This last July, during American beer month, I was invited to do a beer and chocolate tasting for Oregon’s Rogue Brewing Co. in their pub here in Portland. I declined. I’ve done beer and chocolate all across the country, and American Beer Month didn’t seem like the best time for that, so I recommended beer and cheese. Jack Joyce, the genial CEO of Rogue Brewing, was delighted with that idea. I suggested that we get a good variety of craft beer and a nice selection of craft cheeses from Oregon. He set a ticket price up front: $10 for eight beer and cheese combinations, and we later added a ninth.
I warned him that I wasn’t going to get cheep (sic) cheese for this venture, and that $10 might not cover expenses. I spoke of cheese at $25 per pound and higher. He may have taken more serious note of this when I bought $743 worth of really fine American cheese for an estimated 100 people, but by then, it was too late to change the price. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find eight Oregon craft cheeses, particularly when I removed Oregon’s most famous cheese maker (Tillamook) from the list. We had to go to Washington, California and even New York to wind out the cheese list. Sometime I’ll tell you about that tasting-it’s a good story. But here, the real point is that only recently have the necessary craft cheeses and beers been available for such a tasting.
More important, the experience set me thinking. We humans have been drinking alcohol beverages and eating fine food almost since our departure from hunting and gathering. We’ve become grand gourmands over these last several centuries. In the old days, drunkenness came from eating AND drinking. Our societies didn’t just plunge into drunkenness. Usually, we ate and drank our way into such a grand finish. But that slowly evolved into drinking just for effect. Food be damned. We got ourselves into a lot of trouble that way. Then, of course, the prohibitionists pounced on us to prevent any drinking of alcohol beverages; and that got us into even more trouble. Lawlessness became rampant as we ignored Prohibition. Fortunately, that war on alcohol failed, as indeed it should have.
Food and drink are magical, but only in the last 20 years or so have we managed to tune our senses to the array of grand food and drink possibilities out there. We have ethnic foods from every society, often just down the street. We have all of the distilled alcohol beverages on the planet at our fingertips. We have the finest wines in the world, delivered to our doorstep, in some cases; and, of course, we have over 100 beer styles with which to frolic.
Now, the truth is this: you can have only a limited variety of hard liquors at a given dinner, and even then, you take chances. We humans can drink only so much before we pass out or start killing each other. Wine? Yes, but wine is only varietal. You can have red or white, dry or sweet, sherrified or fortified. There’s not nearly the variety that we’ve been telling ourselves about over the last few centuries. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention saké, and there are many possibilities there, too; but beer is truly universal. Now there’s a real dining beverage. Beer is varietal AND seasonal, strong and weak, light and dark. Chilled or warm, beer has it all. A beverage for the 21st century.
The Rise of the Beer Dinner
We have, in fact, only just arrived at this delightful state of affairs. I don’t think that Michael Jackson invented the beer dinner, but I do know that he has carried the idea all around the world, from Belgium (where there have always been enough beer types nearby for proper dining) to the rest of Europe, and also to Japan, Australia and America.
In this country, until Jackson came along, one might have a beer with one’s hot dog and feel well treated for that; but there was really only one beer type, American light. You might have nibbled a cracker and cheese with that beer, perhaps even munched your way through a McBurger. But one really had to move into the vineyards to find proper libation for a high-class dining pleasure.
It wasn’t really until the mid- to lateI980s that enough beer styles had evolved, under one roof, to dine with a decent variety of beers. We were approaching a critical mass in beer styles, and that’s when everything became possible.
I was dabbling with ways to irritate the IRS when I thought of chocolate and beer. My thought was to take chocolate off my taxes. What a coup! It never occurred to me that beer could actually be seen in chocolate’s divine company; it was just a way to step on the IRS tail.
Much to my surprise, beer does indeed go with chocolate. And with desserts of most types, including ice cream. More important, beer also goes with a stunning variety of other foodstuffs. Every year, I get invited down to the Dixie Cup in Houston to frolic in the sun and do a beer and god-only-knows-what tasting. We’ve done sausage, bread, nuts, cheese, and even breakfast cereal with our beer (porter is especially nice with Grape Nuts flakes). As I write this, I am planning a beer and Mexican food tasting for this crazy group. What beer goes with pickled jalapenos? I’ve no idea, but a nice lambic might work.
But I digress, and as I said, Michael Jackson developed this whole idea. I remember my first MJ dinner, probably in Colorado. It was an astounding idea: a different beer style with each course, and beer used in preparation for that course as well. What a revelation! On two occasions I have had the opportunity to back up one of his dinners with dessert courses and beers to match.
The first time this happened was in Plano, TX. Texas has some really weird liquor laws. Each county and municipality can pretty much ruin things as they wish. Plano, between Fort Worth and Dallas, was (in 1988) a place where you had to be a “member” to drink in a bar. The hotel bar was inaccessible without showing one’s room key to prove such “membership.” Michael and I were there for the Blue Bonnet homebrew competition. He did dinner; I did dessert. I had planned a modest array of chocolates and beers, ending with my favorite concoction, a stout and ice cream float. I had even brought a 3-gallon canister of McMenamin’s Terminator Stout from Portland for that purpose, but Plano has a requirement that commercial beers may not be served in the same place as noncommercial brews. McMenamin’s was a “gift” beer, hence, noncommercial.
So, when we got to that beer/ice cream combination, the evening’s finale, we all (about a hundred of us, led by Michael and me) had to get up from our tables and walk down hallways some 150 yards to another dining area, where we were then to be served the Terminator stout ice cream float.
You knew there’d be a glitch, didn’t you?
I always leave directions to the wait staff to take all beers out of refrigeration when the tasting starts, so that as we progress from pale to dark beer, and from light to heavy, we have ever warmer beer to drink. What I didn’t realize was that the staff had also taken the ice cream out of refrigeration at that time. That’s when we had the crazy spectacle of the hotel (at 11:00 p.m.) sending out for vanilla ice cream. A memorable evening, indeed.
We’ve arrived! For the first time in the history of the planet, we can actually have a different beer style for every course of a dinner where every course comes from a different ethnicity. If we add wine, saké, and single malt Scotch to those possibilities–well, plan to spend the night there–and hope you can find your way to a bed. A new day is dawning, but will we have a hangover, or what?