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.

An Early Tasting of Stone’s Vertical Epic 10.10.10

I’m not exactly sure what about Stone Brewing’s Vertical Epic series excites me. Maybe it’s the fact that arrives once a year, with each years release date is on the same numbered day and month of the release year, this year’s release falling on October 10, 2010. Maybe it’s because for each release, Stone tries brewing something highly original, even by their standards. Maybe I’m just a slave to their particular hype.

Especially since I didn’t think the first Vertical Epic I tried, their 8.8.8 was all that special. A solid Belgian Strong Ale to be sure, but nothing really noteworthy, despite their best efforts. However, last year’s 9.9.9 was a mighty tasty, roasted Belgian porter with all sorts of lovely flavors and nuances. So with high hopes for this year’s version, I bugged my local San Mateo BevMo! for days after October 10th, until their shipment came in. Thankfully, they had stashed a box up front for me and a few other people who had been pestering them about it, and so I picked up three bottles to try every few months as the flavors evolve over time.

Stone’s website describes Vertical Epic 10.10.10 as Belgian Strong Pale Ale brewed with pale malt and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye), hopped with German Perle hops, and steeped with chamomile during the whirlpool stage. A juice blend of Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc grape varieties was added in the secondary fermentation.

And give them credit, it’s a very unique, memorable, and most of all, delicious brew. I’m sure if it’s a good idea to age it that long, since must white wine is typically something not aged for more than 2-3 years, and there weren’t really any rough edges in the flavors to mellow out over time. Drinking this is lot easier than describing it, as it has a unique character all to its own. The white wine grapes are pretty up front, complimented by a nice clove spiciness, and a tea-like bitter finish. I also picked up an interesting floral component, which may be from the chamomile.

What is Chamomile? I had to look this up myself and found it is daisy-like flower which traditionally has been used to cure sleeplessness, anxiety, and diarrhea.

Anything that makes you relax and doesn’t give you diarrhea is probably a good thing.

Beer of the Month: Saisson de Buff from Stone Brewing

Having spent last week in San Diego, it only seems fitting that the Beer of the Month of August should come from this great brewing region. And so I bestow this upon Stone Brewing’s Saisson de Buff.

Saisson de Buff is one of those collaborative beers that were all the rage six months ago. Brewed by Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, in collaboration with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and Victory Brewing’s Steve Covalesky brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Back in 2003, this trio formed an organization called BUFF, Brewer’s United for Freedom and Flavor, which met a grand total of one time, and quickly adjourned to a nearby pub to discuss brewing ideas tactics, amoung other things.

All three breweries will take turns brewing the recipe at there respective locations, the version I tried having been brewed at Stone the past spring. It’s one of those complex beers best explored on multiple occasions. The first thing that hit me was it’s light, almost feathery mouthfeel. Then, a rich yeasty flavor kicks in with some clove spiciness and a little piney character, most likely from the rosemary. Finally a strong, yet smooth herbal bitterness finished the taste excursion. Somehow with all those strong, complex flavors, it remains refreshing and very drinakble.

And there’s no better place to explore Saisson de Buff and the many excellent beers San Diego has to offer than Downtown Johnny Brown’s, where I savored this beer twice last week. It’s a neighborhood sports-like bar, located just north of San Diego’s Gaslamp district, where few tourists venture. You could also go to The Toronado-San Diego or The Neighborhood for a great tap list, but those places just seem to have a manufactured trendiness to them. Johnny Brown’s authentic character remains contemporary on its own terms. I guess you might have figured out Downtown Johnny Brown’s is my favorite beer bar in the world.

And San Diego is one of my favorite cities. The Inner Harbor running trail is some of the most picturesque urban running in the United States, and the great scenery always seems to enegize me on when I run there. There’s always great, innovative, and memorable beers to be found. When I die and go to Beer Runner Heaven, it will be lot like San Diego.

The Session #36: One Lonely Night, Away from Home

For this month’s Session on Cask Ales, Tom Cizauskus of Yours for Good Fermentables gives us many suggestions and passionately encourages us to “Make it a sad story. Make it a love story. But … make it!”

I look back on my first cask ale rather wistfully. I was all alone, away from home, in a San Diego beer bar called The Neighborhood. Peering at me from behind the bar, its tap hiding only slightly so I would notice without it seeming obvious, was the lone cask ale selection, a special release of Stone Brewing’s Pale Ale with coriander. Feeling awkward, but intrigued, I signaled my interest to the bar tender. When the beer came over, I didn’t quite know where to begin or what to say, but understood this beer had been in this situation many times before, and knew exactly what to do.

I knew of Stone’s careful balance of aggressive flavors in their beers, so was expecting it to be assertive and aggressive. So was taken by surprise how the cask conditioning created a lightness and subtly to its caress, of how willing it was to please. With its slight floral nature and savory character, it performed tirelessly in so many different ways, never losing its balance or place. After what seemed like hours, the hops finally kicked in, bringing the taste to an amazing climax well beyond what I ever imagined possible.

I’ve picked up a few other cask ales on lonely nights since then, but for some reason, none has equaled the first one. I’ve tried in vain to look up my first cask ale, but alas, it is nowhere to be found.