But beer is becoming increasingly refined, and matching beer with food can be as subtle and complex as wine. This point was driven home last weekend at a Wine vs. Beer Smackdown staged by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group at the Columbia Firehouse in Old Town Alexandria.
Wine director Juliana Santos and beer sommelier Greg Santos each selected pairings for six dishes, and about 80 guests sweltering in an upstairs loft at the restaurant were asked to compare how each beverage fared. As a wine lover, I was naturally biased towards Santos's interesting selections, which included some small-production wines offered by top-notch importers such as Terry Theise and Jonas Gustafsson. But beer had the advantage of the unexpected.
"Beer makers are really starting to act like winemakers, and that is resulting in beers that are fascinating to pair with food," Engert said. "They are regressing to pre-industrial techniques, before stainless steel cleaned everything up for nice simple beers ideal for drinking with wings." those borrowed techniques include barrel aging reserve beers, he said.
Here are my quick notes from the smack down as I pushed my way through the eager crowds at each table.
1. Tomato, watermelon, and sheep's milk feta, paired with Bodegas O'Ventosela "Vina Leirina" 2008 from Rueda, Spain, and 1809 Professor Fritz Briem & Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, Bavaria, Germany. The beer here had an unfair advantage, in that Engert mixed it with a splash or raspberry syrup that matched beautifully with the watermelon. The wine tasted thin and acidic in comparison. Advantage, BEER.
2. Tuna Tartare tacos, paired with Gobelsburg Riesling, 2009, Kamptal, Austria, and Hennepin Brewery Ommegang, New York. The beer picked up nicely on the fennel and apple in the tartare, while the Riesling jazzed with the citrusy dressing. DRAW.
3. Maryland Shoat Porchetta, with Belle Pente 2008 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Schlafly Bière de Garde, Saint Louis Brewery and Schlafly Tap Room, Missouri. Pork and Pinot - a divine combo, and this biodynamic wine shined with the shoat and its stuffing. The beer actually reminded me of my home brew experiments from 15 years ago. Advantage, WINE.
4. Dry aged roast beef and buttermilk blue cheese, with Conceito Tinto, 2007, Douro, Portugal, and Oerbier, Brouwerij de Dolle, Belgium. The beer's richness, at 9% alcohol, matched well with the cheese, and won my wife's vote. I preferred the wine for how it reflected the flavors of the beef. DRAW.
5. Charcuterie, with Cavoletto Dolcetto d'Alba "Vigna Scot" 2007, Piemonte, Italy, and Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen, Brauesrei Heller-Trum, Upper Franconia, Germany. The beer was smoked, which made it taste to me like a burnt-down house. The Dolcetto, on the other hand, may be God's own pairing with salami. Advantage, WINE.
6. Pecan Joy Candy Bars, with Domaine du Mas Blanc, 2007 Banyuls, France, and Coton, The Bruery, California. This dessert was so good that the matching became incredibly fun. The beer matched the richness of the gussied up candy bar, making me want more, while the wine melded seemlessly with the fruitier aspects of the coconut and the chocolate, signalling that the meal was over. Since I finished mine with the beer, I had to have another dessert. That one, I finished with the wine. DRAW.
So I guess I give a slight advantage to the wine in this contest, which given my bias may be expected. But I would gladly place my beverage selection in the hands of either Santos or Engert after enjoying the thoughtful and challenging selections for this wine-beer smack down.
Now, where was Bobby Flay?