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Dim the lights, light the candles, and cue the smooth jazz; Valentine's Day is just around the corner. What better way to woo your sweetest than a multi-course meal paired with beer? Skip the restaurant prix fixe scams and get cozy at home, cooking an aphrodiasical dinner together and sipping some delicious beer parings alongside each dish.
Start your romantic repast off right by popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly brew while you cook. Something light and festive: perhaps a beer made with the methode champenoise like Scaldis Prestige or DeuS Brut des Flandres. Pour two flutes and let the fun begin.
Oysters are the essential food of love. Besides that, they're just darn good. This recipe for oysters with Irish stout granita brings an added dimension to your pairing by making the beer part of the dish itself.
If you've never tried the classic pairing of stout and oysters, Valentine's day is the perfect opportunity. The toasty flavors of roasted malts offer a counterpoint to the oysters' briny salt. The one makes the other stand out, creating what I like to call an umami tsunami.
Which stouts should you try with this first course? The dry roastiness of an Irish stout like Guinness, Beamish, or Three Floyd's Black Sun Stout will emphasize the briny flavors. To push the meatier umami try a richer, sweeter, and stronger foreign extra stout. Lion Stout from Sri Lanka is a great one to check out.
You can also raise the pairing to a truly-melded level by serving an oyster stout alongside your bivalves. That's right: there are oysters in the beer. Oyster shells and/or meat are introduced into the brewing process to give these beers an earthy brine and calcium-rich texture that makes them perfect to wash down a dozen on the half shell. They can be a bit hard to find—try getting a growler at your local brewery, especially if you're coastal. Porterhouse Oyster Stout is relatively common and quite tasty, with subtle salty mineral notes peeking out from behind a full-bodied, cocoa-licious foreground.
Main Course: Seared Duck Breasts
There's something luxurious about duck for dinner, and this recipe for seared duck breasts with garam masala and grapes is sure to be a home run. Rich texture, spicy and fruity flavors: it's just the thing for a romantic dinner, and though it's fancy-sounding, the recipe is actually quite quick to prepare.
One way to approach this dish is with an equally luxurious, fruity/spicy beer, such as a strong dark ale from Belgium. Pepper, spice, dried fruit and cherry fermentation notes will complement the garam masala and the sauce. The malty richness will pick up the seared surface and subtle sweetness of the duck, and the effervescence and alcohol will leave your palate cleansed. Trappistes Rochefort 10 is a beautiful choice. You also can't go wrong with St. Bernardus Abt 12. (Or get a bottle of each and try both!)
If you want to cut through the richness a bit more, you can rely on the acidity of a fruity sour beer. Flemish brown ales like Liefmans Goudenband or La Folie from New Belgium Brewing in Colorado offer dark, balsamic-drenched, fruity flavors that are a perfect tie-in to the sauce and provide a lovely counterpoint to the spice. Or go further with unsweetened lambic. Cantillon St. Lamvinus is aged on merlot and cabernet-franc grapes, giving it a bright and vinous profile that will work with the sauce, the spice, and the meat.
Another option is to substitute cherries for the grapes in the recipe, and then pair it with a special bottle of New Glarus Belgian Cherry Red or Oud Beersel Oude Kriek Vieille. Both are made with copious amounts of tart cherries that will make a one-to-one match with a cherry version of the sauce. In all of these pairings the beer's acidity will cut through richness of the duck.
Main Course: Vegetarian Option
But what if your love is vegetarian? Check out this recipe for Vol-au-Vent filled with creamy celeriac and wild mushrooms. For a kitschy touch to catch the eye of your beloved, change the star decorations to hearts. This savory, earthy, mushroom pie calls out for the caramelized malt and herbal/spicy hops of doppelbock or English mild.
Doppelbock is brilliant with both mushrooms and roots. It brings a luscious caramelized maltiness that makes the umami in the food stand out. And subtle spicy hops pick up on the herbs. strong>Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock is one of the best, plus it's easy to find. For an outstanding domestic option, look for Troegenator Double Bock from Tröegs Brewing Company.
English mild brings some darker, nutty/roasty flavors to the mix that complement rather than contrast this dish, and the herbal hops are always nice with earthier dishes. These beers also come in at less than 4% ABV, which is a nice bonus when you're trying a few different beers in one evening. Look for Cain's Dark Mild or Moorhouse's Black Cat, or see if your local brewery makes a mild.
Dessert: Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart
Seal the deal with an all-out sensual overload, an intense and decadent chocolate and salted caramel tart—homemade, of course.
But just because it's time for dessert doesn't mean your beer-drinking hours are over: just make sure to get a beer with some serious chops to stand up to the tart.
There are two possible routes: beers that steer toward caramel flavors, and those that are big and bold with loads of bitter and chocolate roast.
To latch into the caramel flavors, barleywine is the way to go. An English version will emphasize the malty-sweet connection, providing just enough bitterness and herbal hop flavor to prevent sugar coma. The salt in the desert will give those hops a little boost. Anchor Old Foghorn is a great domestic version with a little more hops than some. For the full-on malt experience seek out J.W. Lee's Vintage Harvest Ale. You can often find vintage bottles. Grab the oldest one you can get for a mellow and delicious experience.
American barleywines will tend to have a greater emphasis on hops, giving you tangerine and grapefruit overtones that add some depth and complexity to the pairing. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine is the benchmark, but the hops can be rough. Look for a bottle that is at least a year old. Also worth trying are Avery Hog Heaven Barley Wine and Victory Old Horizontal.
If you'd rather connect to the chocolate flavors in the dessert, go with an imperial stout to complement the tart like a cup of coffee would. Big, bold, and roasty imperial stouts have enough punch to stand up to sweetness, cutting through all the sugar while bittersweet chocolate flavors provide the connection. North Coast's Old Rasputin is a favorite of ours, delivering chocolate and coffee flavors with a strong backing of citrusy hops. Oscar Blues Ten FIDY leans more heavily on the chocolate flavors and molasses sweetness, but is still bitter enough to keep it balanced.
Of course, this is just one possible menu. What beer and food pairings will you serve your sweetheart on Valentine's Day?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this spring from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint