As promised, here is the blow-by-blow account of the recent Caps, Corks & Forks dinner at Niagara College that pitted wine against beer.
This dinner highlights the skills of students from several programs at the college: Culinary students design and create a six-course dinner. Teams of beer and wine students choose what they believe to be the best beverage to accompany each dish.
Benchmark Restaurant being prepared for battle. Note the line of bottle caps and corks to be used for voting running down the centre of the table. The dark forested ridge seen through the windows is the Niagara Escarpment.
The battleground is The Benchmark, our beautiful campus restaurant nestled against the Niagara Escarpment. (The name is wordplay on the location — the shoulder of land just below the Escarpment is known as “the bench”. In addition, “nc” in “bench” happens to be the initials of Niagara College.)
During the dinner, the two culinary students who designed each dish are introduced and explain what it is and how it was made. Then one member of the Wine Team has two minutes to introduce the wine being paired with the dish, its history, the reason for the pairing etc. Likewise a member of the Beer Team explains the choice of beer. As the diners eat and drink, members of each team come to your table and try to convince you of the righteousness of their selection. The 80 diners then vote which beverage pairs better with the food by dropping either a cap (beer) or a cork (wine) into a bucket at the end of each course. The winner of each course is then announced and we move on to the next course. Whichever team wins the most courses is declared the champion.
The rules of combat are quite simple:
- All beer and wine chosen for the dinner must be made in Ontario.
- Rather than selecting a commercial beer, 2nd-year Brewmaster students have the option of brewing their own beer for one of the courses. (However, it wasn’t an option for this dinner, since the Teaching Brewery had been shut down while undergoing expansion.)
- No beer or wine can cost more than $35 per bottle. (This rule was obviously put in place for the wine team, since the infection of ridiculously overpriced wine seems to have drifted across the Atlantic from France. I mean, seriously people, it’s fermented grape juice.)
- If there’s a 3-3 tie at the end of the dinner, then total votes for all six courses determine the winner.
There are two of these dinners each academic year, in November and February; I was actually a member of the Beer Team at the first such dinner two years ago — we tied 3-3 after six courses but lost the tiebreaker. There have been three more dinners since then, all of them also ending in a 3-3 tie, with Wine winning twice and Beer winning once. (So total wins to this point have been Wine 3, Beer 1).
Now I was back, but this time as the coach of the Beer Team, merely a spectator as the evening unfolded. Here’s how it went down:
Chef Michael Smith
The emcee for the evening was Chef Michael Smith, one of Canada’s most well-known and popular “foodies” due to his many appearances on the Food Network. I often wondered why he always seemed to meet such short people on his shows; it turns out that they are not short, but rather that Chef Michael is very tall — easily topping 2 m (6’8”). In conversation, he is instantly likeable, with a disarming smile and a friendly word for everyone. He was clearly at ease as he spoke to the crowd between courses.
The two teams presented an interesting contrast in style. The Wine Team were in matching burgundy vests and ties, with black pants. The Beer Team opted to go with a more casual look: plaid shirts and jeans.
First course: Amuse bouche
Tofu with Asian mustard dressing
The dish: Tofu rolled in spices then deep fried and served with an Asian mustard dressing
The wine: Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Rosé with a dash of raspberry purée
The beer: Mill St. Belgian Wit (presented by 2nd-year student Asuka Nogami)
Beer Team strategy: This was a delicate dish. The spices, although evident, were not overwhelming, and the mustard was likewise more about taste than heat. Asuka felt Mill St.’s wit, with its spicy notes of coriander and orange peel, would compliment the spices of the dish, but the light body of the beer and high carbonation would lift the food without overwhelming the flavour. She also wanted to avoid starting the evening with a bigger beer that might dull our palates.
My opinion: The wine contrasted the spiciness with a sweet tartness. The wit matched spice for spice. This was an interesting difference in approach: contrast versus complement. (As a bit of background, I should mention that the wine that the Wine Team ordered for this course did not arrive, and they were forced to make a last-minute subsitution.) In the end, I thought the beer played well with the food, while the wine put up a bit of a fight.
Winner: Beer (Beer 1, Wine 0)
Second course: Appetizer
Pork pate with quail eggs and pickled beets
The dish: Country pork pate with quail eggs, crispy pig ears and pickled preserves
The wine: Thirty Bench Riesling 2012
The beer: Indie Ale House Rye So Sour (presented by 2nd-year student Steve Herold)
Beer Team strategy: The pate was very fatty, and Steve wanted a sour beer so it would both cleanse the palate with its acidity and match the sourness of the pickled preserves.
My opinion: The Riesling also had a high acidity in order to cut through the fat of the pate. The pickled preserves that had been so sour during our taste trials seemed to be less pickled for the dinner, so the match of sour beer to them was not as apparent. Although I voted for beer, I had to hand it to the Wine Team, the Riesling was an excellent choice.
Winner: Wine (Beer 1, Wine 1)
Third course: Soup
Roasted chestnut soup with aged cheddar and foie gras
The dish: Roasted chestnut soup with aged cheddar and foie gras
The wine: Niagara College Dean’s List Chardonnay 2010
The beer: Black Oak Nut Brown Ale (presented by 1st-year student Matt Soos)
Beer Team strategy:This is a heavy, thick soup, with a high fat content and a robust nuttiness. Matt liked the way that Black Oak’s multiple-award-winning Nut Brown Ale had enough body not to be overwhelmed, had a high carbonation that cut through the fattiness to cleanse the palate, and a nuttiness to match the soup.
