What’s the point in writing about the Stone Brewing Brewmaster’s Dinner at California Cafe?

That’s the question.   Why should I even bother writing about this?  I mean, Stone brews great beer, and the California Cafe in Palo Alto puts on great beer dinners featuring a California brewery about once a month.  Is there any point of even writing about it, other than to say, “Well, it was great”? 

Besides, I’m not a exactly a culinary expert such that I can really deconstruct the subtleties and nuances of the combined brewing vision of Stone’s Greg Koch combined with California Cafe’s Mark Pettyjohn’s magic in the kitchen.   But I can sort of fake it.  And aren’t blogs all about writing about stuff you have no business writing about for the sole purpose of looking more important than you really are?  So in this proud tradition, I will provide my take on the Stone Brewing Brewmaster’s dinner in an attempt at entertainment, or your possible amusement at my expense. 

First Course
Food: Grilled Portobello Mushroom, chic pea fries, foie gras croutons, goat cheese
Beer: Arrogant Bastard

The first course was a significant food milestone for me since I’ve never had foie gras before starting off the beer dinner with this.  It’s hard not be be curious about foie gras, as the food seems so highly polarizing.   On one side, you have those who claim eating it is the most heavenly orgasmic surreal experience in the world. On the other side, you have PETA-inspired backlash claiming it embodies everything wrong with civilization.  Having now tried it, I have to say I’m a little bewildered this fatty stuff with a light livery taste to it has generated so much commotion. 

I mean, it tasted all right, but if I had to face down a bunch of angry animal rights activists just to eat it again, I’d go for something else.  Sitting to my left for the evening was Peter Estaniel of BetterBeerBlog of fame, who really enjoyed his and he’s a big foie gras fan, so Chef Pettyjohn must have executed it well. 

Peter also probably forgot more about beer and food pairing last week than I’ll never know.  After the first course, I turned to him and said “You know, the Arrogant Bastard seemed to over powered the Grilled Mushroom a little,” and he immediately responds with a complex explanation about the roasted malts and the hop varieties contrasting with the grilled mushroom and other elements on the plate.  I struggled to follow what he was saying.   I think he agreed with me.

My favorite thing about the first course was not the grilled mushroom or the foie gras croutons, but the well seasoned chick pea fries.  PETA 1 Foie Gras 0.

The Second Course in all its porkosity

Second Course
Food: House cured pork belly, crispy pancetta, smoked bacon butter
Beer: Ruination IPA

The smoked bacon butter and house cured pork belly melded together to form a bunch of creamy pork stuff, contrasting with the crispy pancetta, a bunch of crunchy pork stuff.  Ruination IPA, with plenty of strong pineapple and grapefruit hop flavors and no malt backbone to speak of, cut right through all that pork goodness. 

I turn to Peter again after the second course to pick his brain on the second course.  Instead of a detailed, insightful deconstruction of the interplay between the different pork elements and the hops, he simply says “Mmmmmmm, that was good.”  I can work with that.

Surprise Course
Food:  Duck medallions with cherry compote on top
Beer:  Cherry Chocolate Stout

Surpise!  After the second course, they bring out the Stone Cherry Chocolate Stout, a limited release that is otherwise sold out and unavailable. It’s got plenty of bitter chocolate flavors and cherry, think of a decadent liquid chocolate covered cherry.  And the duck medallions with the cherry compote basically echoed that, even though Chef Pettyjohn conceded they were under salted to my wife and I at the end of the dinner.  Chef, if you hadn’t told us that, we wouldn’t have noticed.

Third Course
Food: Braised beef short ribs, parsnip puree, crispy onion strings
Beer: Imperial Russian Stout, Vintage ’08

What to say here, once again, the food and beer basically echoed each other.  And once again, my favorite element on the plate was a lovely, creamy parsnip puree under the braised beef ribs, rather than the savory ribs themselves.  Strike another blow for PETA!

Fourth Course

It’s a big party of all things carrot

Food: Carrot cake, tipsy raisins, carrot gel
Beer: Old Guardian barley wine, Vintage ’09

My favorite dish of the night.  Way too often, beer dinners end with a desert of Imperial Stout with something like a chocolate tort, or some other Stout and chocolate combination.  Sure, the combination works, often quite well, but it’s an obvious pairing and not particularly imaginative to the point of becoming a cliche’.  Instead, for the desert course we get a whimsical plate of all things carrot with this odd, carrot egg roll that comes out of left field.  Some people, like me, loved it, others were a bit underwhelmed by it, but everyone was talking about it, and by that measure, it was a hit.  And the aged Old Guardian with its smooth, sweetness, and slight astringency jumped right into the big party.

