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At most beer-pairing dinners (or wine-pairing dinners, for that matter), a familiar formula is followed. The drinks start light and delicate, then with each new glass, the flavors grow in intensity. The booze amps up. But what do you do if every beer you're pouring is over 10% ABV? There were no delicate flowers among the Dogfish Head beers that Sam Calagione selected for a recent event at The Abbot's Cellar in San Francisco: things started out with Burton Baton around 10% ABV and then went as far as World Wide Stout at 18.8%, then wound back down to Immort Ale, which clocks in at 11%.
Calagione and Abbot's Cellar chef Adam Dulye found two solutions to the challenge of pairing Dogfish Head's famously off-centered ales. First, though the Dogfish Head beers selected were definitely potent, the specific bottles selected came from the cellar, reaching back as far as 2005. The brewery opened in 1995, but the Dogfish Head library doesn't go back that far: "We just didn't have the cash flow at first," noted Calagione, "We couldn't afford to age them and couldn't really start putting them away until '04 or '05." Still, the bottles selected for the dinner had mellowed out a bit with time. "When you age beers," noted Calagione, "the oxidation helps to soften them. Young, some of these beers will be really hot," he said, but over time, "they get softer, and sherry-like."
The second solution, said Chef Dulye, was "racheting up the intensity" of the food. "Every dish has something we fermented or preserved in house," he noted. He hung ribeye for more than 30 days and left the mother in the housemade apple cider vinegar when spinning it into a pungent sorbet. Calagione joked, "The original name of this dinner was 'Stinky Food and Really Old Beer."
The meal started out with a taste of Burton Baton brewed in 2009, aged until caramely and rich (though perhaps a little over-oxidized on the finish). To freshen it up, the Abbot's Cellar team ran the cellared beer through a Randall with fresh Cascade hops and oak chips, adding a touch of fruit and caramel flavor.
The first course was a seared scallop served with pan roasted sweetbreads, yogurt, and caramelized cauliflower, served with Dogfish Head 2007 Red & White. This brew is a strong Belgian-style witbier brewed with coriander and orange peel and fermented with pinot noir juice. "Usually it's bright red," noted Calagione, but the color darkened with age, and the flavor mellowed, as well.
What's Are You Drinking, Sam Calagione?
I asked Sam Calagione and his wife Mariah what they drink most at home. "A lot of 60-minute IPA," said Mariah, adding that they'd been enjoying a lot of their recently released winter seasonal, Piercing Pils, a Czech Style Pilsner made with white pear tea and pear juice added after the boil.
Sam also mentioned Sierra Nevada: "They're the brewery that first good me into beer, that and Chimay. And they've gotten more adventurous in the last ten years."
What else is in the family beer fridge? Beers from Short's Brewing in Michigan: "The tomato one, and a fruit one," said Sam Calagione. Other beers in the stash include some beers from Three Floyds and Lost Abbey. "We both like sour and hoppy," he said. To round it out, they've stashed "a bunch of Allagash."
Chef Dulye said that the second course was the most labor-intensive. He spent 5 1/2 hours prepping the squab for this dish, which featured an air-dried roasted squab breast and squab legs stuffed with pork fennel sausage. "That's how squab should be born," he noted. The squab was served with a risotto made with hazelnuts and pickled celery. The featured beer: a 2006-vintage Raison D'Extra, which Calagione pronounced "sherry-like and softer" than fresh, though it still clocks in at a whopping 18% ABV. Dulye said he aimed to intensify the flavors of the pairing by hanging the squab to dry, adding in the rich sausage and hazelnuts: "You have to think: What does the beer need?"
The final savory course featured Dulye's favorite cut of beef—the deckle—braised and served with wild mushrooms and a chesnut and brown butter puree, all under a few slices of dry aged seared ribeye. To top it off: a gougere stuffed with Rogue blue cheese that was vacuum sealed with bourbon and aged.
The beer match: World Wide Stout 2005, a beer I'd tasted recently when we tried out the whole vertical lineup. The imperial stout picked up the meat's char and stood up proudly to the pungent blue cheese.
For dessert, Dulye served compressed brioche (a brioche dough baked with 50 pounds of saute pans on top so it wouldn't rise) topped with fromage blanc mousse on a plate with roasted quince caramel sauce and a sorbet made from Dulye's own cider vinegar and pink peppercorns. The pairing: tart and smoky Immort Ale from 2006, made with maple syrup, vanilla beans, and peat-smoked barley.
The dinner was a one-night only affair (Sam and Mariah Calagione were in town for a board meeting for the boarding school where they were classmates) but there's more to check out at The Abbot's Cellar (and their sister restaurant, The Monk's Kettle) in the weeks to come, especially during the upcoming San Francisco Beer Week.