The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF

Guest post by Angela Rose

If you live anywhere near Denver, Colorado, or are at all familiar with the world of craft beer, you’ve probably heard of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) organized by the Brewers Association (BA). Now in its 38th year, the GABF is the nation’s largest ticketed beer festival and commercial competition, drawing together hundreds of breweries and tens of thousands of beer lovers for three days celebrating everyone’s favorite craft. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019. Photo by Jonathan Caster
PAIRED 2019 by Jonathan Castner.

This year’s GABF was held October 3 through 5 at the Colorado Convention Center and was attended by 62,000 craft beer fans and 800 brewers pouring more than 4,000 different beers. That’s a lot of suds—and the main festival hall is definitely fun to explore—but once again, my attention was wholly captured by PAIRED. 

What is PAIRED, you ask? Only THE preeminent beer and food pairing event in Colorado, uniting independent craft brewers with acclaimed chefs to explore virtually unlimited culinary possibilities. This year’s PAIRED featured 24 chefs and 24 brewers for a grand total of 48 small plates and unique beers. 

That’s the stuff (my) dreams are made of, and now that a couple of weeks have passed, I think I’ve finally digested—both literally and figuratively—my 2019 PAIRED experience. Below you’ll find what I felt were the best bites and sips of the festival, in no particular order. 

  1. Michael Galen of Dusek’s Board and Beer in Chicago, Illinois: Foie Gras Torchon, Duck Fat Hawaiian Bread, Huckleberries, and Tangerine Lace. Paired with Wallenpaupack Brewing Company’s Talkback Saison.
The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Foie_by_Chef_Galen
Foie Gras Torchon by Chef Galen. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

Dusek’s Board and Beer was awarded a prestigious Michelin Star in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, so chef Galen’s table was first on my list to visit. I was not disappointed. The foie gras was succulent and salty.  The bread was sweet, with the huckleberries providing a tart accent. It was as close as I’ve ever had to a perfect bite.  

“We’re a gastropub and are beer-focused,” Galen explained when I enquired about the inspiration behind his dish. “We do modern American with a Midwestern influence, like comfort dishes with a twist. For the torchon, I like that the saison has an almost gumball flavor to it. It really works with the richness of the foie and the huckleberries.” 

  1. Michael Galen’s Duck Sausage, Cornbread, Figs, and Beer Mustard paired with Wallenpaupack Brewing Company’s Lake Haze 007 Double IPA. 

Chef Galen’s sausage dish was both beautiful and delicious. I’m a sucker for duck, sausage and figs, so it was a definite hit. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Duck_by_Chef_Galen
Duck Sausage, Cornbread, Figs, and Beer Mustard by Chef Galen. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“Cornbread and duck are pretty ordinary, but we found a way to elevate it,” Galen said. “We had a cornbread puree and made the mustard with the beer it’s paired with here today. I think it’s really nice and fatty, and the bright IPA really cuts through that.” 

  1. Ben Smart of Big Grove Brewery and Taproom in Iowa City, Iowa: Apricot Mousse Cake, Pine Nut Joconde, Cardamom Scented Apricot Jam, Rosemary Caramel, and White Chocolate. Paired with Forbidden Root Restaurant and Brewery’s Radio Swan India Pale Ale. 

Last year I missed most of the dessert dishes at PAIRED, indulging instead in decadent savory selections. I wanted to remedy that this time around and chef Smart’s cake caught my eye right away. The supremely tender sponge was layered with tangy apricot jam, which was mellowed by wafer-thin white chocolate. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Apricot_Cake_by_Chef_Smart
Apricot cake by Chef Smart. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“I liked the idea of plating a dessert with an IPA,” said Smart. “Most people would probably stay on the savory side, but I like to show dexterity and flexibility by going sweet to savory and back and forth. This beer had tons of apricot and other stone fruit along with notes of cardamom and grains of paradise. I tried to work all of those things into the layers of this dessert.” 

