An idea arose one night over dinner between the bearded, kinetic cofounder of Montpelier’s Three Penny Taproom and an adjunct professor at the New England Culinary Institute. One has devoted his life to sharing great beer; the other has a long-standing romance with wine. Both are passionate about which libation pairs better with food — and, late last year, both decided they were willing to try proving it.
Scott Kerner and Jeff Roberts had collaborated on beer-and-cheese pairings before, but now they envisioned a good-natured, course-by-course competition between their chosen beverages, with invited diners as judges.
The two approached NECI chefs Paul Sorgule and Kevin O’Donnell and asked NECI to sponsor the event. The answer was yes, if profits from the dinner — at $65 per guest — could go to the NECI Scholarship Fund. The chefs also suggested that Roberts and Kerner plan their pairings without being told which dishes would compose the meal.
They said, “‘We at least need to know what the proteins will be,’” recalled O’Donnell, NECI’s vice president of food and beverage operations, after the event. So he and Sorgule disclosed the basics of a seven-course dinner: oyster, salmon, intermezzo, venison, cheese and white chocolate. They set a date — February 20 — and Roberts and Kerner began seeking their best libations for what they dubbed Battle of the Champions.
“I really had the styles in my mind made up instantaneously,” said Kerner, 36, of hearing the protein list. He had deepened his beer acumen during decades in the food-and-beverage industry, culminating with opening Three Penny Taproom in 2009.
If Kerner could pinpoint a beer-pairing epiphany, it would be one that occurred while he was working with Zoe Brickley of the Cellars at Jasper Hill on beer-and-cheese tastings. “The first time I had a great English cheddar with a hoppy IPA, it was just a ‘go,’” Kerner recalled. “The marriage of those two flavors really brought out the grassiness of the cheese, and the cheese numbs a lot of the bitter [of the beer].”
The challenge was getting his hands on the right beers, some of which are quite unusual. So Kerner began calling distributors and importers.
For Roberts, the route was different: NECI’s chefs asked him to choose among the several hundred bottles in its own cellar, collected during the school’s tenure at the Inn at Essex.
Fortunately, Roberts has a palate memory that stretches back to his first dabblings in his twenties, when he used to raid a fortress-like wine shop in the Bronx. “I’d walk around with the owner, and he’d say, ‘Try this, try that,’” he said. Since wine was still relatively inexpensive, Roberts would buy mixed cases and sample the bottles with his wife. “We had a blast trying these things,” he said.
Later, while living in Philadelphia, Roberts got together for blind tastings with friends, attended private and industry tastings, and began amassing his own cellar. He developed a deep love for wine from Italy and Germany, as well as for beer. As a founding member of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, he’s an old hand at pairing cheese with beer and wine. “One of the things I appreciate about beer is its carbonation,” Roberts said. “It cuts through fat and raises your ability to taste things.”
He had a good sense of how the bottles in NECI’s cellar would taste; the challenge was to choose those available in sufficient quantities to sate more than 50 diners.
At NECI on Main on the night of the event, the basement bar was covered with trays of tiny glasses, each filled with one-ounce pours. Upstairs, 54 people took their seats around several tables and received scorecards on which to mark their preferences. “We eat with our eyes. We eat with our labels, and we make assumptions,” Roberts told them. Like him and Kerner, the diners didn’t know much about the food besides what they saw on the menu: oysters, salmon, lamb…
“Lamb?” asked Kerner incredulously. Yes, the chefs had changed the meat course at the last minute — an unanticipated switch in a meal that also included a few mischievously thrown curveballs.
Soon trays of dark beer circulated, as did flutes of sparkling wine. Then came small, white cups filled with a sunshine-gold liquid dusted with caramelized sugar. The sauce resembled cappuccino or crème brûlée, softly sweet, spicy and luscious. Lurking inside was a single plump oyster whose briny liquor mingled with the sugars and tiny, iridescent orbs — tapioca pearls, it turned out. The sparkling wine accented the dish’s sweetness; on the beer side, that sweetness softened the bitterness of what seemed to be an aggressive stout.
The next course was salmon, so some diners were surprised to see glasses of red wine arrive alongside a straw-colored brew. “People who only drink white wine with fish? Well, I’m not one of them,” quipped Roberts.
