One chef's crash course in pairing beer and food

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 4
September 1, 2012 By Ken Weaver

In early fall of 2011, Laura Lodge approached Todd Bemis, Vail Cascade Resort & Spa’s executive chef about an upcoming beer-and-food event. It would be Lodge’s 12th year coordinating the popular Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail, Colorado, one crucial element of which are the two dinners held on consecutive nights. Each dinner features two breweries, and each course is paired with two different beers—an intriguing challenge even for seasoned beer chefs.

Todd Bemis, executive chef at Vail Cascade Resort & Spa

“She wanted to bring another chef in,” recalls Bemis, “or wanted me to get ahold of another chef to come in and do one of the two brewers dinners, and then for me to do the other one, because they wanted them to be as different as possible. And I looked at her and told her, ‘That’s kind of like letting someone drive your Ferrari.’ ”

As it worked out, Bemis would instead split up his in-house team of chefs, with him and Executive Sous Chef Jay Spickelmier tackling the main Brewmasters’ Dinner, and chefs du cuisine Stephen Belie and Maria Sacconi coordinating the Calibration Dinner the day before. While some of the chefs either had experience with the previous year’s event or came in with some homebrewing knowledge, the event’s concept and intricacies were new to Bemis.

Born in Edmond, OK, and raised in north Texas, Bemis started cooking professionally at age 16. He’s managed hotels and overseen banquet operations. In his position at Vail Cascade, he and his team accommodate more than 1,000 daily visitors during peak holiday seasons. Logistics weren’t the issue.

As Bemis explains, “I grew up in Texas, and my idea of beer was, you sit down on a log after you mow the lawn and have a beer.” Bemis would be responsible for formulating a five-course pairing menu for the festival’s main dinner, which would highlight two industry heavyweights: Breckenridge Brewery from Denver and Bell’s Brewery from Kalamazoo, MI. The event also would be Bemis’ first foray into craft beer.

Welcome to the Jungle

While beer-and-food pairings have become far more commonplace in recent years, crafting a multiple-course pairing menu can present all sorts of new considerations.. Most educational resources (like books and websites)  focus on one plate and one beer at a time. In planning for a full dinner, chefs are called upon to think on a considerably grander scale about everything from how the courses will work cohesively, to managing portions, to managing people, to accounting for constraining menu themes.

Sean Z. Paxton of the TV show The Homebrew Chef is one of the country’s  renowned beer chefs and has been involved in elaborate menu planning. “Are you working with one brewery and their whole beer lineup?” Paxton asks rhetorically, reflecting on the themes that he’s encountered. “Are you looking at something like a Belgian beer dinner, where you’re celebrating Belgian beer and all the different complexities of all the different styles and flavors? I’ve done dinners where it’s focused all on hops and IPA, and six courses of IPAs—would you hit a lupulin threshold?”

There’s the goal of making each course part of a progression of flavors, as Paxton puts it, as well as showcasing each beer successfully. While there’s no lack of resources on how to generally pair beer styles with different foods, the devil’s often in the details.

“Name me three IPAs that taste the same,” Paxton says as a way of making the point. Accounting for underlying nuances can be as important to the process as knowing classic pairings, particularly when working with craft beers far outside traditional style guidelines.

To better understand the beers they would be working with, the Vail Cascade group traveled to Denver’s Breckenbridge Brewery where brewmaster Todd Usry organized a tasting.

Usry describes the scene that developed: “I had myself, my quality-control brewer, our lab guy, another one of our brewers who’s just got a real good palate, and my wife (who does public relations for the brewery), and then they brought down their contingent. You should have just seen the table we sat down at with 24 beers on it.” Bemis’ first formal craft-beer tasting included Breckenridge’s 72 Imperial Chocolate Cream Stout and whiskey-barrel-aged Vanilla Porter, as well as Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and Hopslam Ale.

“He was very, let’s say, introspective,” says Usry.

“We’d throw out kind of our design on the beer, what we were trying to achieve in making the beer and the flavors we were looking for—and you’d see him smile to himself. He’s got this kind of a wry smile, and you could see him smile to himself and nod his head and know… that his brain was just churning away.”

Having established common ground, the groups gradually tasted the full lineup of beers, exposing Bemis to the craft-beer lexicon while trying to formulate pairings. They eventually narrowed it down to seven pairs of beers, which helped shape the underlying structure of the final menu.

For the first time, Bemis came to terms with what was being asked of him in his inaugural beer dinner

“What I find is most people don’t really think about what they’re tasting,” Bemis says. “It’s just good or it’s not, for the average guy or gal. But when I sat down and talked with the guys at Breck[enridge], what I began to realize is these guys really think about what they’re tasting. And that’s where I had to go.” The beer pairings decided, the rest of the menu would be up to Bemis and his team.