  1. Ben Smart’s Spiced Pumpkin Brown Bread, Black Trumpet and Hazelnut Lacquered Pork Belly, Sweet Potato Mustard, and Pickled Cipollini Onion paired with Forbidden Root Restaurant and Brewery’s Hoodie Weather Oak-Aged Vienna Lager. 
The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Pork_Belly_by_Chef_Smart
Pork Belly by Chef Smart. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

Ask a pork aficionado about his or her favorite cut and many will often cite pork belly. Rich, sticky and salty, chef Smart’s pork belly was perfectly accented by the dish’s other elements. 

  1. Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction, Colorado: Honeydew and Green Tomato Gazpacho, Fromage Blanc, Carbonated Ground Cherry, and Parsley Oil. Paired with Vernacular Brewing Company’s Funky Pheasant Fight Barrel-Aged Belgian-Style Sour.

Niernberg is known for his use of seasonal ingredients, always making the most of the produce available at any given time. Sipping his honeydew and green tomato gazpacho was like tasting the last sweet moments of a Colorado summer. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Honeydew_by_Chef_Niernberg
Honeydew and Green Tomato Gazpacho by Chef Niernberg. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“Mike from Vernacular sent us a couple of different sours to pick from,” Niernberg explained when I asked about the composition of his dish. “This one is a bit brighter with more citrusy flavors. We used that as an inspiration to pull late-season green tomatoes, ground cherries that were starting to drop all around us, and honeydew that was just finishing off the season. I’m really happy with how the dish turned out.” 

  1. Josh Niernberg’s Pozole of Colorado Blue Corn, Guajillo and Matsutake Dashi, Huitlacoche Hoisin, and Beef Cheek Pastrami paired with Vernacular Brewing Company’s Price of Daemons Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. 
The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Pozole_by_Chef_Niernberg
Pozole by Chef Niernberg. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“This dish is decidedly Colorado cuisine,” Niernberg said. “We used Colorado blue corn hominy and a Colorado sourced beef cheek that we cured pastrami style with sage, juniper, and guajillo peppers that played into the flavors of the stout. It’s a play on pozole finished out with habanada peppers, which are bright and fruity like habanero peppers but without the heat. The texture of this dish should be familiar, but the flavors are more attuned to the beer.”   

  1. Dan Jacobs of DanDan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Chicken Liver Pate, Onion Marmalade, and Brioche Crumbs. Paired with Berryessa Brewing Company’s Tourist Trap Belgian Tripel. 

They may be offal, but I think chicken livers are divine when prepared correctly—something chef Jacobs definitely did with his luscious pate. It was so rich and velvety, I had to go back for seconds. That’s something I never do when there are so many mouth-watering dishes to get through. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Castner. Pate_by_Chef_Jacobs
Chicken Liver Pate by Chef Jacobs. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“The Belgian Tripel had buddha’s hand and local honey, which really fit well with the chicken liver pate,” Jacob’s explained while describing his inspiration. “I think when you’re trying to pair something like this in an event, you just want to make sure everything tastes good together. This was one of those moments.” 

  1. Dan Jacobs’ Happy Chicken and Szechuan Ranch paired with Berryessa Brewing Company’s Free Kittens Rice Lager. 

I was initially drawn to this pairing because of the name. After all, anyone who knows me knows I love petting cats even more than I love drinking beer and eating food. While there were no actual kittens to be found, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the crisp, refreshing lager danced with the zesty flavors of chef Jacobs’ fantastically crunchy chicken. 

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“Free Kittens is so refreshing and bright, we knew it would cut the salty, fatty, spicy happy chicken really nicely,” said Jacobs. “It’s a perfect beer for our sort of restaurant.” 

  1. Jon Lavelle, Chef de Cuisine at Fruition in Denver, Colorado: Chicken Liver Mousse Tartlet, Whipped Maple Gastrique, and Black Pepper. Paired with Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ Maple Tripple Oak-Aged Maple Ale. 

