer pairing dinner at Brick & Fire restaurant in Eureka. Owner/chef Jim Hughes puts on pairing dinners every six or seven weeks, most often with wine, but he featured beer early this year and more recently did a cider pairing dinner. Both were easier to plan than wine-pairing menus, Hughes says, because the wider range of sugars and acids in beer (and cider) gives him more foods to choose from.
In summer, Redwood Curtain brewery expects to bring back its weekly, two-course pairing suppers.
And pretty much every day, you can start educating your palate at 6 Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville, where co-owner Meredith Maier sets up food-plus-beer tastings for her wait staff and requires them to pass a Cicerone beer-serving course. The daily specials at her restaurant always include pairing suggestions.
Maier has staged pairing fundraisers, big dinners, appetizer events and informal gatherings, all revolving around how beer can enhance a food and vice versa. She plans another pairing dinner in January.
"This is one of my favorite things to do," Maier says, smiling. It's an infectious smile, the kind that invites you into the party. "If someone says, 'I'm not a beer person,' I say, 'Let me see if I can make you a beer person.'"
Maier sets out beer tasting glasses and little bites of food — a dollop of salad dressing, one chicken wing, a tiny haystack of barbecued pulled pork, two slivers of brownie. Beside us is a Brewer's Association pamphlet on food and beer.
Everyone's palate is different, so experiment and trust your own reactions. This tasting illustrates some general principals to start with. Maier's favorite tip: Sweet calms heat, so spicy foods like chicken wings taste milder with a cream ale and hotter with an IPA.
It's easy to find more advice: malty beers with stews, stouts with desserts, IPAs with spicy food. All oversimplify, but they're starting points. The Brewer's Association has an excellent, detailed pamphlet offering dozens of pairing ideas, from sushi to Szechuan.
"Craft beer has just as much right at the dinner table as any bottle of wine," the association's executive chef, Adam Dulye, told me over the phone last month. "In some cases, it can pair in a better way than wine. Generally, it has a lower alcohol content, a colder temperature and more carbonation. Each of those contributes to keeping your palate awake and alert during dinner."
In that spirit, I asked Dulye and others to suggest Thanksgiving dinner beers and, looking ahead, the best beer for fresh crab. Duyle likes a brown or amber beer, maybe Lost Coast Brewery's Downtown Brown, on the Thanksgiving table. Brick & Fire's Jim Hughes says a Belgian beer, perhaps a Dubbel or Tripel.
Crab, cooked simply, calls for something to let its delicacy shine through, like a wheat beer or a pilsner. The more fat you add, (think butter or aioli), the more you can step up to stronger beer flavors: a pale ale, an IPA or a saison.
Get those crab pots ready!
A date with beer
Saturday, Nov. 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Peer into a bubbling cauldron as grain and water begin their transformation into beer. Humboldt Beer Works in Eureka offers a free, daylong class to mark the nationwide Learn to Homebrew Day. Yes, free. The first one is always free.
Saturday, Nov. 14, 6 p.m.: Benefit the pre-school and grade school at Beginnings Inc. and get a five-course Asian Pacific dinner paired with six beers at Ales 4 Nails 2.0, held in the Beginnings Octagon at 5 Cemetery Road, Briceland. Tickets are $100, and should be bought in advance from Brown Paper Tickets.
Saturday, Nov. 14, from 5:30 to 10 p.m.: Beer never gets weirder than at StrangeBrew, the bash that raises money to restore and improve the Eureka Theatre. Taste what Humboldt brewers and cider makers have dreamed up, and kick in a little extra for barbecued pork, chicken or sides. "Barbecue goes with everything," organizer Sonny Simonian assures us.
The $35 tickets usually sell out. Buy them in advance at most Humboldt breweries or online, or hit the box office when it opens at 4 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 5, 5 p.m.: For Eel River Brewing's 20th Anniversary, the taproom throws itself a birthday party, celebrating 20 years. Stop in and toast with Eel River's anniversary beer, the bourbon-barrel-aged "Twenty."
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg has been known to wash down a chocolate chip cookie with an IPA. This is OK, too. Email her your beer and beer-plus-food events at firstname.lastname@example.org