Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head, one of the nation’s best microbrews, and Marnie Old, director of wine studies for the French Culinary Institute at Manhattan’s International Culinary Center, threw down the challenge in their recently released book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine: Go ahead and hold your own wine versus beer dinner. Match a wine and a beer with each course, then taste, argue, and vote. See if the suds foam to the top or if there’s nothing greater than the grape.
So that’s what a bunch of us did a couple weeks ago, setting aside a Saturday night for a four-course meal paired with Santa Barbara County wines and beers. In their very fun and informative book, Calagione claims, “Beer is superior to wine because a drink doesn’t have to be complicated for it to be complex. And this complexity makes beer the better choice for food pairing.” Meanwhile, Old asserts, “Picture yourself at a buffet where you have a choice between fresh, luscious grapes or a mash of malted barley, hop flowers, and water. Which would you choose to eat?” Who would we agree with when the last drop was downed?
We hoped to feature summer’s bounty and could think of no better way than to kick off the meal with fresh heirloom tomatoes from Roots Farm. Not just gorgeous, the lovely lobes burst with red and yellow, dressed a bit with Pasolivo olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with chiffonaded basil, and next to a creamy burrata. As one guest jokingly stage-whispered to another, “That glass is the beer,” we began with a Telegraph Brewing Golden Wheat Ale and a 2006 Palmina Pinot Grigio. We quickly learned the food can improve the drink as much as the other way around, as the somewhat sweet initial taste of the wine was cut by the tomato’s acidity. I also learned some of my guests aren’t wheat beer fans, no matter how fine the example. The wine won the round, 6Â½ votes to a Â½ vote (yes, the taste varied from tomato type to type).
Round Two proved that if you deep fry things, people will love you: We served coconut shrimp with a plum sauce. We also complicated the voting, setting up what one guest joked was the Ross Perot factor, for we served two beers, not just “The J” from Hollister Brewing but also Maui Brewing’s Coconut Porter. The wine was Core’s 2007 Rose, a blend of 10 varietals and a bargain, to boot, at about $12. Final vote: Coconut Porter, 3; The J, 3; Core Rose, 1, but everybody liked everything. Not surprisingly, coconut went with coconut, but The J’s smoky, toasted hemp seed paired well, too. And the rose had surprising heft to accompany the strong flavors. As a guest suggested, “Let’s just pour it all into one glass and see.”
Indeed, you have to take atmosphere into account for these tastings. We weren’t drinking out of Baccarat crystal, but we attempted to set the table pretty. Someone said, “If you change the lighting, the music, if we were wearing boots, well, beer would win consistently.” So remember, taste is far from just your nose and tongue at work-it’s a full body sport.
Third course: crispy chicken breasts, tian of summer vegetables Provencal, Gruyre grit cake. Libations course three: Firestone Union Jack IPA and Alma Rosa 2004 Sta. Rita Hills La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir. As someone put it, “The beer is great, but you can’t vote against an Alma Rosa pinot in any circumstance.” Even the guest who loves beer so much he’s recently installed a kegerator admitted, “I think wine is better with food.” That guest’s mightily surprised daughter nearly fell face first into her tian.
Round Four, from Gordon Hammersley’s Bistro Cooking at Home (a brilliant cookbook, btw) like the chicken and tian before it, is a peach galette with blueberry-caramel sauce-summer wrapped in a killer dough, with just a dash of cornmeal for extra crunch, and yes, if you cook together three cups of sugar, two cups of Farmers Market blueberries, and hit that with one-fourth cup fresh lime juice, it’s exactly as delicious as it reads.
Heading in, we were sure the wine would win, as beer didn’t seem delicate enough for dessert. We didn’t pull punches, either, going with Hollister Brewing’s Big Box Brown. As for the wine, we served Santa Barbara Winery’s 2000 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, not a sauterne, but it can play one successfully in Santa Barbara. The winner? The brown. Turns out the lovely wine just upped the sweet ante too much; everyone said it’s either dessert itself or for afterward (we didn’t have any problems finishing the bottle). The ale, on the other hand, led with its malts, and deepened the delicious dish. Beer won, 6-1, and the evening ended deadlocked. Guess we’ll have to have a rematch.