Five beers ripped from the ancient world by Dogfish Head. Five dishes from one of LA’s most exciting chefs in his beer-focused gastropub. The Ancient Ales Dinner for LA Beer Week was an eye-opening, mouth-watering, and mind-expanding lesson in the power of pairing food and beer.
Known for their “off centered ales” and their charismatic founder Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head isn’t content with simply innovation in craft beer, they have also looked to the past and rekindled lost techniques and ingredients in their Ancient Ales series of historical brews. The five brews in the series range from an ingredient list discovered in a nine thousand-year old Chinese tomb to a typically Dogfish Head outside-the-box take on a thousand-year old traditional Finnish “proto-beer.” They are each utterly unique and strikingly similar in just how un-beer like they appear at first taste. It would take a masterful chef to devise a menu that could showcase all five, and Little Bear’s Andre Guerrero was up to the challenge.
The dinner was held on the Monday of LA Beer Week at Downtown’s Belgian gastropub Little Bear. We’ve covered the restaurant in our Filling Stations series, and it’s one of our favorite spots for a lunch Downtown. On Monday night the dining room was dedicated to the Ancient Ales dinner, and each of the five courses was set-up before service. First Megan from Dogfish Head would explain the beer we’d be served and how it first came to be brewed at Dogfish Head, and then Little Bear Bar Manager Andrew would break-down Chef Guerrero’s dish. Service was crisp and attentive, and the vibe in the room was festive but subdued.
The dinner was expertly put together. Each dish was delicious on its own, and paired with the designated beer they each became an eye-opening and mouth-watering example of what can be achieved when food and beer are married. Each course demonstrated the magic of food and beer pairings in a different, and increasingly complex, way. The general rules of using common flavors, complimentary aspects, and contrasting elements were each demonstrated in the early courses before Chef Guerrero took of the gloves and really opened our eyes to the possibilities.
Course 1: Wild Mushroom Bruschetta and Ta Henket
The stage was set, and by the time the first plate touched the table we were well into a goblet of the light and mildly funky Ta Henket. The chamomile tea came to the forefront of the zaatar spiced brew, and the toast used a similar spice mixture. The none-too-subtle matching of flavors between the bruschetta and the beer served as a great way to warm up our palates and get into the beer-and-food tasting mindset. The wild mushrooms were delectable and the very slight tartness of the beer cut the earthy richness.
Course 2: Seared Duck Breast and Midas Touch
I love duck, and this dish came out on a bed of saffron risotto. The Beer was wine-like with a very unique sweet-then-dry feeling on the palate with a lingering earthy bitterness from the use of saffron as the only bittering agent. The combination of the saffron in both the beer and the risotto was a joy for this saffron lover! A reduction of golden raisins and chardonnay helped balance the rich umami of the duck.
Each element of the dish matched splendidly with each major element of the beer. The Chef was getting his diners up-to-speed now, and we were all really enjoying settling into a smell-sip-taste-sip-smell rhythm during the meal. The conversations around the room became more muted as dinner focused on the food and beer.
Course 3: Sous Vide Pork Loin and Sah’Tea
While I’d had the Sah’Tea before, it was never this lively and intensely fresh before. The essence of juniper was abundant in the nose and on the palate and the spice and chai mixture only emerged at the very end of the sip. The 9.5%ABV beer was big and complex with the most forward malt character of the beers thus-far, and the Chef brought the thunder with the pork dish.
The loin was ultra-slow cooked to fork-cuttable medium-rare perfection then laid atop pungent and buttery fingerling potatoes before being topped with an apple and port marmalade. The marmalade was as big on flavors as the Sah’Tea was, and every one of the delicious spice and herbal notes of the beer worked perfectly with it.
“Surely this will be the highlight of the meal” I said as I greedily scraped my plate for the last bits of sweet/tart marmalade.
I was wrong.
Course 4: Beer Poached Monkfish and Chateau Jiahu
“People call monkfish ‘the poor man’s lobster,” said Andrew, “but I actually prefer it to lobster.”
After this dish I can see why. Poached in a german pilsner to lend a subtle grain-flavor, the fish was firm-yet-tender and oh so rich. Served on a bed of bacon shallot confit and grilled asparagus, and sauced with a lemon beurre blanc, the towering dish felt indulgent and instantly a favorite. I spoke to several other diners who were likewise blown-away by the play of richness and delicate flavors in the dish; it was the favorite of many of us.
Where the pork dish served as a showcase for the flavors in the Sah’Tea, with each aspect of the plate highlighting or contrasting with the powerful spice and juniper flavors of the beer, the Chateau Jiahu served as a showcase for the flavors in this course. The beer was light on the palate, even at 10%ABV, with a dry finish and distinctly sake-like flavor. The beer cut the richness of the fish, the beurre blanc, and the bacon and cleansed and invigorated the palate. Chateau Jiahu’s umami-flavors served as an amplifier for the food and each new taste of the dish after a sip of the beer was like the first taste again.
Really an amazing effect.
Course 5: Belgian Chocolate Mousse and Theobroma
Typically I’m not a huge fan of dessert, preferring coffee over sweets at the end of a meal. But the towering chocolate mousse, praline, and cookie tower was an excellent way to end the meal, and a sublime match with the enigmatic Theobroma. Theobroma is unquestionably a chocolate beer, but you’d never guess it by looking. It’s color is lighter than many IPAs, but the scent of bakers chocolate and raw cocoa nibs is unmistakable.
The background spice of ancho chilies brings added complexity and serves to invigorate the palate (and the drinker!) Similar to the Chateau Jiahu, the Theobroma seemed to amplify the chocolate and toasty nutty flavors of the dessert while cutting the sweetness and richness. A tiny scoop of espresso gelato was served along with the towering cake, and this too matched amazingly with the cocoa-and-chile spiked beer.
My notes during this dish began to trend toward the blasphemous as I tried to capture the rich and creamy mouthfeel of the beer and the way the chocolate flavors of both the beer and the dessert were intensified when consumed together. Theobroma translates to “food of the goods” and after this pairing I can see why.
If each of the preceding dishes were increasingly impressive examples of what is possible when pairing food and beer, then this final dish was the Chef’s lurid signature on, for lack of a better metaphor, his masterpiece.
The Pleasurable Possibilities of Food + Beer
The Dogfish Head Ancient Ales dinner was an outstanding presentation of delicious food and unique and interesting beers, but it was more than just a dinner. It was an experience as unique as the beers that we tasted. A meal that demonstrated not only the Chef’s skill and creativity, not only the brewers inventiveness and courage, but also demonstrated the power of the pairing of food and beer.
Never before had we been taken on such a journey through time and space and flavors and ideas. Each course built upon the experiences of the previous as Chef Guerrero led us on a journey and showcased the magic of beer in new ways. It was, above all else, exciting. Exciting to see just what is possible when food and beer are thought about together, and amazing beers are matched to expertly executed cuisine.
I love to cook (and to eat) nearly as much as I love beer, and while I’ve known the theory and experienced the practice of food and beer pairing I’ve never before been so excited and humbled by a meal. It was inspiring to see what was achieved at Little Bear, and to experience just how closely married beer is to food.