Pro tip for those of you out there who want to be fancy-pants-ed beer columnists: get a hold of some tasting paddles. You know the ones: those wooden boards that hold four small tasting glasses, varnished and glossed for the eventual beer spills, notched and ready for a night of sampling and learning.
Thankfully - because I am obviously a fancy-pants-ed beer columnist - we have seven beer paddles, courtesy of a friend of my wife - a dedicated woodworker who would do anything to help out.
So. We’ve got the paddles. What do we do with them? Answer: we host our own beer dinner. Four slots - four beers, with one special desert surprise.
Course One: BBQ Jalapeno Poppers with Wasatch White Label. The mixture of white beers and traditional spice - think jalapenos and curry and other traditionally hot things - goes perfectly together. Which is a break from the norm. Typically, we want IPAs and other super-hopped beers with our spicy food. I don’t get it - hops and, honestly, the carbonation of beer itself tends to accentuate the fizziness and boldness of beer as it is.
That being said, the beer is over shadowed by what is one of the best appetizers I’ve ever had. Proof of this claim: a second pan of jalapeno poppers was heated and devoured long before we knew what we were doing. Spicy and IPA I still don’t get - but spicy and white beer I understand completely.
Course Two: Beer Puffs with Widmer Shaddock IPA. My relative dismissal of Widmer’s beers starts with their Hefeweizen, which has always been one of their weakest offerings. But this pairing - the basic nature of the sandwich, the floral burst of the Shaddock - make this course my favorite - a combination of unexpected food and unexpected beer. Chicken salad. Fresh hops. Bread and yeast and everything blending together in a way that calms the previous course and accentuates the beer itself.
Course Three: Asian salad, with Sapporo. Sapporo is what you’d expect - watered down and thin - but, essentially, that’s what SALAD is, isn’t it? In this way, I’m reminded of why Saporo is my favorite of the traditional Japanese lagers. It’s not great, but it’s refreshing and perfect with a traditional Asian salad.
Course Four: Guinness Beef Stew, with Deschutes Black Butte Porter. Seasons are weird. There are few times when beef stew seems appropriate, but a nearly freezing night in the middle of October is one of those times. Beef stew is on the same level as chili and Sam’s Club Jalapeno Poppers: “Only Appropriate When It’s Cold.”
That all three of those foods happen to peak during football season is not a coincidence - they are comfort foods of the gods, a rich and warm way to fight against the incoming winter doldrums and a punch in the face of summer and its arrogant “warmth” and “comfortableness.” Football itself is a fight against comfortableness - aside from how comfortable we feel on the couch while we’re watching it, with no actual physicality in the game, naturally.
With this in mind, Deschutes’ Black Butte Porter takes on a new light. It’s uncompromisingly thick and rich - more so than you’d expect from a beer sold in six-packs - and it’s nutty and chocolate-y and, seriously, it’s one of my favorite beers ever. Deschutes has built its legacy on beers like this, and it’s no question they’re not only one of the best breweries in the world, but also one of the most subtle - not many can bridge the gap between phenomenal beer and commercial success.
Course Five: Hy-Vee Pumpkin Pie, with Schell’s Oktoberfest. I’ve realized over the past few months that my love and utter devotion for Schell’s and its ilk is probably fueled by one part nostalgia, one part locality, one part great beer. But, that being said, beer is judged by taste alone, and there are few breweries that feel as comfortable and genuine to me as Schell’s. They’re everyone’s third-favorite brewery, but they’re AT LEAST first to me.
There’s something else at play here, too. I expected a horrible pumpkin beer with this course (and, yes, they’re ALL horrible, in my opinion) but a classic Oktoberfest works here. Schell’s goes a little more sweet and syrupy than I’d like - I still prefer Summit or Ayinger Oktoberfest - but it goes PERFECTLY with the sugar, the whipped cream, the crust, the everything.
Five beers, five courses, five different ways of interpreting the act of a beer dinner. Yours will SURELY be different, and yours will SURELY be better. But that’s the point. It’s an exercise in personal taste. One dish, one beer - not five dishes, five beers.
We learn more than just about our ability to cook or our ability to taste - we learn about our ability to put our taste into context, which, among friends, teaches us more about ourselves.
Grab some glasses. Fire up the oven. Teach each other. And - most of all - have a lot of fun.