Does Pairing Have a Price? The Happy Gnome Beer Dinner

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Is there such a thing as too much good beer? The recent $65 five-course beer dinner at The Happy Gnome seemed designed to put this proposition to the test; early arrivals to the pub were greeted with a bottomless beer glass from the night’s featured brewery, a Wisconsin upstart called Furthermore.

The bottomless glass was a session beer called Proper from Furthermore — so named because of its English Hops, prominently the Kent Golding. The beer wasn’t weak, and it had a sharp yet pleasing sweetness, two characteristics that rendered it barely recognizable as a session beer.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

A little after seven a bearded man addressed the crowd. “We are a two-man operation,” said Chris Staples, the head brewer at Furthermore Beer. He and his partner Aran Madden had come up from Spring Green, WI to attend the dinner.

After explaining the Proper he launched into the beer that was paired with the first course, the Knot Stock. “I include the IBU numbers for the hop heads and the Plato numbers for the stout drinker” said Chris, a man who clearly believed in the reassuring certainty of numbers. He said: “I want the beer head to know what they are getting.” Speaking with palpable passion, he talked not only numbers, but also about the fresh cracked pepper and Northern Brewer hops used in creating the Knot Stock.

First Course: Panzanella Salad, romaine, croutons, olives, feta, tomatoes, onions, creamy black peppercorn dressing

Beer: Knot Stock

The salad boasted fresh greens, crunchy, flavorful croutons and smooth peppercorn dressing. Lots of pepper was present, which prompted the question: Why pepper? After being served a beer with pepper, why would a diner also want a salad with the same spice profile? Two otherwise harmonious tastes put together made for a pepper overload. Is pairing simply a matter of finding synonymous tastes and putting them together? To put a finer point on it: If the beer has pepper, should the salad also have pepper?

Second Course: Patagonian Toothfish, bacon, sweet potato puree, roasted garlic, wilted frisee, pomegranate beurre blanc

Beer: Make Weight

Thickly cut Patagonian Toothfish arrived laid on a bed of sweet potato puree. The smoothness of the fish, mushy texture of the puree and crunch of the bacon was texture enough, but then came the slippery seeds of a pomegranate. Perfectly balanced; there was sweet, there was salt and there were appreciative tears.

Madden said: “I am the taller, thinner, more charming other 49 percent of Furthermore” as he raised a glass of the accompanying Make Weight. A seasonal beer that he says “captures the ethos of Furthermore Beer,” Make Weight was intended as a hearty beer that does more than merely ramping up the hops, a trick used by many (if not most) micro-brewers looking for big flavor. The use of Belgian candy sugar in the mash yielded sweetness that balanced the salty bacon and tart pomegranate, creating a culinary masterpiece painted with fermented nectar. It was complementary and a good working definition of “pairing”; a dish and beverage each yielding unique qualities that enhanced and balanced the qualities of the other.

At this point in the meal, Happy Gnome Executive Chef Matthew Hinman came out to address the crowd. Rather than addressing his philosophy of pairing, he instead addressed the sourcing of the Patagonian Toothfish, informing diners that the entree was not merely chosen for its cool name, but also because the Toothfish hailed from a small fishery in Georgia dedicated to the ethical treatment and raising of fish.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Third Course: Grilled Top Sirloin, roasted beet risotto, shiitake mushrooms, potato gaufrettes (crunchy waffle-cut chips)

Beer: Thermo Refur

Stacked like culinary Jenga sticks were the contrasting colors of ruby red beet risotto, blackened top sirloin and golden potato gaufrettes. The salty crunch of the gaufrettes and the smooth wetness of the beet risotto sandwiched the top sirloin in a balanced manner.

The name of the paired beer — “Thermo Refur” — shook diners from their reverie. Staples then thanked the chef for making a dish with beets as he informed us that beets were used in the brewing process to boost the fermentation of simple sugars.

The beer’s malty sweetness and heavy body elevated the sweetness of the beet risotto and carried through the robust taste of the sirloin. The sweet full-bodied beer was a fine pairing despite the repetition of beets in both the beer and the dish… in contrast to the first course’s overly peppery performance.

Cheese Course: Rogue Creamery Smoked Blue, dried fruit compote

Beer: Three Feet Deep

Savoring the cheese was far from enjoyable. The sauce that was drizzled on the plate had a pungent kick recalling that of Worcester sauce. Three Feet Deep, the Furthermore stout, was no relief. It brought an instant head rush and tasted eerily like drinking Copenhagen.

My long-lapsed chewing tobacco habit quickly flooded back from the past, a taste that nearly made me lose my Toothfish and risotto. That said: a poll of others at the table revealed a positive impression of the beer, which was made usingĀ  peat-smoked malt. As a pairing, it defied evaluation; does anything really pair with chewing tobacco? Possibly Miller Light, but even that is a stretch.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Dessert Course: Vanilla panna cotta, caramel apple sauce

Beer: Fallen Apple

On the heels of Three Feet Deep’s chaw-like flavor, anything would taste good. The vanilla panna cotta was made from local apples, and it held a firm shape but boasted a soft texture. The paired beverage was Fallen Apple, a seasonal beer that uses early harvest apples from Kickapoo Orchard in Gays Mills, WI. The two flavors put together created an apple overload; a chocolate stout would have been a far more enjoyable companion.

At meal’s end, diners sat with exhausted palates, even perceptive minds tied in knots by the stirring food and bold, progressive beers. As a value, the meal delivered at least $65 worth of impact. As for the pairings, there didn’t appear to be any overall rhyme or reason beyond an essential and reasonable guiding idea: it is worth taking a chance on a talented chef and seasoned brewer when they are in the same room.


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