Let me just get the apologies out of the way now. I went to this dinner fully intending to have some great material in terms of food and beer reviews. Unfortunately, after the first course, I was so enamored of the company, writing and updating my Untappd beer list both took backseat to conversation. Bad beer blogger. I’m sorry.
Let’s start with how I learned about the Brewmasters’ Dinner. A long-time friend brought them to my attention this past winter, but timing being what it was, we couldn’t attend. Then about two weeks ago, she shot me a text and let me know another was coming up. It’s timing fell on my sixth day of sabbatical, just two days before the National Homebrewers Conference; I couldn’t have planned it better. Did I mention my friend is a bartender at Hale’s and that I’ve known her since high school? Thank the Universe for Facebook and staying in touch with people.
Next, I should probably mention the menu, but before I do, let me get something off my chest. I have always been skeptical of food/alcohol pairings. It’s never mattered to me whether it was wine, spirits, or beer being paired—I’ve just always thought that pairings were more about personal taste than about any prescribable flavor combinations. The only thing I’ve known for sure is there are certain pairings I absolutely did not like.
I didn’t come by this opinion willy-nilly. I started seeing beer pairing suggestions in all sorts of media for at least a year preceding the beginning of my BJCP training. BYO Magazine, DRAFT magazine online, Men’s Health, Twitter, Facebook—all of them, at one time or another recommending various pairings that I dutifully tried. Time and again, I found myself disappointed by the limited pairings I tested. After a while, I gave up on taking the advice of the different sources I was reading, and I just started drinking whatever style of beer I was in the mood for.
All that changed at the Hale’s Brewmasters’ Dinner. All. Of. It.
The dinner was hosted at Hale’s Ales on Leary Way in Ballard, in their upstairs banquet room. The banquet room has a view of the open fermenters and the brewery. The brewers were busy at work, and the aroma of mashing grains filled the air. To say the location was perfect is an understatement.
Menu-wise, it looked to be nothing if not calorific.
The AppetizerAfter a brief welcome from Joe Messler, the restaurant manager, owner/founder Mike Hale and Head Chef Scott Sewell took center stage introducing first a brewer and then the dish. As each course was served, this would be the custom: a brief overview of the beers provided by a brewer then a short description of the dish and its preparation by Chef Sewell. Head Brewer Lincoln Zmolek introduced the Tart Wit and the Pale American Ale.
The appetizer was a house-smoked Sockeye Salmon Mousse served over Crustini with dressed Arugula. Two pairing candidates accompanied the mousse, Hale’s now-famous Pale Ale and a one-off Tart Wit. The mousse was incredibly light and fluffy, garnished with a sprig of fresh dill that was just the right amount for the mousse.
Hale’s Pale is a study in hop/malt balance, with neither ever taking center stage. As much as I love this Pale Ale, though, the pairing with the salmon seemed to improve it somehow. Sockeye is not overly fishy, and it needs beers with more subtlety for the complementary flavors to play nicely. Mission accomplished.
The Tart Wit was a very light, hazy summer-appropriate wheat beer. It completely fooled me, though. First, I’m not a sour beer fan; second, it had a distinct lactobacillus aroma combining with a citrusy lemon-like note. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Somehow, though, the souring was exactly the right amount for me as well as to complement the salmon. Then I learned it was brewed with acidulated malt instead of a lactobacillus inoculation. My night of learning continued as I realized the selection of these two beers to be paired with the salmon was superb. Others at my table enjoyed the way the Wit paired with the dressed arugula and raspberries.
Unfortunately, the appetizer was the first and last course I took a picture of. Unfortunate, because almost every course was better than the previous, and I’m not saying that because of an alcohol-induced bias—although I will blame alcohol for the increased conversation that kept me from taking pictures.
The SoupThe next course was Avogolemono Soup paired with Hale’s Cream Ale and “25” Belgian Dubbel. Assistant Brewer Tyler Oien gave an overview of the beers before we dug in.
