Take out the diving scallops; they had been in the water just seven hours before. But now they’re based on purple potato chips, dressed in white soybeans and mashed avocado. This little dish teaser comes with Exponent, a cuddly IPA brewed with Bru-1 hops. It’s pineapple in a glass, smooth and relaxed. The pairing is a promising prelude to what’s to come at Tropical Getaway, Bissell Brothers’ themed house beer dinner, held in early March.
Five dishes follow this lovely amuse-bouche. And, of course, there is also beer. The mango and citrus notes of Lux complement a mango and yellow pepper gazpacho with Maine uni and a quail egg yolk. Tuna crudo with lime, macadamia nuts and Fresno pepper is amped up by Assume Positive Intent – Portland brewery’s “cheekiest tropical pale ale,” as brewer Noah Bissell tells us – dripping with flavor lime and coconut. Shrimp skewers, swathed in Thai basil and drenched in tamarind aioli and shrimp head sauce are greeted with the swagger of the double IPA Swish, its creamy green pushing against the grilled smoke of the food. And for the main course, Kickflip cream beer plays a supporting role for the suckling pig with caramelized pineapple mustard and onion jam, the carbonation and slight sweetness of the beer washing away each mouthful of rich meat.
This type of complex meal begins to be prepared a few weeks before the event, according to owner Peter Bissell. The kitchen, brewing production, operations, and dining room managers assess the brewing schedule and discuss possible themes that might work with the beers in production. Once a theme is beer-aligned, “chefs begin to focus on specific dishes,” according to Bissell, pairing them with beers, then returning to dishes to tweak them and further align them with what beer brings to the table.
The beers pair with the food, but then each pairing is also arranged deliberately, from one to the other. “When it comes to beer, we build the intensity of flavor before delivering a palate-cleansing offering for the main course,” Bissell said. And then comes the dessert, which “is always an opportunity to accompany a decadent or more esoteric beer offering”.
If you plan on experimenting with your own beer-based meals, this is a good guideline. Mike Elvin, Social Media Coordinator at Allagash Brewing and Certified Cicerone (Beer Sommelier), recommends “starting small, with flavors of lower intensity, and building to more impactful flavors as you progress through the meal”. Intensely flavorful beers will undermine your ability to really appreciate the more subtle flavors later in the meal. Another crucial consideration, Elvin said, is that beer and food match flavor intensity: “You want to make sure that the bold flavors in the food are counteracted by the bold flavors in the beer.” An imperial stout will overpower the delicacy of a salad, but find its place in a decadent chocolate cake.
So start small and build up, matching intensities along the way. But then we come to each individual pairing itself, and here the pairing strategist has real options. “Beer is so versatile,” said Em Sauter, the artist behind the wonderful Pints and Panels website and Advanced Cicerone. “It really can taste like anything from fruit to chocolate to bread and beyond.”
Sauter loves spicy chorizo tacos paired with a dark beer, like a Munich Dunkel. The malty sweetness “helps even out that heat” and matches the salty taste of the tacos. But sometimes a New England IPA can do the trick; its tropical fruit flavors are akin to “adding pineapple salsa” to tacos, “but in drink form.”
At other times, one can choose a beer that works more like a janitor – or what Sauter calls a “mouth towel” – resetting the palate before moving on to the next bite. She likes a Belgian Tripel to “rub” the flavors of fatty meat. Allagash’s Elvin recommends very carbonated or sour beers, which are “excellent for removing grease from your palate and cleaning between bites”, when eating rich foods like cheese or pate.
Two of Elvin’s favorite local food and beer pairings align with this “cutting” sensibility. Sasanoa Brewing’s Big Island Saison – “a delicate and delicious French farmhouse beer” – is a “dream” when paired with tom kha, the traditional Thai soup. The beer’s carbonation “slices through the richness of the coconut, while the ginger and lime basil in the beer interact with the galangal and lime in the dish, making all the ingredients absolutely pop.” If that’s a dream, Elvin’s “heaven” is Marshall Wharf’s Pemaquid Oyster Stout paired with Damariscotta oysters, because “the astringency of the roasted malts in the beer cuts through the richness of the oysters.”
Although Sauter is not a Mainer, she also has some beloved local chords. As for the aforementioned tacos? Substance from Bissell Brothers does the trick. She loves Oxbow’s outdoor Luppolo with a veggie burger. And Allagash White, which Sauter says “could be the most perfect beer ever created”, is a treat with “mixed greens or delicate dishes like simple grilled fish”.
But you also have to leave room for fantasy and feeling when crafting a match. Elvin recommends “trying to evoke sensory memory from flavor combinations.” For him, pairing Allagash Coolship Red, a spontaneously fermented raspberry beer, with a peanut butter cookie “will make you feel like a kid again and tear up a PB&J sandwich.” Sauter enjoys a juicy IPA with chocolate chip cookies, which reminds him of chocolate oranges popular during the holidays.
A “sensory memory” most Mainers would invite in early March is a warm, sunny beach as a “tropical getaway.” Bissell Brothers obliged. The dinner ended with a Vacherin glacé hopped with Sabro – the “piña colada of hops”, as the chef calls it – topped with a creamy toasted coconut and passion fruit. It was paired with Day Use, a seasonal blend of wood-aged beers, dry-hopped with Callista and brewed at Bissell’s Milo facilities. Tart, dry and lemony, with a bit of funk in the background, its acidity cleanses the palate as the dessert takes flight. As “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins of Top Gun fame pulsated throughout the tasting room, I reflected on the importance of a good wingman.
Ben Lisle is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries of East Bayside in Portland, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Join him on Twitter at @bdlisle.
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