There’s a nasty rumor that this might be the last of the Brewmaster’s Dinners for the year with the holidays fast approaching.  I sure hope that isn’t true, as the best part of the series is a certain suspense in seeing what Chef Pettyjohn and the California Cafe crew do next.

Beer of the Month: Sleigh’r!!! By Ninkasi Brewing!!!

I once bought a Slayer album over twenty years ago back when I was in college. All I could remember about it was a bunch of really fast guitars nearly drowning out some guy yelling about a of bunch of people dying in particularly grisly detail. Metal bands have created some pretty compelling art about universal themes of fear, anger, frustration, and alienation, but I just found all that noise about countless gruesome deaths to be of all things, incredibly boring. I returned the record to the store in exchange for something else.

I certainly understand this personal anecdotal snippet from many years ago is no way to judge a band that’s been together for nearly 30 years, but I still consider Slayer to be an interesting cultural curiosity I just don’t get. But any band that’s been together that long, has achieved status as one of the Big Four of Thrash Metal, and has millions of fans, including critical acclaimed classical violinist Rachel Burton Pine, must be doing a lot of things right. Like being the unlikely inspiration for an excellent Dark Double Alt beer released for the holidays by Ninkasi Brewing.

The beer itself pours a very dark brown, nearly black. As one might expect from its appearance, the first thing that hits you on the tongue is a heavily roasted, slightly smokey malt goodness which is surprisingly smooth and drinkable, despite all that heavy roasting and strong flavors. Then the banana-like esters kick in, solidly asserting themselves just before the a light clove-like aromatic spicy finish. It makes for an easy drinking sipping beer, or a beer that would pair quite well with a lot of strong wintery holiday foods like roasted beef, pork or smoked turkey.

Speaking of the holidays, not only has Slayer inspired a holiday beer, it’s also inspired an entire Christmas light show someone created for their Southern California neighborhood my beer blogging buddy Peter Estaniel recently brought to my attention. Make sure you don’t miss the flashing Christmas presents next to the electric flowing river of blood.

Perhaps the message here is that holiday good will can come from unlikely places. Maybe we’d have a lot fewer rivers of blood in this world if we did more to accept, seek out and welcome those who might seem strange and out of place, understanding it’s these differences which make our world a great place to live. OK, it’s a bit of sappy message, but I thought it would seem a lot less sappy cloaked in beer and thrash metal, so just work with me here.

Have a very Sleigh’r Holiday!

Beer and Cheese at Firehouse Grill and Brewery

They call it San Francisco Beer Week, but we do drink craft beer down here in the South Bay. So Linda and I really appreciated last Wednesday night’s Beer and Cheese pairing at Firehouse Grill and Brewery in Sunnyvale held as part of San Francisco Beer Week. Firehouse Brewing, Milk Pail and South Bay Craft Beer Activist and Blogger Peter Estaniel got together to bring this all together.

The format was pretty simple. Upstairs at the brewpub, six tables were set up with 2-3 different cheeses and beers placed at each table. You simply pick up a flute glass, and start walking around, and popping cheeses into your mouth and washing them down with the different beers, chatting with everyone there, until you get tired of doing that. Needless to say, it took most people the entire evening to complete this mission.

There was an interesting and varied mix of beers to try, with plenty of Belgian Ales, whether stately, sour, or funky, four or five selections from FireHouse, a couple of hop monsters, and a barley wine thrown in for good measure. But the real star of the evening was the cheese.

And did they have cheese. Cheese with funny looking fern-thingies on top. Stinky cheese. Runny cheese. Firm cheese. Crumbly cheese. Cheese infused with truffles. Cheese with spices mixed in. Cheese studded with wine grapes. Cheese with barnyard hay on top. I couldn’t correctly pronounce the names of most of the cheeses, but that didn’t stop me from trying them all. It’s a good thing I have a few fat-burning long distance runs in my training schedule over the next few days.

My favorite cheese, hands down, was the smooth, slightly sweet, and caramelly Gjetost (pronounced: yay-toast). I could have this for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. I also enjoyed the Horseradish Havarti which had crunchy mustard seeds mixed into it. I could talk about all the cheeses, but really don’t know all that much about cheese, let alone a good way to describe how they taste. And while ignorance hardly stops most people from writing on a topic, if you really want to know what some of the cheeses were like, head on over to this post at Peter’s blog.

