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Delving Into The “Beer Dinner” Experience

Craft Beer Rookies Attend a Beer Dinner

By Lou and Wendell René

After spending 17 years living in various places in Southern Ontario, Jay Killoran returned to Cornwall in 2011 to face a difficult personal issue: he developed a drinking problem. The problem was the difficulty he had finding good beer in his hometown. He is a beer lover and he couldn’t let this situation stand. He sought out other beer enthusiasts like himself and joined the Stormont Beer Tasters Club to share his passion. Later, in 2012, he created aleienated.ca, to express how he felt about being “aleienated”, which is “how a person feels when there is no good beer around, or when there is no one with whom to drink it”. His blog is dedicated to putting a spotlight on Cornwall’s beer community, drawing attention to the Ontario craft beer industry and highlighting the great food that can be found locally.

As a member of the organizing team for the Stormont Beer Tasters Club, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Killoran combined his passion for craft beer and food into a recurring event appropriately called a “Beer Dinner”. Approximately four dinners are organized a year. Around 25 people attended the first beer dinner Mr. Killoran put together. However, after word of mouth spread, this latest dinner sold out its 75 seats in a matter of days.

The menu was kept a secret until a few hours before the dinner took place. What we did know about the dinner was that the food would be paired with beers from the award-winning Muskoka Brewery located in Braceridge, Ontario. Mr. Killoran met Scott Lewin, a Muskoka Brewery’s sales rep, about a year prior to the dinner at a beer festival. This dinner was done in collaboration with Bar Q. Here enters Christian Barque, head chef and owner of this downtown eatery who had hosted a dinner previously and approached this opportunity the same way a kid does in a toy store: it was time to play.

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On Friday, May 29th 2015, we made our way to Bar Q. It was a breezy evening, and a few hours away from sunset as we entered the restaurant. The air was warm, the crowd upbeat and there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. Much to our delight, we were seated no less than 6 feet away from a Muskoka Cask. Good night so far.

We settled in, ordered drinks and soaked in the atmosphere. Everyone was in good spirits as they seemed to be engaged in light-hearted conversations regarding what they were about to eat. Many of the people in attendance had been to at least one other beer dinner before and this was simply a more recent version of what they have come to anticipate. There was no background music in the restaurant that night and every time the kitchen doors opened, people would slightly slow their speech down to glance at what the waiting staff was carrying out of the kitchen. We felt like the absence of music was a deliberate tactic to encourage conversation among dinner parties and adjacent tables.

 

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

As we examined our menu Mr. Killoran took the floor to welcome us. He introduced us to Mr. Lewin who presented us with the first beer of the night. IPAs (Indian Pale Ales) usually have a lot of “hoppy” flavours in them, tend to have higher alcohol content, and can be bitterer than your usual beer. However, Muskoka’s Detour served from a cask was mixed with Blood Orange, had a lower alcohol level and was therefore a more “sessionable” IPA. Cask-conditioned beer is naturally conditioned, unfiltered and served from a cask using gravity instead of the traditional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. Before we go any further, you need to know something important, as it will come up a lot.

MINI-CRASH COURSE #1

Some of the basic ingredients in beer are grains, yeast, water, malt and hops. Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant. They are the stabilizing agent in beer and they are also responsible for the bitter, tangy flavours that counteract the sweetness of malt in beer.  Hops can be fruity, piney, earthy, spicy or floral depending on the plant.

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Mr. Lewin encouraged us to swirl the glass in order to release the aromas, take a good whiff (because most of what we tasted was what we smelled), sip the beer, let it swim around our tongues and mouths for a while and then taste it. At first, Detour is incredibly smooth and refreshing with a small hint of fruit, probably due to the hops. Mr. Lewin also encouraged people to discuss amongst themselves what they’re tasting and their overall impressions of the beer. As most people practiced sniffing and tasting their beers, the waiting staff brought out the first dish: Grilled Caesar Salad with Caramelized Balsamic Vinegar and Stout Beer, Twice Smoked Bacon, and Baked Artisan Crouton.

We stared at a beautiful bowl containing freshly grilled romaine lettuce with a light Caesar dressing, Parmesan, a nice crisp piece of twice smoked bacon, and a baked artisan crouton. Hidden at the bottom of the bowl, we found the caramelized balsamic vinegar and stout beer waiting for us like a prize at the bottom of a box of cereal. The caramelized balsamic vinegar and stout beer made the difference as it added a little sweetness to the dish. Never before had we had a meal and a drink complement themselves so well. It was not only surprising, but also delightful.

***

Mr. Killoran took the floor for a second time. He took a minute to underline the notion that these beer dinners are an opportunity to highlight local restaurants, local chefs and locally grown food. He mentioned where he hosted many of the past dinners and that these beer dinners could not take place without the invaluable input of all the chefs who chose to participate.

Mr. Lewin appeared with a box of Muskoka’s Winter Beard in hand. The Winter Beard is a double chocolate cranberry stout, which granted Muskoka an award due to its unique packaging. It is brewed with chocolate malt and cranberry juice. “Shouldn’t this beer have been paired with the dessert?” we mused. Mr. Lewin explained that a beer like this one is aged for a year before being sold to the public in order to let the higher alcohol content settle and the cranberry taste to age properly in order to give the optimal amount of tartness that rounds out the beer.

 

MINI-CRASH COURSE #2

The immense variety of breweries, beers and flavours out there is too much to discuss. As we grow older, so do our pallets. That maturation opens us up to various experiences, tastes and new flavors. Just like wine, certain beers are to be aged in order for them to develop to their best flavour potential, which is hard to do since beer is usually consumed as soon as possible, so brewers have to age the beer before putting it on the market. Beer is to be smelled, swirled, tasted, aged and enjoyed by all who appreciate it for how it makes them feel.

