On May 22nd, The Little Pub in Ridgefield will hold a beer dinner featuring Brooklyn Brewery. The last beer dinner there featured beers from Berkshire Brewing Company, and American Craft Beer Week seemed like great time to recap that event and give some insight into how these events go at The Little Pub.
Wisdom really begins when learning enables you to realize just how little you know. It's gratifying to the ego to consider one's self an expert on a subject but, just like there's always someone bigger or faster in sports, there's always some greater expert perfectly capable of putting you in your place. I thought I had a pretty good handle on Berkshire Brewing's place in the cosmos before I sat at a table with Jason Hunter, BBC's director of sales/GM/sometime brewer. I thought BBC was pretty new microbrewery which made "nice" beers. Hop-headed beer lovers tend to slide down the slope of "more is better," and BBC's Pale and India Pale ales were flavorful, but lacked the sharp fangs of "west coast" American ales. "This is good," I'd think "But why isn't it absolutely drowning my senses? Why can I still smell smells and perform addition and subtraction?" These beers were not trying to numb and blind me, therefore they just weren't trying hard enough.
In introducing the first course, Hunter set us all straight. First of all, Berkshire Brewing Company is hardly the toddler I understood it to be, having been founded in 1994, and able to produce near as makes no difference to 18,000 gallons of beer per week. That's 2,320 barrels per month. "Micro" is a relative term, people. Jason was a homebrewer who got his start with the company when he walked in and bought a keg of their beer for a party he was having. He met Gary Bogoff, one BBC's founders, along with Christopher Lalli, kept in touch, and would up with a job brewing their beer.
Bogoff, Lalli and Hunter are, among other things, fans of English beers. BBC's Traditional Pale Ale is one such example of this affinity. "We wanted to craft a traditional English pale ale, like Bass, that could be enjoyed fresh, unlike Bass," said Hunter, as The Little Pub's staff brought out our first course for the evening, a chicken tortilla soup. The TPA is reddish like the benchmark Bass, with a sticky head and a strong malt aroma. It is, as you'd expect, a very malty pale ale, and that's where it shines. Most American PAs are dosed with large-ish amount of hops. Their character is derived from the balance of hops and malts, but English ales of all stripes are very malt-forward. The TPA has some liveliness and spice, and it's almost entirely due to the complexity of the malts. This smoothness was well mated with the mildly spicy soup, which had thin tortilla strips melting down into a thick, cheesy broth.
Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale was BBC's very first offering (just before the TPA), and it started with old folks. This ale is more of a balancing act between the malt and hops, but it still has a low 20 IBUs, a mild ABV at 5.3%, and (here's where the old people come in) a light, yellowy color. When Bogoff first began selling his unknown label of a beer in the middle 90s, he found it to be a particularly big hit at VFWs, Elks Lodges; the kind of joints where joints creak, if you know what I mean. They loved Steel Rail, bought quite a bit of it, and gave the brewery a running start. Hunter attributes this phenomenon to two main points: the beer itself looked like the macro-brew which was overwhelmingly popular with the clientele, so they weren't put off by something uncomfortably new, and it tasted better, in part because it was so fresh. The AARP set was old enough to remember back when they could get fresh, nano-brewery-scale beer in neighborhood pubs and, well, this was that. Today Steel Rail makes up 55% of BBC's production, and many, many new adherents to the craft brew movement have been educated due to its success.
Steel Rail pours that familiar yellow color, but with a thick and lasting head, a sweet, malty aroma and flavor, and very few hops. This mild, flavorful beer was joined on our table by Little Pub's chipotle ranch salad. The salad was done almost like a slaw, and was spiced with a solid amount of chipotle, but not enough to make one fear for their colorectal health. The heat of the dressing paired well with the sweetness and restraint of the beer, although I thought the olives could have been left out.
BBC's Maibock Lager was the first non-ale on the menu at the pub that night, and apropos, as this German style of beer is traditionally aged in caves and brought out in the spring, hence the "Mai" or "May" in the name. The cooler temperatures suit the bottom- or cool-fermenting lager yeasts, and they lend it their dry, fresh flavor. Malts round off this dry nature, bringing an almost honeyed sweetness in this case, which went well indeed with the crab cakes and Thai curry aioli. The cakes were neat little rounds with a goodly amount of crab in each, and the aioli was luxuriant with green curry. These seemed to disappear quickly from the table.
