Firestone Walker Beer Dinner: Almost Perfect

Last July I participated in the Erika Brannock charity corn hole tournament. That day has spawned some wonderful beer adventures for me. At the event I was fortunate enough to meet Dan Baumiller, one of the co-founders of Full Tilt Brewing. And last night I used the Victoria Gastro Pub Beer Dinner gift certificate I won at the silent auction.

Of course even without that Gift Certificate I would have wanted to attend the Firestone Walker beer dinner. I wax poetic just thinking about Firestone Walker’s Proprietors Reserve Series. Getting my hands on the beers from this series is becoming increasingly difficult. So much so, that this year the only way I was able to get my hands on their Anniversary Beer XVII was through an internet purchase. Apparently only about 90 bottles of XVII made it to Maryland, and they arrived months after the beer’s release.

To say I was excited about attending this dinner was understatement. The opportunity to drink rare beer from my favorite brewer, and the opportunity to experience an even rarer event, a date with my wife. The evening was ALMOST perfect.

I reviewed the menu early in the afternoon, and like many table d’hôte or prix fixe dinners the menu was filled with items I wouldn’t have likely ordered. This always excites me and makes me nervous all at the same time. It wasn’t just the food that was going to expand my taste horizons, but some of the beer would too.

The evening began with an east coast rarity, Pils, the pivo hoppy pilsner. I like to describe myself as a “yeastist” because I discriminate against lager yeast. I know it’s not fair, but it’s a badge I wear proudly. As a yeastist I would likely ignore the pilsners on the menu.

The Pivo Pils is a Pils that has likely made at least a few German and Czech brew houses rethink their recipes. Victory’s Prima Pils is the only American Pilsner I’ve had that really compares. It’s light and delicate with herbal spiciness and a crispness that’s razor sharp. I have mixed feelings about stating Pivo Pils is my favorite Pilsner, since so many of my style benchmark beers have become Firestone beers. But for me to write this much about a style I really am not a fan of has got to tell you something about just how good this beer is.

IMG_1143The next beer was another that I would likely not order as well. Pale 31 is a pale ale. The pale ale is something every brewery makes, and most end up being overshadowed by their bigger brothers the IPA and Double IPA. To make one that stands out tends to be huge challenge since it doesn’t have the big flavors its big brothers have. And yet once again, Pale 31 really stood out. While it may not be my favorite pale it’s an impressive session beer. The balance and richness of Pale 31 is an impressive feat especially given the 4.9% ABV. Victoria Gastro Pub paired this with a Seared Yellow Fun Tuna that was certainly its equal. Delicate and light but still packed with flavor, it made a very good partner for the Pale 31.

So many will think I’m crazy when I say, I don’t like lobster. I’ve always said that it’s just an excuse for people to eat drawn butter. And while I haven’t been swayed from my overall opinion of lobster, I have to admit that the Lobster & Blood Orange Ceviche was very well executed. I really think it was the blood oranges that made this course sing. The tart citrus of the blood orange cut through the richness of the lobster and helped make an often rubbery meat much more tender. The blood oranges were also a great compliment to Firestone Walker’s Union Jack IPA. Union Jack has always been one of my favorite IPAs, primarily because of the huge citrus notes. Sometimes a pairing is done to contrast flavors, but in this case the beer was an extension of the flavors found in the food pairing.

The next two courses were what I would consider the main courses, Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Applewood Smoked Duck Breast. Both of these were wonderful. The Pork Tenderloin was paired with Wookey Jack, and served with Black Eyed Pea and Cheddar Fritter on top of a Red Pepper Cream sauce, and a side of Tasso Collard Greens. The spice and earthiness of Wookey Jack played well with all of the flavors in this course. I was especially impressed with the Collard Greens. It is in the category of not a usual food for me, but I loved it. Maybe it was the Tasso that did it for me, but regardless, it was great.

IMG_1145Then there was the Applewood Smoked Duck Breast. Most restaurants don’t serve duck. There’s a reason for this. It is mildly polarizing, and it isn’t the easiest to cook right. This duck was cooked perfect. The Applewood smoking was not overpowering, and it helped make this perfectly tender and juicy. I was worried it would be a little dry, but it was perfect. What really made it stand out was the Beech Mushrooms and the Thyme Duck Jus. I could have had a bowl of the mushrooms in jus it was so good.

And hey, I almost forgot about the beer that was served with this. Double DBA or Double Double Barrel Ale was the paired beer. If you aren’t familiar with Firestone Walker, they first became popular with one of the only Burton Union system in the United States. The Burton Union is a system of pairing oak casks during fermentation. This system gives beer more oak flavor than a larger oak fermenter because of the greater contact with oak. Double DBA is the much bigger brother to the Firestone Walker flagship DBA. More malt, more oak, and then rested in bourbon barrels if there wasn’t enough sugary awesomeness. The rich flavors of the Double DBA really played off the smokey richness of the smoked duck. In many ways it is very similar to the duck. A rarely made style, that while big and rich is still delicate.

IMG_1144Then it was time for the Grand Finale. The Firestone Walker XVII Anniversary beer. I could write a whole blog entry on this beer alone. There is nothing I would rather do, then be in the room when FW creates this blend. I am in love with the process they use to create this beer. Firestone Walker sits in one of the greatest wine regions in the world. They know this too, and use it to their advantage. When many wines are made they are blends of carefully selected casks of many different base wines. This blending process is not something easily learned, and FW knows that the vintners in their area do it better than anyone. FW selects which of their beers that would like to highlight for their anniversary beer, then teams of wine makers work to create a blend that creates a sum greater than the sum of its parts. This beer is so richly layered it evolves through temperature changes and oxygen level changes. This beer can be a dessert course by itself.

In this case XVII was paired with a Vanilla Coconut Crème Caramel. This dessert was also many different layers of flavors with complexity stood up to the XVII. Surrounding the Crème Caramel was a Dark Chocolate Stout Sauce garnished with Cinnamon Glazed Almonds. This dessert was heavenly. It was actually so good and rich it managed to actually overshadow the XVII a little.

So I stated at the beginning that this dinner was ALMOST perfect. I imagine that if you are reading this, you haven’t seen anything that would make one think it was anything but perfect. Firestone Walker had sent John Bryan to speak and help explain the remarkable beers in our glass. He was great. He offered insight to the history of Firestone Walker and each individual beer. But he was a little hard to hear at times, but this didn’t detract from the dinner at all. What moved this from perfect was the temperature of the beer on the last two courses. While the temperature was fine for Pilsner, Pale Ales, and IPAs, it was really much too cold to showcase the malt monsters near the end. I did my best to warm up the beer, but I didn’t get it to where I would like it. Beers like this really want to be served near cellar temperatures. I know this is a pet peeve of mine, and it won’t bother many, but it was the only thing that prevented this dinner from perfection.

Overall, this was an expertly executed dinner. The staff of Victoria Gastro Pub should be commended for an incredible experience. The chefs did a great job creating a menu that was adventurous and complex without being overly challenging.