“I left with a lot to think about,” he says. “A whole lot to think about.”

Rules of Three

At an earlier point in his career, Bemis worked a restaurant where one of his duties was to crumble up Stilton cheese for a French buffet. Not a fan of the cheese, he referred to it as stinky socks’  Eventually the German chef he worked with took him aside and told him to get some Stilton. When Bemis refused to eat the sock-like cheese, the chef went to the restaurant bar and returned with an old bottle of port.

“He said, ‘Eat the cheese,’” Bemis recalls. “And I’m like, really? And he goes, ‘Shut up and eat the cheese.’ OK. Yes, chef. And I ate the cheese, and then he gave me the port.”

Bemis recounts the incident clearly, as something of a gastronomic signpost. The classic pairing of Stilton and port worked, and he remembers wondering, “How can two things that taste so different taste so good together?” He took the lesson to heart.

There’s a notable shift in Bemis’ intonation when he changes from talking beer to talking food. From the beginning, it was established that the chefs wouldn’t be cooking with the beers. After doing a bit of basic research, he lost interest in cut-and-dried recommendations pretty quickly.

“The reality is, once I got to tasting the food with the beers and things like that, the nuances that made the beers go together, you just had to find that right note in-between to hit with the food. That’s kind of what made it a challenge.”

Some of the pairings fell into place more easily than others. Breckenridge ESB and Bell’s Hopslam Ale were the welcome drinks, while Breckenridge’s Regal Pilsner and Bell’s Quinannan Falls Special Lager Beer (both crisp, hoppy lagers) were a natural fit for the lighter fare of artisan cheeses and winter fruits. The other pair of reception beers—Summer Cab Ride from Breckenridge (a lower-alcohol golden ale aged in Cabernet barrels) and Bell’s Cherry Stout (reminiscent of a lightly tart chocolate-covered cherry)—were worlds apart and required a bit more effort. The common core notes between the two of them were fruitiness and acidity, which worked well with a range of charcuterie and foie gras pâté rolled into balls that were then dipped into a sweet-tart gelatin. The two reception courses brought together meat, cheese and fruit, with the part of fruity acidity supplied by the winter fruit in one pairing, and by the beers themselves in the other.

From his Texan roots and the experience at Breckenridge, Bemis knew he wanted to include a barbecued course. A smoked pheasant barbecue followed the reception courses, serving as a rich accompaniment to a winter salad, spicy vinaigrette and pickled red onions. Two malty beers, a whiskey-barrel-aged ESB from Breckenridge and Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury (a Belgian-style dubbel), tempered the spice and hit a natural chord of whiskey, barbecue and beer.

“Because of the time of year, we preferred to use some greens that brought a little bit of bitterness. I believe we used frisée, maybe just a touch of radicchio and a few other greens in there,” Bemis says.

Bemis had already decided that he would be serving ribeye as the entrée course. To break up the richness between that and the preceding smoked pheasant, he looked to classic menu design and inserted a fish course.

He chose an aromatic fresh salmon baked on cedar planks, with saffron butter and a tarragon cherry relish adding some acidity.

He included vanilla in the salmon preparation, and the sweetness was provided by the beers: Breckenridge’s  whiskey-barrel-aged Vanilla Porter and Bell’s Black Note bourbon-barrel-aged stout. A light bitterness from both cut the fish’s oiliness while fitting with the floral tarragon and cedar.

The ribeye entrée incorporated curry-based dry rub and chili paste, the modest heat accentuated by two potent IPAs. The final course, a spiced almond mousse, included a slight addition of chili powder to add complexity and tie it into the previous course, while bringing together the disparate pairing of Breckenridge 72 Imperial and Bell’s Sparkling Ale.

Lasting Impressions

The two successful pairing dinners—both the Bemis and Spickelmier dinner and the similarly challenging Calibration Dinner orchestrated by Belie and Sacconi —helped make the  craft-beer pairings a mainstay at the resort.

The resort has launched a Craft Beer, Creative Cuisine series, an expanded craft-beer selection,  educational seminars with visiting Colorado brewmasters, and learning packages hosted by Lodge, Bemis and Pastry Chef Kendra Hamilton.

“When we started talking about it and really getting involved in the planning stages of the beer festival, we made the decision to start down this road,” Bemis says of their craft-beer initiatives. “It’s become part of who we are.”

Ken Weaver
Ken Weaver is a freelance writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He’s the author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide with photographer Anneliese Schmidt.