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A Beer Dinner Is What the Doctor Ordered

Ojai’s “Salute! Festival” Features Acclaimed Beer Expert Dr. Bill


“Dr.” Bill Sysak, who is currently Beverage Coordinator at Stone Brewing’s wonderful World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, a man who has tasted more than 30,000 beers, was quick to admit, “Actually, we are living in the best time ever for beer. We have the widest range of styles available to us right now. Living in America, we have it even better, as we’ve incorporated all the beer traditions in the world. Twenty years ago, we were basically brewing beers after English ales and German lagers, but now we even have beers like gruit, that don’t even have hops in them.”

Hearing Dr. Bill talk, it’s hard not to get excited about beer, which is why the idea of him curating a beer dinner is even more thrilling—perhaps no single person in the country has his knowledge and palate. He’ll be pairing special and reserve beers with a four-course dinner as part of the VIP package at Ojai Beverage Company’s Salute! A Finely Crafted Beer & Food Festival on June 17 and 18.

“I had only heard of him; he was sort of a legend to me,” Joby Yobe, co-owner of Ojai Beverage Company (OBC), said, describing his initial meeting with Sysak. “At that point, he had never had a job in the beer business, so he was a consumer beer god. That was really cool.” At a beer event, Yobe and Sysak met thanks to OBC’s PR person Karen Marines, and Sysak was eager to help with the first Salute! held in 2010 in Ventura. “We’re really happy to have him back,” Yobe said. “It’s huge. We’re still getting the menu together, but we like keeping things simple but flavorful and then having him match the beer.”

It’s fine with Sysak that he doesn’t yet know the menu, for, he pointed out, “While some people do beer dinners by picking the beers first, I like to let chefs make their food and then pair with that. A chef can tell you they’re doing a Kobe filet with a demi-glace sauce and then at the end they get creative and say, ‘I put a peanut glaze on it instead.’ It’s best to pair up at the end.”

The secret is to know the wide range of beers Sysak has enjoyed in his years of travel, collection, and tasting. “Beer has a lot of advantages over wines and spirits when it comes to pairing,” he insisted. “First, it has carbonation, which is like scrubbing bubbles for the palate. Then it has malts, which accent roasted meats and vegetables, bitterness that cuts through fat, sweetness that matches with spice. I love to get people with a pairing to that wild moment when they just get that happy smile on their face.”

Sysak is called Dr. because of his years in the military as a medic, but at this point has an experiential doctorate in beer, too. What’s more, when he joined Stone and stopped being an amateur beer expert, he figured it was time to become a Certified Cicerone (that’s like a sommelier for beer). When asked how hard the test was for someone with his knowledge, he paused and replied, “Not to sound pompous, but yes, it was fairly easy.” Then again, Sysak admitted, “I have a very retentive palate and have the ability to blind taste beers, wines, and spirits. I have always been a big proponent of tasting different food profiles, whether that be rocks or cedar.”

And if you think with your own humble palate you couldn’t tell your cedar from a tree in the ground, Sysak promised you’ll not just be calorically contented by the evening’s end, but a sharper taster, too. “The pairings will definitely show through,” he explained. “With discussion, we’ll have the opportunity, I don’t want to say to have people on a leash, but, well, you can get them to recognize the flavor profiles. If you suggest something has cedar notes, people can then taste it. It’s about helping people find things they at first can’t put their finger on.”

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Honor a father on Father’s Day weekend at Salute! A Finely Crafted Beer & Food Festival June 17-18. The Unlimited Tasting Session is Saturday, June 18, 2-6 p.m.; VIP ticket includes a four-course pairing dinner on Friday, June 17, and an extra hour of admission on Saturday to the tasting session, 1-2 p.m., all at Ojai Beverage Company (655 E. Ojai Ave., 646-1700, salutebeerfestival.com).

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