The tables fell silent as people chewed, sipped, then chewed and sipped again from the opposite glass, concentrating on what was going on in their mouths. The red — a juicy, velvety number — gracefully matched the salmon, which had molasses lacquering its side and a mysterious, spicy-sweet foam across the top. Though the wine flirted with overpowering the dish, in the end it heightened the sweetness and muted the spice. The beer’s sour, almost vinegar-like flavors mellowed against the fish.
One of the charges of the NECI chefs was to construct an intermezzo, or palate cleanser, using one beer and one wine. A ruby-colored shot arrived in a glass, along with a tiny square bowl filled with diced pear, frisée salad and an almost-clear liquid. The shot tasted of a summer orchard, and where was the wine? Possibly in the pear dish; it was so subtle it was hard to tell.
Then out came the lamb: three pinkish slices of loin layered on a garlicky polenta cake and resting in a puddle of reduced lamb broth alongside tender baby carrots and green beans. The nose of the accompanying red wine was muted, but its flavors came alive against the savory meat: darkly fruity and herbaceous, charming and rustic. Against the lamb, the caramel-colored, nutty beer thinned and lost its spine. Consensus leaned toward wine, a hard-earned point from this beer-loving crowd.
After an unusual salad of a simple-syrup-poached tomato and frisée in a punchy citrus vinaigrette, a wedge of goat cheese tomme arrived, its rind an abstract sculpture of mold. Dots of a beet and dried-cherry gastrique were sprinkled alongside. Roberts’ choice for the course was a deep-rose-colored wine, with the slightest hint of sweetness and effervescence. It coaxed out the cheese’s sweetness and barnyard qualities. The honey-colored, hoppy ale practically vibrated in the glass, and its effervescence zinged up the cheese. “Your wine and my beer have something in common,” said Kerner cryptically.
Finally, a light-as-air white-chocolate soufflé came nestled against a tiny beignet and a smear of dark chocolate. Roberts’ pairing, a pale-gold dessert wine, tasted of honey and cooked apples and was an elegant foil for the soufflé. Kerner’s muscular stout emphasized the dark-chocolate notes.
Soon the chefs appeared in full white regalia, and their menus revealed the extent of their skills. For the oyster, said O’Donnell, “We took a hollandaise sauce and folded in a meringue, and toasted it.” He combined this with a fish velouté alongside the tapioca pearls. The salmon was sauced with a wasabi sabayon — placed deliberately to complicate the pairings. The shot during the intermezzo was ale blended with apple-cider sorbet. The exquisite goat tomme was from West Cornwall’s Twig Farm, and chef Ryan O’Malley’s dessert was accented with a chocolate-stout consommé.
And the libations? Kerner had reached far and wide for eclectic brews: a St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout for the oysters; a rare Belgian Tilquin Gueuze — or open-cask-aged lambic ale — for the salmon. His choice for the intermezzo was a sour-cherry-flavored Panil Barriquée beer from Italy; the beer for the cheese course, a Mikkeller Nelson Sauvin Brut from Denmark, was made with New Zealand hops meant to emulate wine flavors and aged in sauvignon blanc barrels. For the last course, Kerner rolled out a very special local beer, Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Damon — an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels and named for brewer Shaun Hill’s late, beloved dog. “I feel like people were getting a glimpse of my soul,” Kerner said of his pairings.
“You have beer that tastes amazing on its own, and food that tastes amazing on its own. The true magic and enjoyment of pairing is when those things together create a third flavor,” said Kerner. “Sometimes the beer will pull out a spice in the food you might never taste. And the fat in food pulls out the maltiness in an IPA. That connection between food and drink can create a third state.”
For his part, Roberts treated the diners to rare wines: a Taittinger Brut La Française with the oysters, a 2003 Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Franc with the salmon, a 1999 Fattoria Rodano Riserva Viacost Sangiovese with the lamb and a 2005 Marenco Pineto Brachetto D’Acqui — a sort of red lambrusco — with the tomme. For the final course, Roberts mined his loved of Austrian dessert wines, pulling out a 2003 J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese.
With a show of hands, the crowd indicated a slight preference for the beer pairings. Roberts shrugged it off amiably but seemed ecstatic about some of the wine pairings, which he thought matched the elegance of the meal — and, like Kerner, he was deeply satisfied that the event raised $3000 for NECI’s Scholarship Fund.
“For most of us, our experience with wine or beer with food is very narrow,” noted Roberts. He, Kerner and the chefs were eager to do battle again, but acknowledged they would never be able to reproduce that night’s masterful mix of libations. Said Roberts, “We can’t duplicate some of this because the beverages just don’t exist.”