Driving up the Bitterroot Valley under a high, spring sun can be distracting. The jagged peaks of the mountains dancing in and out of sunlight, and the glistening river snaking along beside you can drive a man to daydream. Lucky for me I had my trusty traveling companion, my best friend whom I’ve known since third grade, the one who keeps me on the straight and narrow, so to speak. Now a lot of guys wouldn’t instinctively grab their wife when running off to a beer dinner at a nice craft brewery. After all, most of our quaffing is done in the presence of other beer nerds, and a beer nerd my wife is not.
But craft beer can be redemptive, and I want to tell you why.
Many years ago, my wife would only sip a little pink wine once in a while. Fast forward many years and a hard-working husband who would bring home every imaginable type and style of wine trying to grow her palate. Flash forward a few more years later, and she’s sitting on the beach sipping a Corona with about a dozen lime wedges stuff in the neck.
Flash forward to Sunday night at Bitterroot Brewing. Many years of hard work have produced a palate able to taste different beers and discern flavor differences. But it didn’t really matter, you could have been a novice and enjoyed the amazing spread that evening.
A decent crowd mingled before the event, standing around an L-shaped table with white linen. The evening sun bounced off red-brick buildings in view out the back of the brewery’s upstairs dining area.
There were a few acquaintances, and we introduced ourselves to others sitting around us about to become “beer buddies.”
The cheerful servers poured each diner some Nut Brown ale, which we sniffed, sipped, swirled and otherwise quaffed. Then two perfectly seared sea scallops appeared with a roasted green chili corn puree and a dollop of preserved lime “Beer” blanc.
A bit of the scallop alone was enough to dissolve into a long, savoring sigh, but with a bit of the puree and the lime condiment added, it brought out the faint hops in the Nut Brown like warming to a new found friendship.
Conversation rose and fell like a tide, coming back at times to the craft beer and proceeding on to politics, music and technology. Always it came back to beer.
My wife had struck up a conversation with a delightful lady across the table from her over the first beer, and much like flavors build one on top of another, little commonalities grew to become shared experiences, which are fertile grounds for the blossoming of friendship.
The very last of the brewery’s vaunted Collabeeration Porter was served into snifters, and those of us who know and love the beer let it warm in the glass to reveal the deep vanilla and chocolate flavors hiding there. Even through the sweet seared pork tenderloin sitting on a bed of charred radicchio and glazed with an apple cider reduction and chunks of festive Gorgonzola dotting the plate, we let our beer sit, sipping slowly to combine the tart apple flavors and faint bitterness on the radicchio with the bold malt on the beer. Masterful.
The only flaw I could see coming was my own. I’ve never been able to convince my wife as to the shear pleasure of India Pale Ale, which was the beer pairing for a root vegetable gratin in a buttermilk cauliflower sauce with crumbled goat cheese. Fortunately, the creamy sauce with plenty of butter made for a nice palate coating that took a little bitterness off the IPA. And for the first time ever while drinking an IPA, I saw her smile. Of course it could have been the new friend she found sitting across the table, but I like to think it was a little of both.
The intermezzo, or palate cleanser, very nearly wiped away the palate memories of the foods and beers just tried, which is what it’s intended to do, and yet it also served as a great connecting bridge. A spoonful of malted parsnip sorbet topped with candied ginger kept some of the best flavors of beer moving us forward, rather than just washing away. Brilliant.
And now to my epiphany, for I have seen a good thing, and it has changed my life. Duck has been my fascination for many years. From hunting the birds along ditches and small ponds as a teenager to hunting for the perfect duck dish in restaurants, I’ve pursued this wonderful food for a long time without really understanding what I was looking for.
The new and amazing Imperial Red Ale recently released at Bitterroot Brewing Company provided the ground work for my epiphany. With a smooth, caramel and toasted bread body and a nose that faintly reminds one of the night smell of hop harvest, this big red ale spoke of rich flavors combined in a fowl melange. Which is exactly what showed up on our table. Bowls of hearty cassoulet, rich and creamy with chunks of duck bacon, chanterelle mushrooms and duck-fat-infused beans held up duck sausages and seared duck tenderloin. And the big red ale curled around this goodness adding a slight sweetness and mingling with gamey duck with floral hints of spring bursting from each bite. Inspired.
Full to bursting, we conversed in rapid-fire exclamations at the shared epiphany, while others simply sipped the remaining beer in pondering silence.
And unlike other beer dinners, which sometimes end in a big stout or porter as a pairing for dessert, the Belgian Honey Trippel, dripping with fireweed honey and lavish Belgian yeast notes of cloves, cinnamon and bready goodness, was poured to combine with a sweet potato beignet and orange peel ice cream with a delightful molasses caramel drizzled over the plate. Light and with almost perfect pairing flavors of orange and cream and caramel and breadiness, this dish almost single-handedly captures the pure power that beer and food combinations can have.
And so we ended the night completely satisfied and fast friends with our dining companions, a testament to what craft beer and food can do in a slow, contextual way. The Bitterroot Brewing dinner was one of the best examples of how craft beer is the greatest lubricant to conversation and friendship I’ve ever seen. And I’m raising my glass to many more of these in the future. My compliments to the brewers, the chef, the servers, my table mates and my soul mate who made Sunday night unforgettable.