Sunday, October 16, 2011

What does an Oenophile do at a beer fest? If you don't know...

Yesterday Hubby and I went to the 2011 Decatur Craft Beer Festival. Yep, craft beer, as in the only presence of the big advertisers was the Budweiser breathalyzer tent. Maybe they were trying to hint that their crappy beer wouldn't get you as drunk as the good stuff. I wasn't originally going to go after a miserable, freeze my butt off experience two years ago, but I figured hey, my beer palate has expanded, so why not? I wasn't disappointed.

I'll go ahead and get the complaining out of the way. No, it wasn't the drunk people that bothered me, but more the lack of water toward the end of the day (thank you to the volunteer who took pity on me and gave me his) and the cigar smoke. Seriously, Beer Fest, you had to have a cigar-seller there? I'm allergic to tobacco smoke, so I ended up with an instant headache and some other issues once the cigar smokers reached a critical enough mass it was hard to get away from them.

Okay, complaints over. I'm not a hop girl, although I do appreciate hop guys. Here's a picture of me with a couple of hop wranglers – check out the hoppy embroidery on the shirts. They were good sports. So was the Decatur policewoman who took the picture.

We mostly hung out with friends Dan Browning and his wife, famous violinist Kirsten Browning (who needs a web site to tout her wonderfulness). This was probably good for me, as they and Hubby encouraged me to try things I otherwise wouldn't.

My beer tastes run towards the malty rather than hoppy. Consequently, I'm more into Belgian-style than American style. Sometimes these parameters make things easy. India Pale Ale (IPA)? No, thank you. Dubbel, Trippel, or Quadruppel? Yes, please! Milk stout, uh… The ones I tried tended to be too bitter for me but would have been lovely with some ice cream. I suspect that other oenophiles who prefer wine over beer would also go for malty, which tends to be smoother. Think about hops as being like tannins: you want enough for structure, but too much, and the bitterness is overwhelming.

Note-taking on my cell phone got a little tricky as the festival went on, so I'll hit the highlights. Here are my awards for the day:

Best Hot Day Sipper: Highland Clawhammer Octoberfest. It was smooth, only hoppy on finish, and with sweet malt mid palate. After the random guys in lederhosen appeared, it seemed even more perfect. Oh, they weren't even the weirdest. One couple came dressed as good zombie angel ballerina, and bad zombie angel ballerina. They were both guys. I wonder if they thought the Little Five Points parade was going to leave from the Beer Fest? Although I was tempted, I did not ask them if they had new sympathy for the women in their lives after they went to the port-o-potties. Leotards can be a pain to get on and off in a confined space.

Biggest Surprise: Oskar Blues' Old Chub Scotch Ale. I thought I was going to hate it. The spot-on description on their web site says, "A head-turning treat for malt heads and folks who think they don’t dig dark beer." No, it wasn't a Belgian, but I could definitely drink it again with its malty, coffee, chocolate notes.

Hardest to tweet about after a few: North Coast Brewing's Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale. Yes, I liked it. Here is my note: "North Coast Brother Thrlonious lives up to Belgian abbey ale promise." I was doing well with my touch-screen, but having to spell Thelonious would probably be a good sobriety test. I also really liked their PranQster Belgian Style Golden Ale.

Weirdest Beer: New Belgium's lineup (the three I tried). Hubby thought I would like the Super Cru. I had mixed feelings. It had some very sour notes I didn't appreciate on their own but would have probably gone well with food. However, I did like New Belgium's dubbel-style Abbey Ale, which had a dominant first flavor of banana (weird, but good) and Trippel. Yes, it boggles me that a brewery named New Belgium only has a few beers I like.

Strange Potentially Religious Coincidence: I tried the He'Brew Genesis 15:15, a Barleywine, and the Lost Abbey 10 Commandments beer back-to-back. With the Genesis 15:15's 13.4% A.B.V., and the 10 Commandments' 9%, it's no wonder I was on the verge of a religious experience. No, I don't think there were any messages from the divine in there, but I found two beers I'd drink again.

