When fine dining calls for fine beer

I rarely take a night off from wine. But after sampling Jefferson Vineyard’s Meritage 2010 trial blends (more on that next week) on a usually hot summer afternoon, I was looking forward to refreshing my purple palate at a Virginia beer dinner at the Clifton Inn, hosted by Beer Run. Knowing that the beers would be paired with Clifton Executive Chef Tucker Yoder’s playful, ingredient-driven fare, I wondered what kind of people would attend. Are they wine drinkers, like me, who prefer wine over beer, but who are equal opportunity alcohol consumers? Or beer lovers who drink it with everything from hot dogs to foie gras? And, do beer lovers even enjoy fine dining, or shy away from places where their poison plays second or even third fiddle to wine and liquor?

Beerspeak 101
Internation Bitterness Units (IBUs) (n:): A measure of the bitterness of a beer as contributed by the alpha acid in hops.

While I was far too busy stuffing my face to poll all three dozen dinner guests seated on the Clifton’s newly expanded terrace, I concluded from a sampling of those at my table that it is indeed beer lovers who attend beer dinners. Four of my table mates, two couples who all work at State Farm, live in Lake Monticello and head up major philanthropic fundraisers, drink beer exclusively and plan dinners, outings and trips around their shared love of suds. One of the couples even brews at home. While they’d all certainly be at home with Heinekens and beer koozies (they even invited me to Palmyra’s hot spot, The Dogwood, for mechanical bull-riding night), they were quite comfortable dining on dishes like honey- and hop-glazed pork belly with kohlrabi “kraut,” mustard and grits while expounding on the way Starr Hill Double Platinum India Pale Ale’s 180 IBUs (see Beerspeak 101) complemented the bitter kohlrabi and pork belly’s sweet honey glaze.

In the past 30 to 40 years, the rise in the number of craft breweries has begun to bridge the gap between rednecks and neckties, with artisanal products taking precedence over advertising gimmicks. With more than 1,500 breweries (37 of which are here in Virginia), America is the country with the most breweries in operation and the movement continues with great momentum. Beer Run’s “beer czar,” Jay Campbell, presented the first pairing to illustrate Virginia’s own two decades in the brewing biz. We tasted a pilsner from St. George Brewing, one of our state’s oldest, which began as a “brew-on-premises” establishment in a Virginia Beach strip mall in 1991, against a white beer from Port City Brewing in Alexandria—Virginia’s newest on the scene with nary a month of local distribution under its bottle cap.

Vine Line: Summer edition

With a hot, wet end to spring, the grapes’ growing season started early this year. Hunter Smith, marketing manager at Afton Mountain Vineyards, says that the wild growth in the vines means a summertime of hedging, shoot positioning and leaf pulling all in an effort to balance the sunlight and shade each grape cluster gets for optimum ripeness. And, with a new acre of baby Albariño vines, they are hoping for some rain to help its growth without so much that the grown-ups suffer.

Craft beers are becoming more and more commonplace in fine dining settings. L’etoile Executive Chef Mark Gresge and Keswick Hall Executive Chef Dean Maupin both hold beer dinners, praising beer’s pairability with upscale cuisine. With the support of chefs (it is, after all, what they pop open at the end of a long night on the line), beers are being given more space on wine lists these days. I once overheard a beer fanatic at a fine dining restaurant complain that their limited and mediocre beer selection would be the wine equivalent of offering nothing but three white Zinfandels. Ugh, point taken.

A vodka gimlet (I needed something to neutralize my wine-conditioned palate) and four beers later, dessert arrived. While Port or Sauternes would be the expected pairing, we satisfied our sweet teeth with a chocolate and smoked porter mousse paired with one of those champagne-esque 750ml beers. Blue Mountain Brewery’s Dark Hollow is an Imperial stout that’s been aged in charred Maker’s Mark bourbon barrels for 100 days. It’s rich, thick and as dark as coffee, but with a surprisingly floral (I smelled jasmine) nose. We lingered over final sips relishing the same dreamy state and easy conversation that, for me, usually comes after good food and wine. Think I’ll take the night off more often.