I’ve had the Cream Ale in the past, and as far as cream ales go, it’s always been a fair representation of the style. Tonight’s was different, and gave me one more reason to truly appreciate Hale’s motto, “Think Globally. Drink Locally.” Drinking this beer, freshly made, at the brewery, pulled right off the nitro—well, it’s a much different beer than having it elsewhere. More importantly, the pairing with a creamy, lemony Greek soup like Avogolemono couldn’t have been better. Don’t get me wrong—“25” goes really well with this soup, too, but there was something about the silky-smooth creaminess and the light bready tones in the Cream Ale that seemed to draw out all the best flavors in the soup. As for the “25”, it is possibly the most mild Belgian yeast strain I’ve tasted. That’s not to say the beer is not good. To the contrary. As a Dubbel, the malts take a more prevalent role in the experience than the yeast typically would, offering raisin-y and caramel notes that also played well with the cream in the soup, again upsetting my preconceived pairing doubts.
The Main CourseThe soup was followed by the main course—a choice of lamb chops or salmon. Since there were two of us, we had decided to do one of each and then sampled from each other’s plates. The French Cut Lamb Chops with Rosemary Demi were the thing gastronomic dreams are made of. The demi took five days to make, had no thickeners, and seemed to cling to the lamb like lacing to the side of a beer glass. The lamb was perfectly rare and cut-with-a-fork tender. Served with Asparagus in a Balsamic Reduction and two small polenta cakes. the whole plate was beautifully presented and a wonderful symphony of flavors and textures. The lamb was paired with Hale’s Rudyard’s Barleywine. Of all the pairings, this one was by far my favorite. It was also the pairing that finally convinced me to drop what I now consider a ridiculous belief that alcohol/beer pairings are entirely personal preference. The sweet, malty barleywine, with its generous hop presence, enhanced the lamb and demi in ways I could not have imagined. If the lamb was excellent without the beer, it was divinely superb with it. I was blown away.
My wife had the Salmon with Béarnaise Sauce. A generous portion of fresh, pole-caught Silver salmon, in a perfectly thick version of this timeless sauce, on a bed of braised spinach, served with oven roasted baby red potatoes with rosemary was paired with Hale’s HSB (which stands for Hale’s Special Bitter, the brewery’s version of an ESB) on nitro. I’m a huge fan of Béarnaise and Hollandaise sauces, and this was one of the best—if not the best—I’ve had. Like the demi, the Béarnaise was a testament to the chef’s skills, as it coated the salmon and refused to give up its hold on its fleshy partner. The nitro in the HSB made an extremely smooth finish that, in addition to the caramel and malt flavors with a mild hoppiness, again enhanced the flavors of the fish and Béarnaise.
(Not Just) DessertI’ve already given away that I thought the main course was the best. That’s not to say that the dessert was anything less than superlative, but I was apparently in more of a meat mood than a sweet mood. That being said, the dessert provided an unexpected surprise—and another learning opportunity. A Spiced Porter Cake with Danish Vanilla Ice Cream and Tres Fem Anglaise paired with Hale’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Troll Porter and their Tres Fem Belgian with tart, Montmorency cherries. The interesting thing about the final pairing was the staff’s decision to actually use the paired beers in the recipes. It was the coups de grace.
A piece of warm spiced caked tasted so much like the Troll Porter, that I found myself feeling like I was just extending the consumption experience by taking a bite and following it with a generous sip of the beer. There was none of that, “I just ate something sweet followed by something unsweet” unpleasantness. It was more of the “enhance, extend, and complete” pleasantness I was becoming fond of. I had to try it with the Danish Vanilla Ice Cream/Tres Fem Anglaise and the Tres Fem beer—wow! The same experience! As a true-to-form Pacific Northwesterner, I love my coffee. I really love my coffee with a nice dessert. But pairing these beers with desserts that were made with them? Phenomenal!
Surprise GuestThe menu mentioned a surprise guest could make an appearance. With Mike Hale and Phil O’Brien already present, I knew it couldn’t be either of them. When Lead Brewer Chris Sheehan announced the surprise guest was another beer, I was… well, surprised.
