Thursday, June 26, 2014

To Embrace Sour Beer, Pair It With Food

When it comes to the craft beer movement I have to admit to a complicated relationship. Philosophically it's a wonderful thing - passionate, artisan brewers creating brews with depth, character, flavor - everything that American beer was not from the mid to late 20th century. My quibble has been with the super trends within the movement. You see, I prefer a malty brew - think stouts, dark and red ales, doppelbocks, and so on. I don't limit myself to them but that's certainly my go to. So I felt more than a little left out when hoppy beers (pale ales are the poster child) began dominating the craft beer universe several years ago. Frankly from where I sit and drink it's been an arms race to see who can make the hoppiest beer without causing the drinker's head to actually split open from an overdose of citrus, pine, and bitterness. (pine is the worst. yuck.).

When it appeared that IPA's and their ilk had reached peak popularity I was excited to see what was coming next. My enthusiasm was tempered more than a little when I learned the heir apparent to craft beer trendiness would be, wait for it... Sour Beer. Sounds tasty, right? The good news for me was sour beers generally have little or no hoppiness. The bad news? They're actually sour. The first ones I sampled tasted like a tablespoon or so of vinegar had been stirred into them. Two or three more years of this sounds like a death sentence.

Certified cicerone Celina Tio knows something about beer.
Enter Celina Tio and her newest destination in the Crossroads, The Belfry. In addition to being a celebrated and award winning chef, Tio is also one of the very few certified cicerones in Kansas City. A cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn) is not only someone who possesses a great knowledge of all things beer (from raw ingredients to production to storage, tasting, and serving) but he/she must also pass a comprehensive examination (essay questions!) to achieve certification. So Tio knows her stuff, is on a mission to introduce great beer to Kansas Citians, and is in fact also a big fan of sour beer.

So, What is this stuff?
To make regular beer brewers add yeast to boiled grains to ferment the sugars into alcohol. Yay Alcohol! Then it's pretty much done. With sour beers they also add the bacteria Lactobacillus and Pediococcus and sometimes Brettanomyces. That last one is a wild yeast and is notable for creating flavors best described as often fruity and sometimes leathery, or even barnyard. Red wine lovers will know this can be a very good thing.

Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales at Collection
Of course once in the hands of the thousands of micro brewers and their individual techniques the flavor spectrum gets pretty wide. And that's where a cicerone like Tio (or Erica Pyles at Bridger's Bottle Shop) can help. At The Belfry, Tio and her staff have poured me quite a range of sour beers this year and some are certainly more approachable than others. However, I had yet to find one that I really enjoyed drinking on it's own - you know just the beer and it's vessel and maybe some conversation. And as it turns out, as a sour beer neophyte, I may have been going about it the wrong way. Apparently Tio thought so as she encouraged me to attend one of her beer dinners where, like a traditional wine dinner, she prepares a multi-course meal that is expertly paired with just the right beer. The dinner I attended was a collaboration between Tio and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. It turns out Jolly Pumpkin's Ron Jeffries is one of the pioneers of the sour beer movement. In fact he is a big proponent of letting wild yeast and bacteria find the beer naturally - a little less control but most certainly yielding more interesting results.

Dinner, held at Tio's restaurant Collection that adjoins The Belfry was a five-course affair and is pictured below. While I'm no sour beer evangelist I'll say that, paired with the appropriate food, sour beers certainly have a place in my wheelhouse of beverages.

These beer dinners are getting pretty popular. You'll find them periodically at Celina Tio's Collection as well as Bridger's Bottle Shop, Happy Gillis Cafe and Hangout, Providence New American Kitchen and probably elsewhere. Know of one? Leave a comment at the end of this post!


White Pepper Compressed Melon, Grilled Haloumi Cheese
Paired with: Los Vivos y Los Muertos Saison
This sour ale is brewed with pumpkin and lime and while I'm not good enough to tease out any pumpkin flavors the beer itself was a nice match to both the fruit and the briny cheese.


Gabanzo Bean Polenta, Raw Vegetable Salad, Olive Oil
Paired with: Jolly Pumpkin Baudelaire iO
This ale is brewed with rose hips, rose petals and hibiscus. No surprise to find floral notes here. A relatively simple sourish ale paired with a rather simple dish.


Curried Rice and Lentils with Herbed Yogurt Sauce
Paired with: Ale Absurd
This Belgian style tripel is brewed with rye. As it starts with a high amount of malt (typically triple *tripel* the normal quantity) and has a rye element there is no surprise why this was my favorite of the evening. I'm drinking one as I write as a matter of fact. At 8.3% alcohol it's not to be taken lightly. It was a nice companion to the robust curry and acidic yogurt of this dish.


Seared Ribeye with Shishito Peppers, Kumquat, Maggi
Paired with: Saison Z (no photo)
Saison Z as I understand it is no longer available. I think it was somewhat experimental. FWIW... perfect with this course. My favorite dish of the evening. Not just because it's meat. The peppers and kumquats - divine.


Chocolate Truffle (no photo. why are are all my dessert photos blurry?)
Paired with: Madrugada Obscura
A very rich chocolate truffle needs a stout. This a strange stout however. It definitely has that sourness that I've been tasting all evening but just enough coffee, cherry and maybe some smoke to make it right for this dessert.