Brews and bites : the beer and snack pairing marathon

The first brew was obtained using beer ninja skills, as it is not available in the local market. Indiana brewery Three Floyds is probably best known for brewing Dark Lord, which is among the most reputable, collectable, geekable beers ever. In fact, most of Three Floyds brews are sizably impressive, with huge flavors and huger reputations. One of the few lagers produced by Three Floyds -- Munsterfest Marzen -- pours bright orange copper with very little carbonation and almost no head. Aromas are of toffee and baking spices. This malty amber lager paired nicely with warm pretzel, minus the salt. The savory flavors in the pretzel interacted well with the considerable spicy sweetness common to beers with almost no hops profile. Round one was all about delicious doughy maltiness, a grain flavor party, if you will.

Up next, another out of town joy -- Magic Hat Odd Notion Winter '08 Braggot. This relatively obscure 6% blend of beer, mead, herbs, and spices hails from Vermont. Cheers to Rashard for sacrificing suitcase space so that I could pair it with Bonhomme Normand French Double Cream Brie, red apples, and water crackers. The braggot's brilliant gold body gives off a variety of subtle herbal scents, mixed with some clove spiciness. Flavors are very much like those found in soba ale - toasty nuttiness with a gentle honey sweetness from the mead. When enjoyed together, the brie's buttery characteristics and the clean taste of apples complimented the spiced flavors of the braggot. My friends liked the pairing better than the braggot itself; I was a fan of both.

The next beer, produced by Kulmbacher Brauerei - Kapizuner Schwarz-Weizen - is carried by a local distributor, although it is fairly obscure and reliably difficult to find. This 5.4% German black wheat ale accompanied a plate of sliced cantaloupe and pears. The brew pours dark chocolate brown, smelling of baking bread, chocolate, and tobacco. Flavors are dark wheat goodness mixed with schwarzbier perfection; the best elements of both. A slightly creamy mouthfeel and biscuity wheat component balances the mild coffee bitterness of black malt. The juicy sweetness of pear and melon matched harmoniously with the dark wheat flavors of the Schwarz-Weizen. This was the majority's favorite beer for the evening. Although it was exquisite, it wasn't my top choice.

Another locally available beer - Bell's Hopslam - is a seasonal release, but it's still available for package at Whole Foods on Dale Mabry, Kingdom Liquors in Brandon, Leukens Liquor in Dunedin, and World of Beer in Clearwater. I paired this Michigan brewed 10% Imperial IPA hop bomb with a cayenne pepper cheese. The light golden body sports average carbonation and is thoroughly seeped with evidence of aggressive hopping - intense aromas of pine, grapefruit, and green apples. The flavors are hop-lover heaven; a pleasantly citric honey sweetness precedes a burst of hops intensity that takes control of your entire head. The heavier mouthfeel from high ABV causes bitter flavors to linger for a while; when paired with cheese, the spiciness of cayenne pepper neutralizes some of the hops vigor, while the creamy texture mellows out the flurry of alpha acid mouth activity.

Keeping with the in-market theme, the next brew - Girardin Gueuze - was paired with red and green grapes. Aside from myself, nobody liked the gueuze. When served at cellar temperature, the 5% ABV blend of old and young lambics tends to have a sourness that is unappealing to some beer drinkers and anyone who knows anything about wine. It's the very pungency of the style that holds a special place in my heart. I always know when I'm drinking a gueuze; it's a very cognizant experience. A pale ale-looking body smells vinegary and tastes like a tart, less carbonated, and infinitely more complex version of high quality champagne. The sourness of green grapes complimented the vinegar characteristics of the gueuze, and red grapes added a touch of sweetness to the funky, dry flavors of wild yeast and barrel conditioning.

The next brew up for pairing - Southern Tier Choklat - comes from one of my favorite breweries and is not available locally. This 11% Imperial IPA from New York was paired with sliced Plant City strawberries. The opaque black body had an intense chocolate bar smell, mixed with a slight coffee essence. The flavor was liquid bitter chocolate heaven. High ABV produces a slight booziness that adds warmth to the dark, dry chocolate flavors, although the heavier mouthfeel and intense chocolaty tones work to mask the true strength of the brew. The sweetness of strawberries matched well with the bittersweet Belgian chocolate and neutralized some of the bite from dark grain and Chinook and Willamette hops. I am not ashamed to say I dunked my strawberries in the beer. And it was glorious.

Last up, my pick for the most excellent beer and pairing of the night - 2006 Thomas Hardy's Ale by O'Hanlons Brewery, matched with Robusto Gouda. The bottle came from the depths of my beer cellar, but '07 and '08 versions are available at several local retailers. This magnificent vintage ale looks and smells like a peppery version of Tylenol cold drink - herbal and warming. The slick body is almost like a cognac, and the nutty caramel flavors of Gouda combined nicely with slight traces of the signature butterscotch taste of diacetyl, a compound that occurs naturally during fermentation. With age, this byproduct can result in a pronounced buttery flavor that, in diminutive amounts, is entirely appropriate for the Old Ale style, especially one bottled in 2006. This 11.9% ABV daddy beer is a cigar and fireplace brew, something to help you wind down. It was the perfect choice to end a grand display of beer and food consumption.

Pairing beer and food has always been a major fascination, but lately I have become preoccupied and unable to focus. All I can think about is a variety of fine brews accompanied by little plates of delectable fare. After much persuading, five of my friends agreed to skip dinner and embark upon a beer and snack paring marathon.

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