Again, perhaps the best way to describe what Lost Sailor IPA is is by discussing what it isn't. It isn't a bronze bellows for hops the way most American IPAs are. It is decidedly toned down, like swapping out Dick Dale for Jack Johnson. This is because it isn't an American west coast IPA, it is an English IPA... from the American east coast. Hops just weren't used by the barrel full in England when the IPA style was being developed, and still aren't, with some exceptions. Lost Sailor was still one of the hoppier beers most people had tried, circa 1995, but it's not going to blast anyone's fontanelle into orbit these days. Not unless, that is, someone tampers with it.
BBC puts "fresh" and "local" at the top of every label - above, even, their own name. And there in Ridgefield, at the feet of the Berkshires which give the brewery its name, we were about to have some very fresh, very special beer. Only three weeks old, the Lost Sailor IPA in the cask the boys from BBC had brought with them had been extensively dry-hopped with a serious amount of Kent Goldings. The bubbles the glass I held were very fine compared to those I'd seen in growlers of Lost Sailor I'd bought for myself previously, and the color was slightly, but noticeably darker. I like Lost Sailor, [http://www.ctbites.com/home/2011/9/9/friday-froth-drinkin-turtles.html] but this was the original beer after a completely makeover. The Goldings (a U.K. hop, naturally) aren't the most aggressive variety, and there was a real richness apparent along with the bite. Special beers like this are part of the reason to attend dinners where a brewery shares hosting duties, and I went back once - ok, twice - to refill on this elixir.
The more powerfully-flavored beer made it possible for The Little Pub to pair with pulled pork carnitas and creole seasoned shoestring fries. The fries were beautifully done to a golden hue, but were overly seasoned, I think, as an accompaniment to another dish. They'd be fantastic as a standalone appetizer, but they did get slightly in the way of the carnitas, which highlighted by their own pairing of deliciously fatty pork and crumbled queso fresco. If you could read my notes, you'd see "god bless" scrawled in there by this one, and I have to recommend it. Try the dish with a Lost Sailor, and ask that they take it easy on the creole seasoning.
Remember what I was saying about special beers? Hunter and crew decided to finish the evening with a blend of their Raspberry Barley Wine Style ale and coffeehouse porter. BBC again displays their commitment to freshness by adding half a pound of fresh raspberries to the eponymous ale per gallon, and then releasing it on Valentine's Day because, as Hunter said "The raspberries come out of the barrels white, and the beer comes out pink." The raspberry ale is suitable for aging, owing partially to its high alcohol content, and will change character over time. It was a natural partner for the Dean's Beans Coffeehouse porter, which is their Drayman's porter with Dean's organic coffee beans added. Keep an eye out for this one at bars and restaurants, as it's available on nitrogen drafts.
Blended, the chocolate notes in the porter match superbly with the raspberry, and this modified "black and tan" paired well with Little Pub's warm New Orleans bread pudding and maple sugared bourbon sauce. The bread pudding is dense and very sweet, but it's slightly offset by a tiny smokiness from the bourbon in much the same was the chocolate notes in the porter are balanced out by the tartness of the raspberry.
The pairings at this dinner were assembled by the staff at The Little Pub, and were all well above average, as is to be expected by its patrons. The BBC side of these pairings, however, managed to defy expectations. This is a new(ish) brewery with a very old soul, keeping alive traditional beers which rely more on the complexity of their malts than the ostentation of hops (most of the time), in a country where hops are oftentimes the principal ingredient considered by drinkers. These aren't extroverted ales, they're thoughtful ones, crafted while mindful of the notion that old-world beers can still be fresh and new when they hit your table.
Little Pub 59 Ethan Allen Highway, Ridgefield. 203.544.9222
Mon - Thurs:
11:30 am - 1:00 am
Fri - Sat:
11:30 am - 2:00 am
12:00 pm - 1:00 am