Whereas chef Jacobs’ chicken liver pate was decadently fudge-like in texture, chef Lavelle’s was light and airy. Piped into a tender shortcrust and topped with a whipped maple and apple cider vinegar gastrique, it paired perfectly with the maple ale. 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 (2) Photo by Jonathan Caster
Chicken Liver Mousse Tartlet by Chef Lavelle. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“When I tasted the beer, I wanted to do something that would stand up to it but not get in the way of it,” said Lavelle. “It’s a big beer, and it needs a little richness and acidity to go with all that alcohol and residual sugar. Chicken offal is really mellow, and I’ve had the recipe for this chicken liver mousse in my back pocket for years. I just adapted it to fit the profile of the beer.” 

  1. Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield, Vermont: Maple Tripple Oak-Aged Maple Ale. 

There were two beers at PAIRED that so dazzled me I felt a few moments with their creators were in order. This was the first. Brewed with more than 200 gallons of concentrated maple sap in place of water, it was the most maple-forward beer I’ve ever encountered. 

“It’s a two-year brew,” Lawson said when I asked him about his brewing process. “I brew it in the spring, and it takes a couple of months to condition before I rack it into the oak barrels. At the same time, I’m taking out the beer I made the year prior and blending it up with some of the fresh stuff to get the right balance.” 

Lawson said his brewery makes a mere seven barrels of Maple Tripple each year. “It doesn’t go very far, but this is a really special event,” he added. “We’ve entered this beer and won in the World Beer Cup three times. It’s our most award-winning beer by far.” 

  1. Josh Rathbun of Siena Tuscan Steakhouse in Wichita, Kansas: Heritage Pork County-Style Terrine. Paired with Accomplice Beer Company’s SMaSH #2 American Pale Ale. 

Composed with robust, tender pork, a nice hint of peppercorn and pistachio, and accented with pear butter and eye-catching edible flowers, chef Rathbun’s terrine was another pork lover’s dream.  

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Photo by Jonathan Castner.
PAIRED 2019. Photo by Jonathan Castner.

“I used Red Wattle, a heritage breed, from an hour outside my restaurant,” Rathbun said. “The okra was grown by my farmer friend. He also grew the pears that we made the pear butter out of. While I wasn’t able to taste the beer originally because it was still fermenting, I knew a dish like this would just scream beer and really pair well.” 

  1. Nathan Anda of Red Apron in Washington, DC: Wagyu Tartare, Smoked Duke’s Mayo, and Toasted Sourdough. Paired with Wibby Brewing’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Dunkel.

I’ve become a bit of a tartare fanatic over the past year. So much so, in fact, that I kind of feel like I’m missing out on something better every time I cook a steak. Chef Anda’s tartare was a great illustration of the reason why. Delicately textured yet supremely meaty, its light smoke accent perfectly complemented the beer. 

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  1. Ryan Wibby of Wibby Brewing in Longmont, Colorado: Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Dunkel. 

Wibby’s double dunkel was the second of the two beers that most impressed me at this year’s PAIRED. Barrel-aged for 18 months, it was packed with bourbon character yet had minimal heat and a clean finish. 

“It was kind of scary when we finally pulled it out of the barrel because we didn’t know how the beer was going to hold up after all that time,” Wibby said. “We put it on tap for Wibtoberfest, our annual Octoberfest celebration a few weeks ago, and I didn’t get as much of the bourbon character as I did today. It’s really coming out as the carbonation has lifted. I thought it was a perfect pairing for the tartare as they both had aggressive flavors but a super smooth, clean finish.” 

The 13 Best Bites (and Sips) at PAIRED 2019 at GABF. Media Photo
Courtesy of the Great American Beer Festival.

If your mouth is watering as much as mine has been while reminiscing about these dishes, make sure you put next year’s Great American Beer Festival (September 24 through 26) and PAIRED on your calendar now. Tickets usually go on sale in early August, and a ticket to PAIRED will get you a keepsake glass, unlimited two-ounce samples and small plates, an opportunity to chat with award-winning chefs and brewers, and access to the full festival hall where you can experience the rest of what GABF has to offer. 

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

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