My opinion: During my summer at Black Oak, I helped to package many thousands of bottles of Nut Brown Ale, and I actually recommended the Nut Brown Ale to Matt. I tried to keep an open mind as I tasted a very familiar beer. Although the Chardonnay accentuated the nuttiness of the soup, it was itself diminished by the soup. The Nut Brown Ale, on the other hand, went hand-in-hand with the soup, the two making a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts.
Winner: Beer (Beer 2, Wine 1)
Fourth course: Seafood
The dish: Pan seared sea scallops with spicy Indian carrot relish and coconut curry sauce
The wine: Peller Estates Ice Cuvée Rosé
The beer: Cameron’s Rye Pale Ale (presented by 1st-year student Hannah Lee)
Beer Team strategy: During our preparatory food tastings, the carrot relish and curry were both very spicy hot. India pale ale is the usual go-to for curry dishes — its sweet backbone ameliorates the spiciness and its bitterness is big enough to go toe-to-toe with the curry. Hannah felt that the spicy notes provided by the rye in Cameron’s Rye P.A. would further compliment the dish.
My opinion: The hot spiciness we had tasted during prep was greatly throttled back this evening. (Following the course, Chef Michael Smith opined that he had wanted the dish to be much hotter.) Of course, that’s part of the human element that comes into play at these events. The result was that the Rye P.A. was too big and bitter for the curry, while the wine, which I believe would have been vanquished by the heat had the curry been as hot as originally presented, was actually quite a good match.
Winner: Wine (Beer 2, Wine 2)
Fifth course: Meat
Ontario Lamb Wellington
The dish: Ontario Lamb Wellington wrapped in puff pastry, with cauliflower purée, chanterelles, heirloom carrots and mint jus
The wine: Malivoire Albert’s Honour Old Vines Foch 2010
The beer: Niagara Oast House Biére de Garde (presented by 1st-year student Drew Simon)
Beer Team strategy: Drew looked for a beer that would complement this simple yet hearty fare. Biére de garde was developed centuries ago on the farms of northern France, brewed in the winter and spring, then stored in root cellars until the hot days of summer — hence it’s name, which translates as “stored beer”. Its zesty carbonation from secondary bottle fermentation and the use of Belgian yeasts to provide a spiciness to the taste make for a thirst-quenching beverage, and one that was designed for the hearty meals of the farmhouse dinner table.
My opinion: The Niagara Oast House brewmaster, Kevin Somerville, was present, so kudos to Drew for asking him to stand and be acknowledged. This was the first time most of the diners had tasted a biére de garde, and I believe many of them were truly startled by its effervescent yet spicy flavour. The wine was also outstanding, a big fruity red that also went well with the dish. Many diners at our table were torn over how to vote. I myself could have voted either way on this one, and I believe the overall vote was probably fairly close.
Winner: Beer (Beer 3, Wine 2)
Sixth course: Dessert
Tiramisu with ale-soaked lady fingers and an ice wine reduction
The dish: Tiramisu of mascarpone mousseline layered with stout-soaked lady fingers, accompanied by an ice wine reduction
(Dessert was plated at the front of the restaurant so that diners could see how the two students — Rebekka Schmidt and Melanie Williams — worked together to create the beautiful dish.)
The wine: Southbrook Whimsy! The Anniversary
The beer: Nickel Brook Bolshevik Bastard Russian Imperial Stout (presented by 1st-year student Phil Craig)
Beer Team strategy: If you have finished an Italian meal with tiramisu, you probably also ordered coffee or cappuccino to accompany it. Phil — who works for Nickel Brook part-time and is very familiar with Bolshevik Bastard — believed this beer’s chocolate and coffee notes would end the meal in a similar fashion.
My opinion: Wow. This was the perfect beer to pair with this dessert. The beer’s heavy body contrasted with the mousseline’s light texture, the chocolate notes of the beer played with the same notes in the stout-soaked ladyfingers, and the coffee flavours of the beer reminded everyone of that cup of cappuccino they might have ordered to go with this. I would be hard-pressed to think of any wine that would be able to match such a pairing.
Winner: Beer (Beer 4, Wine 2)
Chef Michael Smith presents the Beer Team with the trophy. (L to R): Hannah, Matt, Asuka, Steve, Chef Michael, Drew, Phil.
Woo-hoo! We not only won the dinner, but this was the first time any team had won a majority of the courses outright.
What’s next? For me, it’s back to the drawing board right away – Caps, Corks & Forks #6 is on February 6, and due to the Christmas Break, I need to put together another Beer Team pronto so we’re all ready for action in the New Year. (The demand to be on the Beer Team is so high that each Brewmaster student can only participate in one dinner — hence the need for a new team for every dinner.)
If you are interested in being one of the 80 diners on February 6, the cost is $79 (taxes and gratuity included). But you’ll want to contact the Benchmark right away — it’s always a sell-out and many of the diners order their tickets several months in advance!