It's not every day that you get invited to a seven course dinner where every dish is paired with beer, and it's even less often that those beers were made by one of your brewing heroes. Let's just say that when the invitation arrived asking if I'd be a guest at the Sixth Annual Mushroom and Beer Dinner at Mendocino's Little River Inn, I accepted pretty much before the email had fully downloaded. And that was before I knew that I'd get to sit right next to Russian River Brewing Company's brewmaster and co-owner Vinnie Cilurzo.
The annual dinner is part of Mendocino's mushroom festival, and is a collaboration between Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River and Chef Marc Dym of the Little River Inn.
"This process has been a great learning experience," said Chef Dym as the meal began. To figure out the pairings, Chef Dym travels to the brewery each year to taste the progression of the beers the Cilurzos have selected. "He sends me back with beer samples so that I can taste a second time and put the food with the beer," noted Dym. The dishes are developed around the pairings, and each year, most of the beer selections are different. "The dinner is about finding mushrooms and food items which heighten the experience of the beers," said Dym.
The meal began with an aperitif of the puckeringly tart Framboise for a Cure, which Russian River brews each year to raise money for the breast cancer center in Santa Rosa. The base beer is a blend of the brewery's Temptation and what they call 'Sonambic' out of respect for the protected status of lambic from Belgium. 1500 pounds of fresh raspberries were added to the blend. The beer was paired with a rich mix of mushrooms and Cypress Grove Purple Haze goat cheese, served in a miniature savory ice cream cone. The sourness and carbonation of the beer worked like a salad dressing to cut through the buttery goat cheese and offer a clean finish.
The first seated course was a salad of trumpet mushrooms and mache, topped with pickled radishes and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. The salad was paired with Russian River's 4.5% ABV Saison Blonde, a hoppy farmhouse ale. "In this day and age of craft beer getting really high in alcohol," said Cilurzo, "This is a beer that I love to drink day in and day out at our pub. The yeast," he noted, "contributes a unique citrus quality" that served to connect the beer with the salad's flavors. The buttery mushrooms were echoed in the beer's malty, yeasty core.
I asked Cilurzo what he drinks when he's not sipping Russian River's saison. "My favorite beer is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale," he answered, mentioning his respect and admiration for Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman. Other favorite brews always stocked in the Cilurzo family fridge include Duvel, which inspired Russian River's Damnation, XX Bitter from De Ranke, and Taras Boulba, a Belgian Pale Ale from Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels.
The next beer poured was Damnation, a strong golden ale with richer, deeper flavors, ready for pairing with a stack of crisp potatoes and earthy chanterelles sauteed with shallots and served with reduced chicken jus. The name of the brew was inspired by Duvel as well as the Squirrel Nut Zippers song 'Hell.' Cilurzo noted that while Russian River makes a number of beers with names that sound religious, they're mostly just sticking to the theme of ending the names with 'tion, and even offer a 'Rejection' beer for Valentine's Day, and "Defenestration" for election season.
After this year's visit for tasting and brainstorming at the brewery, Chef Marc Dym headed to his favorite sushi restaurant, Hana, and was served the cured monkfish liver that inspired the next dish. Matsutake mushrooms, noted Dym, "are abundant here, even though we haven't had much rain yet. These mushrooms," he said, "have a strong, pungent flavor," which worked well in a dashi broth. He added ankimo (the monkfish liver) which was salted and cured in sake and then slowly poached for extra umami. The dish was served with spicy, malty Perdition, which is made in a biere de garde style with a biscuity aromatic malt from Belgium.
Cilurzo quoted beer writer Michael Jackson, who once compared regular brewing yeast to a dog, who can be trained, and whose behavior is pretty predictable, while Brettanomyces is more like a cat. "When you call, they'll run away. When you pick them up, they'll scratch you. Well," he noted. "Natalie and I are cat people." Cilurzo is fascinated with Brett, and even took a course on it recently at UC Davis. "Brett is a moving target. You have to be ready for the uncertainty. The beer may not be ready for the release date," he said.
The next beer, Sanctification, was 100% Brett-fermented. It was tart and bright, with a wonderful stone-fruit flavor and a pepper character that offset the sourness. This was served with a Beau Soleil oyster shooter in a mignonette made with Russian River Beatification, grapefruit pulp, and tarragon, topped with tart pickled enoki mushrooms.
Both Chef Dym and Cilurzo were excited to present the next pairing, switching things up from sour to hoppy. "Drinking the sour beer first accentuates the hops," said Cilurzo. "The aroma is going to be explosive." He noted that though the dinner had been mostly "sour and funky beer focused," Russian River makes a lot of hoppy beer. "60 to 80% of what we produce is Pliny the Elder," he said, pointing out that he and Natalie have hops depicted on their wedding rings. "We spend a lot of time in Yakima, Washington, where hops are grown," he said, and mentioned that one grower even let him dictate the picking date for the hops he'd purchased.
For the hoppy course, Pliny the Elder cut through the richness of a porcini-stuffed porchetta, which was served on top of bitter greens that echoed the bitterness of the double IPA.
My favorite beer of the evening was the Toronado 25% Anniversary Barrel Aged Sour, which managed to be both caramelly and acidic, focused, rich, and tart. Making this collaboration beer involved a trip to Belgium "for R&D, of course" with Dave Keene, owner of Toronado, and then six different beers were brewed: a strong pale ale, strong dark ale, a pale ale with currants, a blonde ale, a baltic porter, and Sonambic, the lambic-like base beer. They were blended disproportionately and bottle-conditioned with brett. "It was a long process," noted Cilurzo, "that started around the 23rd anniversary of Toronado."
Cilurzo mentioned that all their barrel-aging happens in barrels he sources directly from friendly Sonoma County wineries—he considers these barrels to be local ingredients, and he doesn't use barrel brokers. "If the winery makes shitty wine, then those barrels will make shitty beer," he said. He doesn't have any interest, he says, in making bourbon barrel-aged beers, since those barrels aren't available locally.
To echo the rich flavors of the beer, the dessert course was a baklava featuring layers of filo filled with medjool dates, pistachios, and candy cap mushrooms, which have a maple-like flavor. "Baklava is almost always too sweet," said Chef Dym, so he chose to skip honey and instead use a tart reduced apple cider syrup, which kept things bright and circled right back to the beer.
Seven courses in, we were certainly full, but I couldn't help but notice how the courses seemed to each start fresh, with our palates clear. Was it the power of sour beer's acidity to brighten each dish? The scrubbing effect of beer's carbonation? Either way, it worked.
Have you ever been to a beer pairing dinner? Tell us about it in the comments below!
About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is a Senior Editor at Serious Eats, based in San Francisco. She founded Serious Eats: Drinks in 2011. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane. Mendocino accommodations and dinner provided by the Little River Inn.