Guest Post by Angela Rose
Every fall, hordes of craft beer fans flock to the Colorado Convention Center in Denver for America’s biggest beer festival. Now in its 37th year, 2018’s Great American Beer Festival, held September 20 through 22, drew greater than 62,000 attendees eager to quaff the liquid fruits of more than 800 U.S. breweries.
But this isn’t another review of the more than 4,000 beers that were available in the 584,000-square-foot festival space.
No, while I eagerly participate in knocking back one-ounce samples of the nation’s best spontaneously fermented ales, barrel-aged brews, imperial stouts, spaghetti gose (yes, really) and juicy IPAs found in the main hall (and followed by more than a few antacids), I believe the unsung highlight of GABF is its food and beer pairing event known, fittingly, as PAIRED.
Each year PAIRED brings together independent craft breweries and acclaimed chefs from around the nation (and even as far away as Paris) to celebrate the limitless possibilities when joining beer with food. Created by Brewers Association Executive Chef Adam Dulye, this year’s event featured 26 restaurants and craft breweries in conjunction with 52 dishes and exclusive beers.
It’s literally a gastronomical wonderland and trying every single dish is impossible—at least for me. But rest assured, I gave it the old college try. The result was a more than satisfied belly and this accounting –in no particular order– of my 12 best bites.
1. John Tesar of Knife in Dallas, Texas: Hand Rolled Garganelli with Truffle paired with Two Roots Brewing Co’s Flying Bear (India Export Ale)
I watch cooking shows like many people watch football (but with a little more drool), so when I saw Tesar shave a boatload of fresh black truffle over pasta already luxuriating in truffle butter, I wanted to shout “touchdown!” The aroma was amazing, and the truffle enhanced rather than overwhelmed the perfectly al dente garganelli.
“I worked with these guys last year, so I was very familiar with their style,” said the four-time James Beard Best Southwest Chef semifinalist and Bravo Top Chef competitor. “I’m not a big IPA guy, and I really like the fact that they put their hops in at the end. I think the earthiness of the beer goes really well with the truffle.”
2. John Tesar’s Beef Cheek Taco paired with Two Roots Brewing Co’s A&M Brut (Brut IPA)
While I didn’t get a chance to speak with the chef about this specific dish, it made me remember why I love beef cheeks. Rich, unctuous and supremely ‘beefy,’ the chef’s tart tomatillo sauce was the perfect foil for the tender meat.
3. Adam Vero of Hearth & Dram in Denver, Colorado: Colorado Lamb Coppa with Chocolate Beet Mole paired with Brewery Rickoli’s Old Rickoli 2017 (Barrel-Aged Barleywine)
I’m even crazier about beets than I am about truffles; I also love a good charcuterie plate, so I was instantly drawn to Vero’s colorful dish made with house-cured lamb capicola that was triple-cured over the course of seven days before going into a smoker.
“When I tasted the beer the first time, it was very chocolatey and had a lot of depth to it,” Vero said. “Mole was the first thing that popped into my head. We roasted red beets and pureed them with a little bit of dark chocolate and a couple of different spices as well as some fermented plum. We really felt like the chocolate needed the earthiness of the beet to cut into everything else with the beer.”
4. Kelly Whitaker of Basta in Boulder, Colorado: Seeded Cracker with Chicken Liver Mousse, Black Pepper and Fig Jam paired with Funkwerks’ Luminoso (Barrel-Aged Sour Ale)
I hated liver of any kind as a child but have definitely developed a passion for delectable poultry organs as an adult. While my husband makes a mighty fine chicken liver mousse, this one was the lightest and fluffiest iteration I’ve ever encountered.
Whitaker was heavily inspired by the Luminoso when creating his dish. “While it’s a mild sour with Brett, I thought it had a lot of Belgian qualities in it, like black peppercorns and coriander,” he explained. “I decided to go a classic route with that. I also cooked two 750s of Luminoso with about 20 pounds of figs to make the fig jam and create a bridge effect.”
5. Kelly Whitaker’s Hamachi Crudo with Cucumber and Puffed Grain paired with Funkwerks’ Sauvin Reserve (Barrel-Aged Saison)
Another two of my favorite ingredients –this time lemony Hamachi and cool, summery cucumber– were expertly combined in this unassuming and refreshing dish. I’m generally not big on the eating of foams, but I gave it a try and was very glad that I did so.
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6. Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction, Colorado: Puffed Beef Tendon with Smoked Tallow Honey Butter and Lacto Fermented White Peach paired with Spice Trade Brewing’s Tamarindus Indica (Belgian Dubbel with Tamarind).
If you’ve ever had a chicharron, you understand the crunchy, salty satisfaction enjoyed while eating fried pork skin. After going back for seconds of Niernberg’s dish, I’m convinced puffy, fried beef tendon may be even better. Topped with creamy, sweet tallow butter and bright, slightly funky white peach, every bite was a flavor adventure.