As for the beer, my favorites were a couple of the Firehouse brews. I had previously enjoyed their rich and refined One Tun Imperial Stout, which has a great bitter chocolate vibe, but it seemed especially good that evening. And I also appreciated the Bill Brand Imperial Red, where lots of hefty, toasty malt holds its own against hefty amounts of hops, resulting in a lively, strong yet balanced Imperial Red. As for Linda, her favorites were the Belgian Ales, which evoked carefree weeks of self-discovery spent many years ago in Belgium.

I leave you with this lasting haunting and surrealistic image of that memorable evening. There are people, who do not share my artistic vision, that will simplistically claim this shot is blurry and badly out of focus.

Peter Estaniel: Better Beer Blogging Biker

Peter Estaniel made good impression with me when I first met him, since he was handing me a beer. He was serving up some of his homebrew to start off a beer and dessert pairing event he was hosting at Wine Affairs that Linda and I attended. Peter writes the Better Beer Blog, his effort to “raise the status of beer” and I was looking forward to what he had in store for us. Peter looked a little uncomfortable in front of roughly thirty people attending that night explaining what he had in store for us. Beer and dessert are not obvious pairings, and Peter raised the degree of difficulty for himself by serving up unlikely pairings like pineapple flan with the aggressively bitter Green Flash West Coast IPA. It was pretty impressive that with all the risks he took that night, every beer and dessert pairing worked quite well.

One pairing that didn’t work out that night was the couple sharing a table with us who were quietly feuding all night. Linda and I never quite figured out what the problem was, but it appeared that it was early in the couple’s relationship, and things were burning up on the launch pad. They tried gamely to explain their points of view on things, but the “when you do X, I feel Y” statements didn’t seem to be getting the points across. I considered providing this young couple helpful pointers on how to more effectively argue in public learned from my divorce, but Linda firmly quashed this idea, and politely suggested I pay attention to Peter instead. As intrigued as I was with beer and dessert pairings, with this tense psychological drama playing out right in front of me, I didn’t think a discussion of the harmonizing elements of a wheat beer paired with fruit filled crepe’s would hold my interest. But the fact that Peter held most of my attention that night is a credit to his considerable skills and enthusiasm as a beer ambassador.

Four months later, there’s a smaller tasting event at Wine Affairs and have a chance to strike up a conversation with him. I reach for an organic Hefeweizen, and Peter quickly rattles off the flavor profile of this beer and how it contrasts with another Hefeweizen on the tasting list before I even realize what he just said. The whole evening, I’m struggling to find words to describe each beer, and Peter quickly comes up with a succinct and accessible description. There are plenty of people with a suspicious talent of describing any beer, even warm Budweiser, with eleven different flavor components of odd fruits and spices, but thankfully, Peter isn’t one of them. But if you read his Better Beer Blog or have met him at a beer event, you probably know all this.

What you may not know is that Peter recently started biking. He’ll ride routes around his neighborhood each day, and aims to find a way to bike to his job about thirty miles away. For Peter, biking is “…a disconnect. I don’t feel my legs on fire, I don’t feel my lungs straining or the dryness in my mouth and throat. It’s like the world goes quiet and I can hear all the little things going on around me, like the wind rustling through the trees, the cows mooing and my wheels on the pavement.” Interesting for a guy who is pretty plugged in, he enjoys an outlet to unplug.

Peter cites a lot of good memories growing up with family and friends growing up associated with bike riding. In high school, he would race the school bus to see if he could beat it to school. I find a lot of people’s choice of recreation is often shaped by early childhood memories burned into our brains that we carry around for the rest of our lives, and it looks like Peter may be another example of that.

Almost as soon as Peter told me he was starting biking, he told me he hated running. I’ve met plenty of people who hate running, and usually it’s because it’s something like it hurts their knees, or they find the activity boring and tedious. Peter gave me a reason I’ve never heard before. He doesn’t like running because when he runs, he doesn’t think he is running fast enough. That actually makes sense. You do not attend an exhaustive schedule of beer events, become a certified beer judge, post articles almost daily on a blog, and regularly homebrew by leisurely going from point A to point B.

Does Peter find biking to be like homebrewing or beer judging? Not really. For Peter, homebrewing “..while very peaceful and relaxing, doesn’t give me that disconnect. I am very much in the moment because if you don’t pay attention to certain things, you’ll miss key things in the process” while beer judging is “…a very cerebral endeavor, it’s mentally tiring at times.”