The brewery took the opportunity to break out Aftermath, their latest Double IPA recipe, and special it was. This beer’s aroma will blow your olfactory socks off. Citrus, grapefruit and some piney-ness come barreling out of the glass like an old locomotive under full steam. The beer is well-balanced, with some of the sweetness from pale malt and toasty and caramel notes found in Vienna malt keeping some of the bitterness in check. This is necessary given that the beer is "severely hopped throughout brewing and fermentation", according to Chris, with Amarillo, Cascade, Simcoe, Centennial, and an experimental hop. Aftermath becomes more broadly available on July 1 in bottles and draft, so if you’re in the area, it’d be worth stopping by the brewpub to enjoy a glass or two.
Things I LearnedFirst, with the help of Hale’s staff and their brilliant pairings, my opinions about pairing foods with alcoholic beverages were completely shattered, swept up, and tossed away like so much debris. Having long ago ditched the age-old custom of pairing white wines with fish and chicken, and pairing red wines with red meats, I will likely revisit these notions.
My second learning (or maybe this is more of an affirmation than a learning) was that you can accompany food with beer. So often I’ve heard people say they don’t like beer with a meal because of how heavy it is and how full it makes them feel. If they ever attend one of these events, I think they’ll find that concept exists entirely in their own imaginations. Even a fairly robust barleywine with a fairly hearty helping of lamb, if sized appropriately, left me feeling less full than a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine.
My third key take-away from this experiences was that pairing is a full-palate experience. The flavors are only one aspect to consider when trying to decide what liquid refreshment should accompany your meal. The two beers that made this readily apparent were the Cream Ale and HSB, both served on nitro. Especially with the Cream Ale, the smooth, almost silky mouthfeel of the beer’s gas so perfectly complemented the creaminess of the Avogolemono that it convinced me I need a nitro tap on my kegerator. (My wife will be tickled, because she loves nitro beers, but it probably means I need a newer, bigger fridge for a kegerator.)
Fourth, this dinner was brilliant in more than just the food and beer style pairings. Sure, there is a lot to be said for the time, energy, thought, and preparation that went into the beer and the food. More than that, however, is the insightfulness required to know that it’s the people your business is built on—your employees and your community—that matter the most. Giving your employees the opportunity to really show off their skills, talk about their craft, and celebrate their creativity, all in a public forum, is a stroke of pure genius. It’s also a hallmark of sincere humanism. The same kind of humanism that provides the realization that you have to locate your business in a community where it will be appreciated. I’d assert that if more companies were to celebrate their employees’ creativity and innovation in this way, there’d be a lot more happy, productive employees in the world. If more companies made an effort to be an active part of their community and become a community asset, they would enjoy better success.
My last learning—but arguably one of the most important—had to do with the company you pair with your meal. With Mike Hale’s stories of cycling through the English countryside in search of village pubs, and Phil O’Brien’s stories about the brewery’s early days, it was hard keep any kind of focus on the beer and food. The humor, the camaraderie, and the conversation topics all served to enhance the dining experience. Meeting the face behind a Twitter account with whom you’ve been sharing tweets for months adds to that camaraderie, and it was a real pleasure to chat with @SeattleBeerNews’s Jeff and his wife Jeanne. Having my wife there with me to enjoy the experience, being able to participate in the beer conversation because of her nascent homebrewing interests, paired with the other company at the table, enhanced the atmosphere. Listening to Mike Hale talk about drinking locally, and pairing that with the dish selections of Chef Sewell, made the food just a little better knowing the philosophy and sentiments are genuine. Seeing the pride shining in Phil O’Brien’s eyes as he shared his personal Hale’s memorabilia collection, (which includes a Hale’s Pale American Ale tap handle hand-made by Mike Hale himself) and then pairing that pride with the actual PAA, well, it made it that much easier to really appreciate and enjoy the beer.
From left: Mike Hale (founder, owner, Hale’s Ales), Bill Fishburn (blog author), Phil O’Brien (general manager, Employee #3 counting Mike).