Beer-battered shrimp and onion rings were once considered exciting. Beer and pizza? A pedestrian combination best relegated to late-night study halls. But all that is changing.
In the golden age of craft beer, increasingly chefs and brewers in beer-forward states like Maine are joining forces to elevate what’s on the plate and in the pint. And while no one was looking, food and beer pairings have gone upscale.
“Somewhere in Portland there’s a beer dinner happening every other week,” said Patrick Chavanelle, a brewer and technical lead at Allagash Brewing Co.
Next week a beer style Chavanelle introduced at the Portland brewery, saison, is the focus of a multi-course dinner with dishes prepared by chef Pierre Gignac of Ocean at the Cape Arundel Inn & Resort in Kennebunkport.
The Franco-Canadian chef sampled the dry, versatile Belgian beer, originally brewed by farmers in the winter for spring consumption, and used his well-trained palate to create a late-winter menu that does double duty: It showcases the nuances of saisons to augment hearty dishes such as cassoulet with flageolet beans and pork rillettes and highlights sweet endings like apple croustade with maple mousse.
Each course is prepared and served with Allagash Brewing’s saison beers, including a classic Saison, a wild yeast Century Ale, Interlude, and the barrel-aged Astrid. Allagash staff will be on hand to discuss each course.
It’s a good food beer because “the style is so broad,” said the brewer. “They range from very dry to acidic to fruity. Most saison are very dry so you won’t feel as full.”
Similar to wine dinners featuring far-flung regions such as Chile, beer dinners introduce consumers to new styles of beer while showcasing dynamic offerings of Maine breweries.
“People have been cooking with beer for decades and pairing food and beer,” said Eric Michaud, owner of Liquid Riot Bottling Co. in Portland, where 14 to 16 beers are brewed in house and offered on tap. “Now there is such a wide variety of flavors with beer it’s easier to pair food … Beer lends itself to so many profiles.”
Now until March 12, Liquid Riot Bottling offers a Maine Restaurant Week menu featuring first courses such as charred carrots, Sour Trouble beer with rosemary emulsion and Old Port bourbon gastrique. For dessert, diners can indulge in fried dough with a mocha stout dipping sauce.
“Our end goal is to have everything paired to complement each other, using some of the ingredients in our kitchen to go with our beer,” said Michaud. “Our new format is about using more beer and spirits in our food.”
Though preparing seasonal beer dinners can be limited this time of year, chefs welcome the creative exercise. Over the winter Gignac had time to work with flavors and test the featured saisons. This experience helped him hone his palate as he awaits his seafood restaurant’s March 25 reopening.
Sixty people are expected at the March 12 saison dinner held at Table, a new culinary event space in Kennebunk.
“I love Belgian-style beer. Being from Quebec, I was pleased to experience saison,” said Gignac. “It’s a fantastic beer to both cook and pair with food.”
Yeast and acidity, results of Allagash’s aging methods, yield a “low carbonation beer, which is great. The acidity worked well with fatty meats, the beer is subtle. I hit the nail right on the head,” said Ocean’s chef.
Though he has executed wine dinners, including a Veuve Clicquot pairing, this is Gignac’s first try with beer.
“I like to do untraditional paired dinners. It makes you think out of the box. You realize how versatile food and drink can be. It expands my own mind.”
Like Maine’s robust beer resurgence, food and beer experiences “are something that is growing,” said Michaud. Just as the craft beer scene shows no signs of stopping, “incorporating food and beer is following that movement,” said Michaud. “This is not a trend. Trends come and go.”
Tickets for the Allagash Saison Dinner are $65 and can be purchased at www.eventbrite.com or by calling 207-967-1510.