“We use all 7X Colorado wagyu beef at our restaurant,” Niernberg said, “and we try to use as much of the animal as we can. We actually developed the puffed beef tendon to use with the elk tartare on our menu. We used it as our base dish tonight and adjusted the flavors for the beer.”
7. Josh Niernberg’s Olathe Sweet Corn Panna Cotta with Fruition Farms Cheese, Huitlacoche, Popcorn, Popcorn Shoots and Dried Pork Loin paired with Spice Trade Brewing’s Limon de Sorrento (Limoncello Saison)
Even more complex than Niernberg’s beef tendon dish, the panna cotta featured layers of flavors and perfectly embodied the chef’s ethos to use locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
8. Sam Talbot of Sam Talbot Consulting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Seafood Pan Roast with Spicy Rice and Pickled Zucchini paired with Roadhouse Brewing Co’s Siren Song (Belgian Imperial Ale)
I was more than a little star-struck as I approached the table of Sam Talbot, and not just because he’s taller than I expected. But the mouthwatering aroma of seafood was decidedly irresistible.
“They sent the beer to Brooklyn,” the Bravo Top Chef semi-finalist explained. “I opened the beer in Brooklyn. I drank the heck out of the beer in Brooklyn. And I thought about the different notes that might really be brought out by the brininess of seafood. I took raw Fresno peppers and pureed daikon, made a fresh yellow curry and also my own version of harissa. I also used a lot of vinegar in the broth.”
9. Sam Talbot’s Grilled Oyster with Dashi Butter and Golden Caviar paired with Roadhouse Brewing Co’s Mountain Jam Vol. 2 (Hazy IPA with Fruit)
While I was initially attracted by the delectable aroma of Talbot’s seafood pan roast, I eagerly braved a second line for one of these beautiful, freshly grilled oysters.
10. Christopher Schmidt of Craftsman in Edwards, Colorado: Mole Rock N’ Roll in New England Split-Top Bun paired with Three Weavers Brewing’s Hold the Lime (German-Style Kolsh with Lime)
By the time I reached Schmidt’s table, I wasn’t sure I could swallow another mouthful, but I was certainly glad I did. This sandwich had so many satisfying layers of flavor and texture cradled within buttery, toasted bread.
“The Kolsh is obviously a German beer, but as soon as you add lime, it took us all straight to Mexico,” Schmidt explained. “I took poached rock shrimp and brought it south of the border with a mole poblano folded into our house-made mayonnaise along with a bunch of lime juice and salt. We added finely julienned celery as well as some crispy puffed rice with sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds that we call ‘Sesame Super Crunch.’ I think it pairs phenomenally with the light, crisp Kolsh.”
11. Ryan Taylor of Hickory & Ash in Broomfield, CO: Chicken Rillettes with Rosemary Cheddar Pizzella, Cherry Mostarda and Green Tomato Chow Chow paired with lauderAle’s I Got Lost on the Way Here (American Pale Ale)
I’m a sucker for rillettes of any variety. I mean, who doesn’t love heavily salted meat cooked slowly in fat until tender and then blended into a luscious paste? Taylor’s did not disappoint.
“The beer has a lot of wheat in it and some notes of tropical fruit,” he said. “We wanted to play off of those flavors and used local chicken and rosemary. We brought in the green tomato to complement the acid in the beer as well. It’s kind of a play on chicken and waffles because everyone loves chicken and waffles with beer. This is our fun twist on that.”
12. Gil Nogueira of Le Grand Bain in Paris, France: Elk Tartare with Blueberries paired with Wormtown Brewery’s Mass Whole Lager (American-Style Lager)
One of the simplest dishes I had all night, Nogueira’s tender, perfectly seasoned tartare made for a lovely palate cleanser. The quinoa added an unexpected yet pleasant texture.
“We’ve actually never worked with elk before,” Nogueira said. “Normally, in Europe, we work more with deer. We decided to make a similar plate using local products. And we topped it with a fermented malt powder with some yeast and dried mushrooms because it’s a beer festival.”
Next year’s Great American Beer Festival is scheduled for October 3 through 5. Tickets generally go on sale in early August, and the price to attend PAIRED ($160 this year but included the GABF General Session as well) is a worthwhile investment for any foodie who wants to fangirl (or fanboy) over some of the nation’s best chefs while showing your taste buds some love.
Angela Rose is a freelance journalist living in Longmont, Colorado. She loves food, craft beer and cats (though not always in that order) and can be found scouring the state for the best tacos, trying new breweries, and –more often than not– removing helpful felines from her keyboard so she can meet a deadline. Check out more of her work at www.thequirkycreative.com.