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

We were anxious to discover how the chocolate and cranberry notes would pair with the next dish: House Braised Baby Back Ribs with Smoky Beer BBQ Sauce and Celery Root Cranberry Slaw.

With the meat falling right off the bone, making the use off knife completely useless, this dish melted in our mouths. The beer BBQ sauce made the baby back ribs just sweet enough. The slaw added a crunch to the tenderness of the ribs and the cranberry enhanced the flavor of the sauce.  The flavors were incredibly well balanced. We sipped on the double chocolate cranberry stout and realized that this beer provided the dish with the perfect complement. People normally drink something to ease digestion and/or take a break from the flavors, but with this beer, it made everything come full circle and it enhanced every single bite. We never thought of combining chocolate and cranberries with beer nor did we ever think of combining them with baby back ribs. We were blown away.

Muskopka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Now it was time for Muskoka’s heavy hitter the Twice as Mad Tom IPA, which is 8.4% alcohol content and has a lot of bitterness and hops to it. However, the alcohol content doesn’t come from the hop, it comes from the malt. The alcohol content is a little intimidating to a lot of people. We did not fear it. As Mr. Lewin was wrapping up the presentation, staff had just finished serving us our main course: Prosciutto-Wrapped Seared Chicken breasts smothered in “Beer-chamel” sauce with a drumstick marinated in Muskoka’s Twice as Mad Tom IPA served with pickled vegetables and a roasted potato Medley with Fiddleheads.

At this point, we were beer connoisseurs and we had done our tasting ritual before tackling our plate. Twice as Mad Tom was a little darker and stronger than the two previous beers we tasted: stronger smell and a pretty bitter taste. The “beer-chamel” sauce made the entire dish come together as it added additional flavor to the seasoned vegetables and the chicken. The drumstick was marinated in twice as Mad Tom making it very tender and a little spicy, which can be attributed to the little hops found in the beer. It was perfectly cooked and the mild flavors of the chicken breast were well balanced in contrast to Twice as Mad Tom’s bitterness.

***

Although we were stuffed, we still had room for dessert. To get us ready, Mr. Killoran brought out the chef, Christian Barque to introduce the dessert himself: “This is probably, the best and sweetest dessert you’ll ever have and there is bacon in the dessert!”

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

The last beer of our night was Muskoka’s Summerweiss. The subtle “hoppiness” in this beer brought out the wheat and barley to give it a sweeter taste and an intriguing aroma of banana (that is accentuated from the wheat). It was paired with a Beer Battered Nutella and Jam Sandwich accompanied with a Beer Float.

The Summerweiss was fruity, sweet and refreshing. It’s the perfect beer to sip on a sunny summer day. The beer battered sandwich was basically what comfort tastes like. Although milk would be the pairing of choice for most desserts, Summerweiss was unmatched as a pairing. The sandwich was crunchy on the outside because of the batter and tender on the inside. The float had a bit of a kick due to the beer and it was delicious when combined with the sandwich. There isn’t much more to say other than we couldn’t get enough of this dish.

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Muskoka Brewery Beer Dinner Seaway Food Festival

Chef Barque stepped out of the kitchen to unwind a little and we got a chance to speak with him. He mentioned that as a chef and food lover, he loves the complexities of various flavours and ingredients. He admitted that creating the menu for the event was a little challenging, but it’s the kind of challenge that a chef lives for. He spoke to Mr. Killoran and Mr. Lewin weeks before the dinner in order to taste the beers and get a sense of what beers would match well with various dishes or flavours and he then let his imagination take over.

***

We had an opportunity to sit with Mr. Killoran and Mr. Lewin to pick their brains about different beer-related topics. Mr. Killoran, a mild-mannered guy with extensive beer knowledge – some would call him a beer connoisseur or “beer nerd” – was down to earth, approachable and incredibly passionate about beer. He simply wants to share his love and passion for beer with others and that ’s why he keeps putting these beer dinners together to make sure more people are capable of joining in on the fun.  The way these events are conducted only creates more fans and generates more positive feedback, which forces Mr. Killoran to think bigger for the future.  Mr. Killoran enjoys craft beer, he thinks it’s great and that how he and Mr. Lewin were able to come together to organize the dinner.

Mr. Lewin could have worked for any big beer company, but being community-minded, craft beer was the best way to go. Craft breweries provide more variety regarding beer selection, they are open-minded when it comes to beer creation and they focus more on quality while keeping the end-consumer in mind. These characteristics are common to most craft breweries established in local communities, and are values that Mr. Lewin holds dearly.

 

MINI-CRASH COURSE #3 – CRAFT BREWERY

A craft brewery is also known as a microbrewery or Nano brewery. The main difference between craft breweries and mainstream beer companies is that craft breweries are smaller and more focused on quality, flavour and brewing techniques. Most of the craft beers you’ll taste will be completely different from the beers you would find in your local Beer Store mainly because of the flavours and creativity they exhibit.

The greatest part of the beer dinner was realizing what makes events like these work: a sense of community. Craft breweries are small, but they focus their energy on quality, variety, and flavour.  They care about the people who consume their products and rely on their feedback to improve their beer. Craft brewing is a labor of love, which is why they enthusiastically participate in these beer dinners where a group of beer lovers and like-minded individuals take the time to appreciate all of the hard work they put in while enjoying a great meal. They focus on communities and these communities not only give them a chance, but they can also become loyal fans and consumers of their brand. With each one of these beer dinners, Mr. Killoran feels less “aleienated”, closer to the community, and gets to do what he loves, which is enjoy good beer with even better people.

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