A Tale of Two Repasts

Today I travelled the culinary spectrum from one end to the other, starting the day with pizza and Bud Lite and ending with a 6-course gourmet meal and locally-made craft beer.

Chris Morley, Senior Director, Corporate Affairs, Labatt

Chris Morley, Senior Director, Corporate Affairs, takes questions from Brewmaster students

In the morning, I met the second-year Brewmaster students at the large Labatt brewery plant in London (Ontario), where we had been invited to take a tour. Labatt has had a brewery on this site since 1847, although most of the current buildings appear to date from perhaps the 1940s. After a quick introduction to Labatt and its role in the international giant AB Inbev by Chris Morley, Senior Director Corporate Affairs, we were taken on a tour of the brewhouse and packaging line. Alas, cameras were not allowed on the tour, so sorry, no photos.

The brewhouse equipment is enormous, but I didn’t catch the capacity of each batch because the tour guide referred to it by number of bottles rather than number of hectolitres. It was a very large number. However, the large pieces of equipment — a cereal cooker, mash tun, mash filter, lauter tun, kettle and whirlpool, were in a relatively small space, and the way it was set up, the mash and wort seemed to follow a rather convoluted path back and forth from mash tun to mash filter to kettle to whirlpool. I sensed that the current equipment has been shoehorned into a space originally designed for a smaller operation. Meanwhile a large part of the space is taken up by a truly huge lauter tun that stands idle most of the time since this plant hammer-mills the grain into a flour and then after mash conversion, filters out the sweet wort with a large mash filter rather than lautering the grain.

Despite its large size, this plant has made water conservation a priority, and I was surprised to learn that they only use about 3.8 litres of water for every litre of beer produced. (Most breweries have a water to beer ratio of more than 6:1.)

Consistency of product is extremely important to all the breweries in the AB Inbev stable — Bud made in here in London has to taste the same as Bud made in California or Montreal or Newark. So every brewery in North America sends samples of Bud to the AB Inbev mother ship in St. Louis, where the High Tasting Panel of All Tasting Panels compares the various batches. The London operation is very proud of the fact that recently, their Bud was judged to be the closest to what a perfect Bud should taste like.

We moved on to the packaging line. Most modern breweries’ tours now feature an enclosed catwalk to avoid anything being accidentally dropped onto the bottle line, so I was surprised to find that at Labatt, we were actually on an open catwalk. That certainly explained the rule about no cameras, cellphones, pens, or jewellery, to avoid the problem of finding someone’s earring in your bottle of Bud. Seeing a highly automated  line capable of delabelling, washing, sterilizing, filling, labelling, pasteurizing, packaging and palletizing thousands of bottles a minute was fascinating. I found it interesting that bottles of beer that are “kicked out” of the system for faults like low fills and labelling issues are emptied, and the ethanol is scavenged from the beer for sale to local industries.

From there we moved down into the basement to see their small tasting panel room, where six panellists gather every day at 3 p.m. to do sensory evaluation of everything used in the beer as well as the finished beer.

Then it was back to their hospitality room where a human resources person talked to the students about working at Labatt, and the general manager of the plant did a Q&A session. It was during the Q&A that we ate pizza and drank samples of Bud, Bud Lite, 50 and Shocktop. I have never been a fan of Bud and Bud Lite — the Bud yeast throws off a bit of amyl acetate, giving Bud its signature banana nose — so I was happy to see the 50 and Shocktop. You will never see the last eight words in the previous sentence ever published in this blog again.

It was an instructive tour for the students — not only did they get to see a big brewery at work, but reading between the lines, it was clear that while this was a highly efficient 24-hour-a-day operation, and that the people who work here are very proud of their accomplishments, the bottom line at Labatt is, well… the bottom line. The beer is simply a product — a highly consistent product, but a product that could just as easily be corn starch or widgets. The eternal search is not for ways to create a better-tasting product but to find more efficient and economical ways of producing the product. Nevertheless, working for AB Inbev would have all the advantages of being employed by a large multinational with a wide diversity of positions around the world, so I won’t be surprised if some Brewmaster graduates become part of the AB Inbev family.

The students climbed back on the bus and headed back to the campus, and I followed them in my car — I had driven directly from Burlington to London this morning, and now needed to make the 2-hour trip to the college in time for Caps, Corks & Forks Dinner #6, where Beer (reigning champions) would take on Wine over six courses.

