As mentioned -- okay, as plugged here earlier, I hosted a tasting of Spring session beers at Ortino's Northside this past Sunday. Things went well, and a large part of that is due to both John Ortino and his new events brain, Dan "The Big One" Bengel. Here's how it went.
I left early, just in case any hitches came up in this first-of-a-series event. I strolled up the Northeast Extension in the Passat, slipping off at the Lansdale exit and cross-countrying up Rt. 63 and across by the Spring Mountain ski area into Zieglerville, getting a nifty 43 mpg in the process. It was a gorgeous Spring day, about 63 degrees and sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky. I met Dan in the parking lot, we had a quick strategy session out by Ortino's smoker ("We serve 'em beer, and I talk about it, right?" "Yup."), and then went in to look at the menu and work out the pairings.
See, right there was the first improvement for next time. We're going to get better planned out. No fault on this one, though: we threw this event together very quickly, and wound up changing beers at the last minute anyway. We've got more time to plan the next one, and Dan's already on it. Wait till you hear (it's further down, if you want to skip ahead).
After planning, we fiddled with the taps -- Ortino's had a brand-new tap system, which I thought was boldly gutsy to do just before a beer event! Folks started arriving -- including most of the usual suspects, Dan's friends and family, some BeerAdvocates, brewers (Tim Ohst and Brian O'Reilly from Sly Fox, Bill Moore from Lancaster), and Uncle Jack and Mid-Atlantic Brewing News's Dale Van Wieren (who's retiring from his MABN column in the fall to work on a new edition of his thoroughly detailed listing of historical American breweries).
Just before we started, I stepped out in the parking lot for some fresh air, and that's when O'Reilly pulled up, black car, dark black shades, and says, "Where's your car? I got something for you." Made me nervous, I gotta tell you, but here's what he had, a sixer of the brand-new little beauties. Oh, and a big bottle of Instigator, too. Nice guy!
The dinner! We started with a toast to Spring, celebrated with Redhook Copperhook. Nice beer, a bit strong for 'session' at 5.7%, even by my definition, but Dan and John and I had agreed that the "seasonal" part was as important as the "session" part, so we slipped it in. Copperhook was a good, smooth opener, with enough hops to be interesting. Made for a nice intro to my idea that session beers should not interrupt conversation!
First course was house-made potato chips (nice, and done just right) with a lemon-leek dip that was very popular. We served it with Anchor Bock, a right tasty version of the type, and sessiony at 5.5%. Consensus was that they're using that workhorse steam beer yeast, and that it's not a bad idea.
Why Anchor Bock with the chips and dip? Well...to be honest, I had planned to put the Sunshine Pils here, but we screwed up (my fault as much as anyone's). It worked out okay, though, because the rich bockness floated the salt and lemon real nice, and the dip wasn't so overly rich as to make it a heavy pairing.
Next up was one of the very first kegs of this year's Tröegs Sunshine Pils, served with a cheese plate of a soft brie-like cow's milk cheese, a small wedge of Parmesano Reggiano (ahh...), and a very nice local cheese, the Telford Tommy from Hendricks Farms and Dairy, just down the road from Ortino's. I've got to get out there and get some more of that. The Pils was, well, like Sunshine Pils always is: excellent, crisp, hoppy, balanced, and exceptionally drinkable. And, didja know? 4.5% ABV. How 'bout dat? That's liter beer, boys and girls.
The reason we mixed up the Pils and the Bock was here: Pils would have worked fine with either the chips or the cheese, and this pairing did fine, for me. You've got that crisp carbonation and bitter kiss of hops scrubbing and sharpening the tongue for the rich, fatty cheese. Pils works well with a number of cheeses for this reason; not all cheeses, but it worked with these.
We followed that with a particularly delicious course of food: mixed grilled vegetables in a balsamic dressing with some delicious beer-simmered-and-grilled bratwurst from Illg's. We got into a nice sausage discussion at this point; folks wanted to know just what bratwurst is. The beer was a luscious keg of Penn Märzen, tasting very round and smooth and malty. I would be remiss, though, if I didn't mention how damnably good the vegetables were, really one of the high points of the meal: snow peas, green and yellow squash, and eggplant. Very fresh, done just right: all praise to the Ortino's kitchen on that one. The Illg's brats were, of course, perfect; you can't go wrong with Ernst's wursts.
Why Märzen? The sausage pairing's obvious, no? You've got a fairly mild grilled sausage that is caressed by that malty caramel, and the sweetness of the malt slides against the tangy mustard. The grilled vegetables have that same sweetness, enhanced by a little cut from the balsamic, and the malty Märzen picked it all up. This one was the first match-up I made, and probably the easiest.
Then it was time for the main course, a fresh-smoked (as in "right out back") ham sandwich, served open-faced on some crunchy sourdough bread, topped with two slices of smoked gouda, and accompanied by a nice helping of scalloped potatoes and coleslaw. That went with a Victory Donnybrook Stout, which at 3.7% was about as sessiony as you could want. Good eats, but maybe a bit on the heavy side, to be honest, by the time the scalloped spuds were in there.
The pairing idea was that the smoky/burnt character of the dry stout would complement the smoked ham. It should have worked, but...unfortunately, the tapping of the Victory was off. It was too cold and under-carbo/nitrogenated (still adjusting to new tapping arrangements, I'm afraid). Unfortunately, most people didn't get a very good impression of this new Victory beer, which is a damned shame. I'd urge anyone to give it another shot sometime soon.
Dessert was a spicy ginger cake done by John's wife Linda -- and a very nice job, too, with a toothsomely dense cake topped by a sweet glaze that was a reduction of Lagunitas Brown Shugga Ale -- and a dollop of chocolate (beer) sorbet done up by Big Dan himself -- also quite tasty, and who knew that a skinny rail like him was an ice cream fanatic?
The beer? Our big boy of the day, Stegmaier Brewhouse Bock. With the bock at 6.5% and deliciously malty-sweet, well, pairing it with this dessert was pretty much a cruise-control pick that even a sommelier could have figured out. The beer was especially good with the cake's spicy notes.
The dinner went over well, with an enthusiastic crowd by evening's end. Lessons learned? More planning means we can do a printed menu, something folks were asking for. We were also having a more philosophical discussion about the best format for a session beer event, with O'Reilly and Uncle Jack pushing for less of a dinner and more of a...well, a session.
I think they've got a good idea, and I can see several different ways to pull that off. So we're going to try a few of them at the next Session event, something Dan's already calling The Session of Love, a three-day session of session beers, to be held May 24-26, starting with a dinner Thursday night (maybe more in a buffet style), a mini-fest Friday night (with maybe some participatory entertainment), and a straight-up fest atmosphere Saturday, hopefully outside on the patio. The kicker? An ABV limit of 5.5% on all beers served...and Dan says if we can get enough participants, we'll take it down to 5.0%. How's that sound? I want to hear from brewers: if you're interested in participating with one or more appropriate beers, give me a yell!