Just when I was beginning to think I was getting a handle on wine, along came beer. Not just any old beer, but microbrews and home brewsbeers that are the work of designers and artisans, beers
that have their own status and their own celebrity. Beer with a capitol “B.”
When it comes to beer, here’s my frame of reference: My grandfather drank Ballantine (official beer of the Philadelphia Phillies), and my grandmother drank whatever my grandfather was drinking. My parents drank Miller High Life or Gennessee, which is brewed in upstate New York. As a teenager, I drank Rolling Rock.
When I left home to live in New York, I took great comfort in knowing that, no matter how far apart we were, at 5 p.m. on any given day, my grandfather Alton, my grandmother Ethel, my mother Joyce, her sister Donalyn, and I were all doing exactly the same thing. We were opening a beer and pouring it into a chilled glass taken directly out of the freezer.
During my New York sojourn, I drank Miller Lite. My Irish boyfriend drank Heineken exclusivelyhe also drank it compulsively and excessivelybut it was a little too stout for my taste. Besides, by that time I had already discovered wine and had moved beyond pop tops and pull-tabs.
I visited my first brew pub during a trip to Crested Butte, Colo.it was The Idle Spur on Elk Avenue. I enjoyed trying the different beers, and I certainly liked the idea that the beer I was drinking had been made right on the premises, not more than 15 feet away from my barstool.
In the last few years, brew pubs have sprung up in Nashville like toadstools after a summer rain. Restaurants that weren’t brewing their own beers are suddenly offering serious beer menus. All of a sudden, it seems, it isn’t enough anymore that I’m writing about food and doing my best to keep up in the world of wine; now I have to write about beer too. Hops and barley and malt have come into my life.
Boscos on 21st Avenue South hosted a Brewmaster’s Dinner the other night, and it seemed the perfect opportunity for me to indulge myself in a little continuing education, beer-wise. I made reservations and invited four friends to accompany me. Two of them are home brewers, with spouses who are home drinkers. A few tables had been set up in one section of the room, where Chuck Skypeck, head brewer/partner at Nashville’s Boscos, circulated among us, talking about the beers and explaining why they had been paired with the various food courses.
Chuck started out with a little history: Before Prohibition, he explained, there were about 4,000 breweries in the United States. The industry had to be localizedmostly because of difficulties with transporting and shipping the product. In 1925, five years after Prohibition had gone into effect, there were still about 700 breweries in the U.S. In the 1970s, beer-making (not to mention fashion and music) hit rock bottom; in the entire country, there were only 32 breweries. Now the beer-making industry is on a rebound. At last count, approximately 1,000 microbreweries were in operation around the country.
Americans don’t seem to think of beer as something you drink in conjunction with foodunless your diet consists mainly of hot dogs, chips, and pizza. The fact of the matter is, when it comes time to sit down for dinner in middle America, you won’t find beer on many dining-room tables. Yet, in Northern Europe serving beer with food is a tradition, just as it’s a tradition in Southern Europe to serve wine at almost every meal. The knock on beer with food, says Skypeck, is that it is too fillingwhich it is if you’re quaffing 16-ouncers. At the Boscos dinner, each of our courses was accompanied by a petite 5-ounce glass.
In most European countries, Skypeck says, beer is part of the cuisine, part of the regular diet. “What is beer?” Skypeck asked and proceeded to answer himself. “Water, barley, hops, malt, and yeast. Beer is food.” (You were right, Mom.)
Our beer dinner started with a very spicy black-bean dip and chipstypical American beer food that provided the perfect contrast to the Tennessee Cream Ale’s pale color. With its nice body, it was very refreshing, a beer aperitif, if you will. In fact, each of us had a refill.
Our appetizer course consisted of individual pizzas with apple-pork sausage, one of the most popular sausages served at Boscos’ regular Wednesday-night beer and sausage tastings. On this occasion, it was served with Oktoberfest beer. The traditional Oktoberfest celebration takes place in September, and that’s when this beer was tapped. It was so well received this year that, to save enough for the Brewmaster dinner, the taps had to be turned off early. Now, in the wake of the dinner, there’s no more Oktoberfest until next year. Just your luck.
According to Skypeck, beer should either contrast with or compete with the food. Traditionally, American factory-made beer has done neither; it has simply been used to wash down the food. Here, the strong malt character and spicy hoppiness of the Oktoberfest stood its ground against the strong flavors of the pizza.
I’d make repeated trips to Boscos for the seared tuna salad, if they offer it as an entrée. A nice mound of tender mesclun greens took up one side of the plate, while slices of rare grilled tuna were fanned out across the other side. In between, there was a puddle of intense-flavored beer-mustard dressing. We used it as a dipping sauce. The accompanying beer was Toll Gate Ale, which boasted a dry hop character but had a distinct fruity flavor. Hops, according to Skypeck, can help to cleanse the palate.
We had a choice of entréesbeef Stroganoff on wild and domestic rice or grilled duck breast with apple-cherry chutney. Not surprisingly, our choices were divided along gender linesthe men went for the beef. The beer, in either case, was Germantown Alt, a heavy-bodied, dark ale that’s a traditional accompaniment to red meat and game. The duck was superb, and the chutney added the perfect autumnal zing.
Beer with dessert? No such thing, you might think. But try the Isle of Skye Scottish Ale along with the Black Forest Cake. The creamy, full-flavored, dark ale worked beautifully with the bittersweet chocolate cake.
The Brewmaster’s Dinner was not only a satisfying culinary experience and a terrific opportunity to sample a wide variety of beers; it was educational and enlighteningand it was a great deal at $24.95 per person. My compliments to the chef, Ralph Gabriel, and our server, Ryan.
Brewmaster’s Dinners are scheduled every three months or so at Boscos. Call Boscos (385-0050) for more information. Boscos is located at 1805 21st Ave. S.
♦ Blackstone Restaurant and Brewery also introduced a beer during its Oktoberfest celebration. Mazen Beer, which has its origins in Munich, is brewed in March so that it can be allowed to ferment through the summer. Then it’s tapped for the harvest celebration. Mazen Beer, according to the Blackstone folks, is a lager, amber-colored with moderate sweetness and a rich malty aroma and flavor. It is currently on tap at Blackstone (1918 West End Ave. 327-9969) for $3 a pint.