Consistently Good Award: Unibroue I've loved Unibroue since I stumbled (not literally) upon them at a beer festival in San Francisco last year. I realize it wasn't very adventurous, but I cozied up to the table and enjoyed their Fin du Monde, Maudite, and Trois Pistoles. Since their A.B.V. (percentage of alcohol) across the three beers are 8-9%, that pretty much finished me for the day. I'm glad I saved them for last. This is a girly thing to say, but they also have the prettiest labels. This one's for the Trois Pistoles:

Beer geeks know that I.B.U. stands for International Bitterness Units. The threshold for being able to distinguish it is 90. From the web sites I could pull up, the I.B.U. of the beers I liked were 25 and below. Fellow oenophiles who dislike bitterness and like geekery may find this a good place to start. I dare you to ask the bartender what the I.B.U. of the beer he/she is pouring you is. The only one I know up to the task would be The Marlay House's Andrew, who educated me on I.B.U.'s and gave me the 90 I.B.U. taste threshold tidbit. That factoid won my team some beer at a trivia night.

So, is there a place for an oenophile at a beer fest? Definitely! It's a great place to hang with friends and try beers you'd never order. I found some that I want to try again, with food and without. You can take the oenophile away from the pairing...

By the way, I'm drinking Viognier today.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Test driving the new chef at Feast: Villa Maria Wine Dinner

When you buy a new car, you get to take a test drive with a hopeful salesman beside you. When you buy a house, you get to visit it with a hopeful realtor and have it inspected by a professional. But what about when one of your favorite restaurants gets a new chef?

Sure, you hope he or she has been thoroughly vetted by people you trust, but the consumer's test drive takes place over multiple visits. It takes time to see how a new chef handles beloved menu items, specials, and timing. We got to do our test drive of Feast's new Chef Rich Velazquez recently at the Villa Maria wine dinner, where we got a preview of his creativity and ability to handle dinner for twenty-five.

In spite of its Italian-sounding name, Villa Maria is actually a New Zealand winery. I wasn't disappointed – a cute winemaker with an accent is a cute winemaker with an accent, no matter where he's from, and Simon Fell is definitely that. Hubby and I hadn't tasted any of their wine before this night, and we were on the fence about the dinner until we saw the food menu. It got our attention better than a car dealer's jerking plastic giants ever could (srsly, what's up with those things?).

There were six courses, so I'll hit the highlights. This chef test drive was particularly effective because we got to see how he'd handle some potentially tricky food and wine pairings. For example, the first course was paired with the Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand Sauv Blanc is known for its distinct bouquet, which can range from grassy to cat pee, and undertones that can get pretty odd to sensitive palates. This wine thankfully did not make me think of a litter box, but it did have a certain funkiness that some compared to ripe papaya, and tinned asparagus came to mind for me. Chef Velazquez opened the dinner with roasted cauliflower soup with butter poached lobster and chive oil. The food cut the funkiness and brought out the fruit. My only complaint was that I got two shell bits among the tender, sweet lobster.

My favorite course, and one that our end of the table was clamoring to be added to the menu, was the second one, diver scallops with white truffle mousseline, tomato fondue, leeks, and port wine. It was paired with the Single Vineyard Taylor's Pass Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was more crisp than the previous one, and the acidity played very well with the smooth texture and flavors of the scallops. I made a note that this course was "perfect," and I could have drunk the wine on its own.

The wine highlights for me were the reds. My favorite of the evening, the Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir, had some coffee on the nose, a lot of good fruit, and silky tannins. In other words, it was a BIG Pinot, and one that shows how New Zealand won this year's Pinot Smackdown. It went well with the fennel coriander lamb loin, kalamata olive and goat cheese farro, oyster mushrooms, and blueberry jus. Another highlight red was the Esk Valley Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec. The fruit in this Bordeaux blend tangoed with the spice of the dark coffee black peppercorn rib loin, horseradish, chive potato puree, asparagus, and rosemary jus.

One odd tasting note for those who like them… The Cellar Selection Marlborough Riesling tasted good and went well with the cheese course, but it had a bouquet of freshly opened pool toys.

The chef and kitchen had the good pacing we've come to expect from Feast, and we left impressed with his creativity. We look forward to returning for more wine dinners as well as to see how Chef Velazquez uses his Latin background to spruce up the menu for fall and winter. Overall, I would say the test drive was a success. I should've figured – owner Terry Rogers seemed more excited-hopeful than nervous-hopeful.

Oh, and the wine? Except for the first Sauv Blanc and maybe the Riesling, I would have drunk any of the ones poured on their own. I was particularly impressed with the reds. For me, a good wine goes well with food or by itself, and several of these satisfied this requirement. I'll be looking for Villa Maria on wine lists since their test drive was a success, too.

Fellow attendee and blogger Dan Browning about to dive in to the rib loin:

Disclaimer: We paid for everything, so I have nothing to disclose.