Rare beers aren't often new beers. This works just fine in the case of a year old bomber of Imperial Stout Trooper, or the '08 Schneider Weisse Aventinus I had at a recent beer festival. It's not so fine when I walk into a bar in February and they're trying to pass off a fall seasonal that came out in August as a craft offering because the distributor gave them a skinny deal on the keg.
Events like the monthly Rare Beer Night at Half Full Brewery in Stamford are thus somewhat of an exception: rare beer, in this case, is also fresh beer. The fact that forty ticketed guests were met with fruit and charcuterie from Fairway, and cheese plates from Fairfield Cheese Company to pair with the beer, was an added bonus.
The entire staff of Half Full pitches in after work on the third Wednesday of every month to set up tables and seating in the brewery's tasting room for this event, which pairs extremely limited edition Half Full beers with various foods. The event's cheeses were selected by Fairfield Cheese Co. co-owner Chris Palumbo, who was on hand to speak on each of the pairings he made with beers made by Half Full brewers... pardon, "Chief Beer Artist and Chief Beer Scientist," Jen Muckerman and Jon Charest, as well as new recruit Laura Infznger and brew-fly Dan Latham. Several of the beers represent highly experimental test batches, of which only a single keg exists.
The first course of the night was a dark saison made with Special B and Dark Chocolate malts, Mosiac hopped, and spiced with coriander and cinnamon. It was paired with Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam.
"Your best choice for pairing cheese is beer, not wine," Chris Palumbo told the crowd. I asked him why he believed that to be the case.
"Salt is a big part of cheese, and it fights with the tannins in a red," he began. "You need a sweet wine to pair with a salty cheese, and that removes most of your options. Beer, on the other hand, is more round in its flavors, across the board, and this makes more beers more complementary to more cheeses."
The saison had a toasty flavor with a small aroma of Belgian yeast. The darkly roasted malts - and cinnamon in place of the more commonly used orange peel - were a nod to this beer's release in the dregs of winter, Charest told everyone, as a counterpoint to most saisons, which are typically a lighter, more summery drink.
The Mt. Tam had a mild flavor, but an intense richness from being triple creamed. The saison kind of washed over the oozy cheese, but brought some depth to it with the added spices.
Second up was a firkin of rye IPA which had been dry hopped with Perle, Chinook, Northern Brewer, Styrian and Kent Golding hops. That is a lot of hops, and the beer was served slightly below room temperature, but the aroma was surprisingly light. The hops spoke much louder in the flavor of this beer, alongside vivid notes of the spicy rye grain.
Palumbo chose Montgomery's Traditional Bandage Wrapped Farmhouse Cheddar, from Sommerset, U.K., to go with the rye IPA. This was a raw milk cheese with more than a little sweet hay to its flavor, and considerably sharper than I expected from an English cheddar. The hops in the beer exacerbated the sharpness, and cut through thecreamy brothiness, of the cheese. IPAs in general mix very well with cheddars of all kinds, I've found, and this was a great one.
Laura Infznger has been with the company for just three weeks, but has already managed to brew up a batch of Belgian wit. This one was slightly dark for a wit, purposely unfiltered, and had a big belt of Belgian yeast to the taste, followed by a hint of sweetness. It was matched with Cypress Grove Purple Haze, a chevre dusted with lavender and fennel pollen.
The cheese was almost peppery at first, and settled into allium notes before the eater is left with the interplay of the slightly funky chevre and sweet lavender. There's a lot going on with this cheese, is what I'm trying to say, but it's done with more subtlety than might be read into the above description. This was an absolutely outstanding pairing, and my favorite of the night. The blend of the floral wit and the cream with an herbal exclamation point made this a nearly perfect pairing.
Dan Latham was described to me as "a guy who is always around the brewery who has shown us a lot of support," and that support earned him the opportunity to guest brew an attempted clone of one of his favorite beers, Founder's Backwoods Bastard. The recipe called for Crystal, Cara-Munich and roasted barley malts, with peat, and Magnum hops. The beer was then aged for three weeks on oak chips, at which time bourbon was added.
The beer poured the color of dark finished maple with a thin head and some bourbon, not unexpectedly, to the nose. The flavor was heavy with tannins, and quite dry, with a bit of bourbon sweetness to the aftertaste. Last on the plate was an orange wedge of Dutch L'amuse 26-30 month aged gouda. The cheese was nutty more than smokey - crunchy with crystals - and the smoothness of its flavor did a lot to gloss over the sharp tannins of the oak.
Most of the crowd took the opportunity to sample additional beers in the Half Full lineup and wander the brewery after the pairings were through - some checking out the shiny steel brewing equipment, while others played a few games of giant Jenga with the brewery's set.
The next rare beer night ($40, http://halffullbrewery.com) will be held on March 19. No food pairing has yet been announced. Half Full Brewery, 43 Homestead Avenue, Stamford, CT; (203) 658-3631