As you might recall from CCF #5, the rules of engagement are quite simple:

  1. All beer and wine chosen for the dinner must be made in Ontario, and at least one beer and one wine must have been made at the college.
  2. Rather than selecting a commercial beer, 2nd-year Brewmaster students have the option of brewing their own beer for one of the courses.
  3. No beer or wine can cost more than $35 per bottle.
  4. If there’s a 3-3 tie at the end of the dinner, then total votes for all six courses determine the winner.

Although Beer had won the previous engagement, we were still behind 3-2 after five dinners, so tonight was our chance to even the score.

Chef Michael & Anna Olson

Dinner emcees Chef Michael & Anna Olson

The emcees for the evening were Chef Michael Olson and his wife, the well-known Food TV personality Anna Olson, and they proved to be an interesting contrast in style: Chef Michael always has a story (or bad joke) to tell; Anna is gracious and stylish, but often gets in the last well-chosen word.

The two teams also presented an interesting contrast in style: The Wine Team were in black shirts, pants, ties and suspenders while the Beer Team again opted to go with plaid shirts, although they did dress it up with black pants this time.

Here’s the dinner’s course-by-course replay:

First course: Amuse bouche

The dish: Tide & Vine oysters on sea salt — two from the Atlantic, one from the Pacific — accompanied by three sauces: mignonette, raifort Chantilly, and Abbigail’s Trinidad hot sauce

Oysters

Oysters from both the Atlantic and Pacific.

The wine: Tawse Winery Spark Limestone Ridge Riesling

The beer: Silversmith Tide & Vine Oyster Stout (presented by 1st-year student Doug Steele)

Beer Team strategy: Oyster stout, which yes, is made with whole oysters, shell and all, is the traditional match for oysters, so it didn’t take a lot of imagination on our part to decide to use an oyster stout. As it turns out, Tide & Vine, the local oyster company that supplied the oysters for the dinner, also supplies oysters to Silversmith Brewery for their Oyster Stout.

My opinion: Straight up on their own, the oysters pair so well with the stout as to make a better match by any wine impossible to consider. But the three sauces each provided an extra layer of challenge. The mignonette, which is a horseradish sauce, was peppery and spicy, as one might expect, and the oyster sauce paired well with the roastiness of the stout. The Riesling, on the other hand, seemed a bit lifeless in the face of the horseradish. The hot sauce, made by culinary student Abbigail Geofrey, was fiery hot. Wow. It completely overpowered the wine, pummelling it into submission. Although the stout faired better due to its sweetness, it still took a few sips to put out the fire. Both wine and beer fared better with the raifort Chantilly, a whipped cream-based sauce. The wine brought out a lemony citrus aspect, the beer seemed to lighten the cream texture. Tough choice, but I would go with the stout.

Winner: Beer (Beer 1, Wine 0)

Second course: Appetizer

Veal sweetbreads

Veal sweetbreads in vol au vent pastry

The dish: Fricassée of veal sweetbreads with black truffle in vol au vent

The wine: 2012 Jackson Triggs Grand Reserve Pinot Noir, Niagara Estate

The beer: Ryan’s Brown Ale (presented by 2nd-year student Ryan Hethrington)

Beer Team strategy: The veal provided a savoury dish, and we immediately thought of pairing a fairly flavourful English ale with it. Ryan brought in a sample of a Northern English-style brown ale he had homebrewed, and we all thought its rich biscuity flavour was a good match. Ryan recreated a batch in the Teaching Brewery for the dinner.

My opinion: Ryan’s brown ale matched the savoury aspects of the veal very well. However, it didn’t really cut through the buttery vol au vent pastry. The pinot noir also matched the savoury meat, and perhaps its acidity provided a slightly better counterbalance against the pastry. It was darned close.

Winner: Wine (Beer 1, Wine 1)

Third course: Fish

Gravlax

Gravlax

The dish: Gravlax with spent grain crisps, apple fennel slaw, lemon peppercorn mascarpone ice and icewine grapes

The wine: 2012 Thirty Bench Small Lot Chardonnay

The beer: Christine’s Saison (presented by 2nd-year student Christine Nagy)

Beer Team strategy: Christine wanted to brew a saison for the dinner — it was just a question of which dish she would pair it with. When she tasted the gravlax, she was sure she could make a saison that would provide a lemon citrus note that would combine well with the salmon.

