I had the privilege of being invited to a dinner at Michy's yesterday evening featuring pairings of Chef Michelle Bernstein's food with beers from Samuel Adams. I don't usually do these "media dinner" type events - I really don't mind paying for what I eat and drink - but since this one offered a chance to try something I might not otherwise experience - Samuel Adams' "Utopias," a very limited production brew only made every other year, aged in a variety of woods, and reaching 27% alcohol - I found it difficult to resist. (So, full disclosure: No, I did not pay for this meal, and my notes were taken under the influence of free beer).
It might surprise those who think of beer as a blue-collar, working-class beverage (I don't, but it still surprised me) to learn that Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company which produces Samuel Adams beers, has three degrees from Harvard University (a BA, JD and MBA). I've known some double-Harvards, but never a triple. I guess with the third degree comes the wisdom to make great beer. He also is the sixth generation of a family of brewmasters, so perhaps that helps too. It might also surprise some that despite a sizable advertising budget and distribution network, Boston Beer Company still seems like a pretty small, intimate operation. You know the guy with the gigantic beard and the thick Boston accent that appears in some of their ads? That's Bob Canon, and he's no actor: he's the brewmaster who came out to Michy's to host the event for us.
The program for the evening featured four dishes prepared by Chef Bernstein and crew, paired with four of Sam Adams' 21 beer offerings, followed by an after-dinner tasting of a couple of Sam Adams' "extreme beers," their Triple Bock and the 2009 Utopias. Chef Bernstein professes a deep and abiding fondness for beer, something which I think unites professional kitchens around the globe. Michy's has always offered an interesting selection of beers, a trend that happily seems to be increasingly common in local restaurants (off the top of my head, I can think of Michael's Genuine, Pacific Time, and Red Light as places that have good if not encyclopedic beer lists, to say nothing of more casual places like 8 Oz. Burger Bar). Perhaps partly out of budget-consciousness I find that we're more frequently having beer rather than wine with dinner when we go out, though it could just as well be because the selections have improved.
First course was a seared cod, paired with Samuel Adams' Coastal Wheat beer. The cod (from Boston, Chef Bernstein noted) had a beautiful crispy sear on top and tender flesh that came apart in big lush flakes, served over a bed of melted scallions, napped with an intense seafood nage (made, according to Chef Bernstein, from "every seafood we could find" reduced down in a broth with some tomato and some of the beer), crowned with a couple Maine shrimp and some shaved fennel. The Coastal Wheat beer, done in a Hefeweizen style, is further brightened with a dash of lemon powder, giving a subtle citrus note that paired nicely with the seafood.
Next up, pork belly, paired with Old Fezziwig Ale. Brewmaster Bob described the Old Fezziwig as the "Christmas cookie" of their beers, and the malty flavor with notes of cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel make that an apt description. He explained that this beer (named for a character in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol") has the same flavor profile as the Winter Lager (which we sampled as an apertif before dinner), but uses 3x the spices for a more intense presence. Chef Bernstein used those spice notes as her starting point for the dish, giving the pork belly a 2-day cure with cinnamon, orange peel and other spices (star anise, clove) and "burying it" with salt and sugar. After being given the cure, it was braised, then finally seared before service for a wonderfully crispy exterior. The pork belly was plated with a reduced pork jus along with a concord grape reduction, which invariably brings on food memories of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (in a good way). The delicious pork jus reminded me of the "Iberian emulsion" that was paired with the roasted suckling pig I had at Akelare - intensely porky but light in texture. I know folks think pork belly may be getting overplayed, but if chefs keep coming up with such great ways to prepare it, I don't think it's leaving menus any time soon. The Fezziwig was also possibly my favorite beer of the night, with a rich deep flavor but not overwhelmingly heavy.
The last savory course was more in the old-school comfort-food vein, an herb-crusted tenderloin of beef, along with mashed potatoes topped with some "stinky cheeses" (to use Chef Bernstein's description), some sauteed mushrooms and - my favorite item on the plate, oddly enough - little cherry tomatoes that had been cooked down whole to intensify their flavors. This was paired with Samuel Adams' flagship beer, their Boston Lager. The original recipe for the Boston Lager goes back several generations and it is still prepared in a traditional style. It was served for us in a glass specially commissioned by Samuel Adams from Reidel, which had a narrow base, a bulbous top, and a bit of a bump to the lip of the glass to release the flavors to your mouth. The pairing of beer and beef is an interesting one, with the bitterness of the beer playing the palate-cleansing role that the tannins of a red wine typically do (though I have to say that I think this is one instance where wine clearly has a big edge on beer in the food-pairing department).
Beer seems like an unlikely companion for dessert, but in this instance I thought it was the most successful pairing of the evening. Using the Samuel Adams "Double Bock" as her starting point, Chef Michy said it made her think of a Fig Newton, and so she made a fig "trifle" with layers of pastry cream, mascarpone cheese, spongecake soaked in sweet wine (and beer), fresh and macerated figs, crispy pistachio, and a light sprinkle of sea salt. It was a fantastic dessert, made even better by the beer pairing. The Double Bock is a rich, densely flavored beer, with notes of caramel and stewed fruit (yes, I might say fig) and a smooth, velvety texture. Its pleasantly bitter finish cut through the sweetness of the dessert and refreshed the palate for another bite (a pattern that I repeated several times).
After dinner, we sampled a couple of Samuel Adams' more esoteric offerings. These were without doubt the most unusual beers I've ever tasted, and they really stretch the definition of what we'd normally call "beer." The first was their Triple Bock. This was brewed in 1993, barrel-aged, and put in bottle in 1994 (no, those are not typos). They actually have some of the brew still aging in barrel too. It was, to borrow a phrase from The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a beverage that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer. Completely uncarbonated, dark brown, 17% alcohol, and thick like a port, it had intense dense flavors of dark chocolate, molasses, and more savory notes like soy sauce or even hoisin. Its aromatics were just jumping right out of the glass - you could smell it vividly from 2-3 feet away.
Possibly even more unusual was the Utopias. Samuel Adams first started producing Utopias in 2002, and has done so in odd years since then. The 2009 is just now being released. Where the Triple Bock was dense, dark, and thick, the Utopias was a crystaline clear amber. I couldn't keep track of all the things Brewmaster Bob said they had done with it. It was produced using a couple different strains of yeast, including one typically used in champagne production. They blend in small doses of other aged beers, including some of the 1994 Triple Bock. It goes through a variety of different barrel-aging regimens, including Scotch whisky barrels, bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace Distillery, sherry casks and port casks. What comes out is a still beverage with a nose almost like a good blended Scotch whisky, and a complex flavor with lots of woody spice notes from the barrel-aging, but with a super-smooth finish lacking the alcoholic bite of a distilled liquor. Even though this looks, and smells, like it was distilled (and comes in at a mammoth 27% alcohol), and even though it's packaged in a copper-finished ceramic bottle that looks like a still, Brewmaster Bob insists that this is a fermented malt beverage. He also says it can be opened and held without doing any real damage to it, and believed that some oxidation actually improved the flavors. It was like nothing I've ever had before.
Would I pay the $150 that Samuel Adams plans to retail this for to have it again? Honestly, I can think of a lot of other things I'd spend that kind of money on first. But nonetheless, it's gratifying to know that there are folks out there pushing the boundaries of their craft in such creative, curious ways.
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