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Beer: Brew at the Zoo and Belgians, too

Sampling pale ale at the recent Brew at the Zoo. (Smithsonian's National Zoological Park)

It’s unusual to have a logjam of beer events in July, a month when most Washington residents would prefer to slump in front of their air-conditioners. But that was the case on July 15, when area beer geeks were given a choice: Toss back a few brews at the National Zoo, among the kangaroos, wildebeests and giraffes, or don evening wear and sip on Belgian ales with Belgian Ambassador Jan Matthysen and his wife. 

The sixth annual Brew at the Zoo, a fundraiser organized by Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), attracted a crowd of 2,000 who ponied up $35 apiece ($50 for non-FONZ members) to sample beverages from more than 30 breweries and beer importers and two cideries.

“This year, we sold out in mid-June,” said spokesperson Haley Hennes. The festival netted about $79,000 for conservation efforts, she added. 

There was no word on how many kegs the crowd drained, but a few of the empties might have gone toward a worthy cause. . . what Hennes terms “environmental enrichment.” A 500-pound jungle cat needs something more durable than a rubber mouse to play with, so zookeepers supply the lions and tigers with beer barrels to bat around.

If you missed Brew at the Zoo (like I did), FONZ will sponsor another beer-related fundraiser on Friday, Oct. 29: Night of the LIving Zoo, a costume party-carnival featuring the beers of Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, Vt.

The Belgian beer dinner, at the ambassador’s residence on Whitehaven Street NW was a celebration of that nation’s Independence Day (albeit a week early; Belgium dates its nationhood from the swearing in of King Leopold on July 21, 1831).

Belga Cafe chef-owner Bart Vandaele raises a glass at the Belgian ambassador's dinner. Et Voila! chef-owner Claudio Pirollo is on his left, and chef-restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier is on his right. (2911 Productions)

The $175-a-plate affair (a local record for a beer dinner?) was billed as a charitable fundraiser, showcasing the efforts of three local chefs: Bart Vandaele of Belga Café , Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck and Claudio Pirollo of Et Voila!.They were assisted by Belgian Embassy chef Jan Van Haute.

Brasserie Beck beer director Thor Cheston chose the libations, beginning with his own house brand, the fruity pale ale Antigoon, for course No. 1: pan-seared skate wing. The beer was poured into glassware with the Mussel Bar logo, a plug for the new Bethesda addition to the Wiedmaier empire.

A total of 101 guests were seated in two adjoining rooms. Among my dinner companions were a Foreign Service veteran about to serve in Afghanistan; the president of the American Cleaning Institute and his wife, a native of Flanders; and Laura Day, operations manager for Wetten Importers in Lorton.

Wetten Importers supplied several of the beers, including Straffe Hendrik from the Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges that accompanied a dish of sweetbreads and endive. A triple is a strong, golden-hued ale, the most powerful of the traditional abbey-style beers. Straffe Hendrik belongs to a subcategory called the Bruges tripel, a little darker and fuller-bodied than the standard triple, with a spicy hop note to the finish.

Straffe Hendrik exhibits an excellent balance of flavor -- a characteristic that American imitators of Belgian styles haven’t always mastered. Also complex and subtle was Maredsous Dubbel: equal parts caramel malt, fruit (primarily raisins and plums) and chocolate. The mahogany-colored brew, served alongside a plate of duck breast and rabbit, comes from the same brewery that makes the strong pale ale Duvel.

But Belgians even practice moderation in moderation. Our final beer of the evening, St. Louis Framboise from the Van Honsebrouck brewery in Ingelmunster, is as in-your-face as a beer can get. It’s an unabashed dessert beer, with ruddy color, a pink foam and a rich, sweet-and-sour raspberry flavor from the addition of ripe berries to a spontaneously fermented lambic ale. The beer accompanied a dessert platter that included chocolate mousse, pistachio cake and a Hoegaarden beer float, followed by an additional tray of marzipan and mini-waffles.

The chefs took a bow at the meal’s conclusion. They were apparently as well served as the guests: “Much as the beer was flowing upstairs, it was flowing downstairs, too,” admitted Vandaele.

In stark contrast to the National Zoo beer blast, the only four-legged beast was the ambassador’s Turkish terrier Sirin, who darted from table to table in a futile hunt for scraps.

Better luck next year, pooch.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  July 26, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Beer, Greg Kitsock  
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