My opinion: Another incredibly difficult choice. Christine’s saison had the lemony citrus note that was a perfect match for the gravlax, obviously matched the flavour of  the lemon mascarpone, had enough effervescence to cut through both the oiliness of the salmon and the butteriness of the mascaporne, and provided a good contrast to the sweet apple fennel slaw. However, the chardonnay brought out an extra zing to the salmon, accentuated the fruitiness of the slaw and still went well with the mascarpone. Perhaps a slight edge to the saison.

Winner: Beer (Beer 2, Wine 1)

Fourth course: Risotto

Beet risotto

Beet risotto

The dish: Roasted beet risotto with wilted arugula, creamy feta and college-cured pancetta

The wine: 2011 Angels Gate Winery Brut Chardonnay Sparkling

The beer: Lake of Bays China Wall Vienna Lager (presented by 1st-year student Mike Beaupré)

Beer Team strategy: We were surprised by the umami savoury meatiness of the beet risotto, and decided a dark Vienna lager would be a good match — lighter body and less roastiness that a heavy stout.

My opinion: Tasting only the risotto on its own, I thought perhaps the sparkling chardonnay had a slight edge. However, the pancetta, which was made on campus by Food Innovation students, added a crispy, fatty note to the dish, which paired well with the breadiness of the China Wall.

Winner: Wine (Beer 2, Wine 2)

Fifth course: Meat

Pheasant

Pheasant

The dish: Pheasant pot pie and aiguillettes of pheasant with blueberry reduction, soft polenta, fire roasted vegetables

The wine: 2011 Dover Vineyards Smoke & Gamble

The beer: Cameron’s Resurrection Roggenbier (presented by 1st-year student Jeff Wiebe)

Beer Team strategy: Wild pheasant can be quite gamey and strong, which would have required a big beer to stand up to it. However, this was farmed pheasant, and the taste proved to be not much stronger than chicken. For that reason, we decided to try a rye beer (or in German, das Roggenbier), which is known for having a pleasant spiciness but also good body.

My opinion: Cameron’s Roggenbier proved to be an inspired choice — spicy enough to add some zing to the pheasant, enough body to stand up to the savoury meat and gravy, enough effervescence to cut the creaminess of the polenta. The wine, on the other hand, was a big tannic red, and although it brought out the fruitiness of the blueberry reduction, it overwhelmed the pheasant. Had this been wild pheasant, it might have been a different story, but with this particular pheasant, it was an easy call for beer.

Winner: Beer (Beer 3, Wine 2)

Sixth course: Dessert

Three in one dessert

Three desserts on one plate

The dish: Dessert trio: Cinnamon heart crème brûlée, chocolate ganache cake, spiced caramels

The wine: 2010 Niagara College Dean’s List Cabernet Franc Icewine (glasses rimmed with cinnamon and dark chocolate)

The beer: Niagara Oast House Barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout (presented by 2nd-year student Brendan Kiefer)

Beer Team strategy: We were a bit nervous about this dish. During our test sessions, we really liked how the Niagara Oast House Russian Imperial Stout matched these three desserts. However, we weren’t actually tasting the final version: Oast House was barrel-aging most of the batch, and we were actually tasting a bit of the batch that hadn’t fit into a barrel. Obviously the barrel-aging would modify the flavour of the beer somewhat, but would it be by a little or a lot? And would the change help the dessert or not? Adding to our conundrum, the barrel-aged version wasn’t transferred from the barrels until a week before the dinner, so we only got our first taste of what we would actually be serving a scant three days before the dinner.

My opinion: If the Oast House stout was good before barrel-aging, it was now fabulous, complex and multi-layered. The barrel-aging had given it a woody, vanilla note that played with the cinnamon in the creme brulee. Its roasty notes complimented the saltiness of the caramel, and the touch of booziness (9% abv) smoothed out the harshness of the caramel. And of course, those chocolate and coffee notes we all love to taste in a Russian Imperial Stout matched the dark bitter chocolate of the ganache. In contrast, although the cinnamon on the rim of the wineglass helped the icewine play with the creme brulee, the icewine was actually a bit too sweet for the bitter chocolate of the ganache and there was no match at all with the salted caramel. Another easy choice.

Winner: Beer (Beer 4, Wine 2)

Woo-hoo! We won with an absolute majority of courses for the second consecutive time. Beer is now tied with Wine at 3 wins apiece. The next dinner in November will be a tiebreaker…

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