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Wine: Does vino or beer go better with food?

Wine lovers can spend hours debating wine-food pairings (just one reason we are so boring to our children), and there are certain meals we dismiss as "beer food." These are usually spicy or cheap, and casual -- in other words, unsophisticated foods.

But beer is becoming increasingly refined, and matching beer with food can be as subtle and complex as wine. This point was driven home last weekend at a wine vs. beer smackdown staged by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group at the Columbia Firehouse in Old Town Alexandria.

Wine director Juliana Santos and beer sommelier Greg Engert each selected pairings for six dishes, and about 80 guests sweltering in an upstairs loft at the restaurant were asked to compare how each beverage fared. As a wine lover, I was naturally biased toward Santos's interesting selections, which included some small-production wines offered by top-notch importers such as Terry Theise and Jonas Gustaffson. But beer had the advantage of the unexpected.

"Beer makers are really starting to act like winemakers, and that is resulting in beers that are fascinating to pair with food," Engert said. "They are regressing to pre-industrial techniques, before stainless steel cleaned everything up for nice simple beers ideal for drinking with wings." Those borrowed techniques include barrel aging reserve beers, he said.

Here are my quick notes from the smackdown as I pushed my way through the eager crowds at each table:

  1. Tomato, watermelon, and sheep's milk feta, paired with Bodegas O'Ventosela "Vina Leirina" 2008 from Rueda, Spain; and 1809 Professor Fritz Briem & Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, Bavaria, Germany. The beer here had an unfair advantage, in that Engert mixed it with a splash of raspberry syrup that matched beautifully with the watermelon. The wine tasted thin and acidic in comparison. Advantage, BEER.
  2. Tuna tartare tacos, paired with Gobelsburg Riesling, 2009, Kamptal, Austria; and Hennepin Brewery Ommegang, New York. The beer picked up nicely on the fennel and apple in the tartare, while the Riesling jazzed with the citrusy dressing. DRAW.
  3. Maryland shoat porchetta, with Belle Pente 2008 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon; and Schlafly Bière de Garde, Saint Louis Brewery and Schlafly Tap Room, Missouri. Pork and pinot is a divine combo, and this biodynamic wine shined with the shoat and its stuffing. The beer actually reminded me of my home brew experiments from 15 years ago. Advantage, WINE.
  4. Dry aged roast beef and buttermilk blue cheese, with Conceito Tinto, 2007, Douro, Portugal; and Oerbier, Brouwerij de Dolle, Belgium. The beer's richness, at 9 percent alcohol, matched well with the cheese, and won my wife's vote. I preferred the wine for how it reflected the flavors of the beef. DRAW.
  5. Charcuterie, with Cavoletto Dolcetto d'Alba "Vigna Scot" 2007, Piemonte, Italy; and Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen, Brauesrei Heller-Trum, Upper Franconia, Germany. The beer was smoked, which made it taste to me like a burnt-down house. The Dolcetto, on the other hand, may be God's own pairing with salami. Advantage, WINE.
  6. Pecan Joy Candy Bars, with Domaine du Mas Blanc, 2007 Banyuls, France, and Coton, The Bruery [note spelling correct according to Engert's menu], California. This dessert was so good that the matching became incredibly fun. The beer matched the richness of the gussied up candy bar, making me want more, while the wine melded seemlessly with the fruitier aspects of the coconut and the chocolate, signalling that the meal was over. Since I finished mine with the beer, I had to have another dessert. That one, I finished with the wine. DRAW.

So I guess I give a slight advantage to the wine in this contest, which given my bias may be expected. But I would gladly place my beverage selection in the hands of either Santos or Engert after this wine-beer throwdown.

Now, where was Bobby Flay?

-- Dave McIntyre
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  July 29, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer , Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, beer, wine  
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I'm not sure if "unfair advantage" is a good descriptor of the 1809 Professor Fritz Briem & Bayerische Staatsbrauerei. It's in the Berliner Weiss style of German wheat beer, and as such, it brewed so that a sweet syrup, red (raspberry) or green (woodruff), is intended to be added by the consumer. In a tasting situation as you were in, I expect that it would be added by the presenter to skip the trial and error and screwing up the balance.

The Schlenkerla... ah, I love that beer, but on the first sip many people react as if they've been handed a glass of liquid bacon. There's some old saying about how upon drinking Schlenkerla, you'll hate the first glass, like the second, and love the third. If you're not expecting that smokey flavor, it does take time to get your palette used to it, so perhaps not the best choice for a tasting. If a smoked beer was called for, then perhaps something lighter in smoke? Also from Bamberg would be the beers from Special, which might have been nice.

For desert, I've always enjoyed a Russian Imperial Stout (see Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewing Co., or Black Chocolate Stout from Brooklyn Brewing). I enjoy wine with any other course, but don't get the appeal with desert (except for port or vin santo).

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | July 30, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

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