Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Beer Drinker Lost in a Pork-tastic World

Navigating a beer festival is relatively easy. Yes, you often have a lot of choices with a limited amount of sobriety in which to make them. But the basic navigation is simple: Find good beer. Drink. Move to the next good beer. Repeat.

What is harder is navigating a high-end food festival while trying to get the most enjoyment out your beer at said event. And on Sunday, I tried to do just that at the Denver stop of America's foremost pork festival, Cochon555.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is a celebration of heritage pigs - smaller, more intensely flavorful porkers whose higher cost can scare off people unless they know to ask for them. For Cochon, five restaurateurs are paired with farmers, given one animal and told to make six dishes using every part of the pig. Attendees then spend four hours dining on 30 small-plate pig-dish samples while imbibing an unlimited supply of cocktails, wine - and beer from one brewery.

That brewery at each of the Cochon stops is Goose Island, and the Chicago beer maker brought five selections: Sofie farmhouse ale, Matilda Belgian pale ale, IPA, Honker's Ale and 312 Urban Wheat Ale. Armed only with a press pass (I fricking love my job!) and that quintet of options, I set out to find how a beer guy navigates his way through a room full of people in sport coats knocking back Manhattans while watching a pig get butchered.

*Lesson 1: All pork may come from one animal, but that doesn't mean every preparation calls for just one type of beer. The soft touches of Sophie, for example, offered a compliment to tartare on pork cracklins or to the briny taste of the (non-pork) oysters being served outside the main hall. But when you're sucking down a Georgia Bloodswick Stew made with actual pig's blood, you're going to want the fuller body that a Belgian pale like Matilda gives you. This is valuable to know.

*Lesson 2: IPA actually goes with just about everything. I tried one or more dishes from each chef in pairing with the type of beer that might as well be the official beverage of Colorado. Sure, I could have gone for something lighter and more German with Beast and Bottle's traditional German sausage sandwich, but even that wasn't what one would call a bad combo. And the spicy fruity hops were the perfect accompaniment to the pickled cucumber in Oak at Fourteenth's pork ramen, making me want to ask why I can't find more hoppy beers on traditional Asian restaurant menus.

*Lesson 3: Beer cocktails may be vaguely hip, but they don't substitute for the hearty and refreshing taste of an actual beer. Breckenridge Distillery was combining its bitters with IPA, and the resulting beverage could have been called "Double the Bitter." It was curious for a couple of sips, but it was more experimental than satisfying.

*Lesson 4: Get ready for more of these kinds of combinations, because breweries love being a part of it. National Goose Island brand ambassador Russell Woelfel told me he was shocked how popular the booth has been at these shows (though it probably didn't hurt to have a company serving duck salumi and foie gras at the station). And beer educator Patti Mandel said the brewery is ramping up its presence at beer dinners and culinary events, feeling it can attract the following of foodies who may see beer in a new way. I'm guessing it's not the only one thinking that way.

So, yes, it is possible - and quite enjoyable - to go all-beer even as you're going whole hog (excuse the pun) on enjoying upscale food at a festival. And you can learn a thing or two about mixing and matching your brews that just might make you appreciate the beer in your hand as much as the pork belly on your plate.

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