VAIL - We live in an expensive place, a place where 10 percent off barely covers the sales tax and people ride their bikes to work because it's healthy, yes, but also because gas hovers right around $4 per gallon. So we adapt, we pick and choose when and where we splurge, and we're constantly looking for the next slamming local deal. Well, my beer-drinking friends, I've found it.The Vail Cascade, home of the annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival, prides itself on its craft-beer program, and in March, the resort's Atwater restaurant rolled out a new Brewmaster's Weekend series. Each month, a new brewer shows up to show off a handful of select beers from one of Colorado's craft breweries. The beers are paired with inventive small plates from executive chef Todd Bemis and his kitchen cronies, and the price tag comes in at a whopping $20.To give you an idea of what you get for your hard-earned Andrew Jackson, I recently attended one of these small-plate sessions, co-hosted by Matt Thrall, head brewer at Avery Brewing Co., and scribbled some illegible notes on my placemat between bites. This is what I could derive from my shoddy penmanship:The first beer was Avery's Maharaja. We obviously wouldn't be easing our palates into anything here. Thrall calls this beer "a slap in the face" - if you don't like hops, you won't like Maharaja. The double IPA is brewed with six to seven pounds of hops per barrel, a blend of Simcoe, Centennial and Chinook that imparts a piney, citrus-forward flavor. Bemis needed something that would stand up to the hops in the beer without elevating the spiciness. He and his crew of chefs landed on pulled Jidori chicken sopes with roasted poblano fennel and salsa verde. My favorite thing about pairing beer with food is that each bite can bring out new flavors in the brew. In this case, the corn in the sopes helped mute the spice in the Maharaja so you could catch the more fragile flavors of floral and citrus. To bring the hops roaring back, we needed only to take a nibble of the gooseberry that garnished the plate.For the second course, Bemis had the challenge of pairing one plate with two very different beers from Avery's Holy Trinity series. The first, Salvation, is made with a Slovenian hop that lends a white-pepper flavor to the beer. The second beer was The Reverend, a strong, dark Belgian quad with a more malty profile - think caramel or raisin flavors. The solution was twofold: mango nigiri with smoked strawberry caviar and braised pork in a lop chung steamed bun. On to the third beer of the Holy Trinity: Hog Heaven. Thrall calls this his desert-island beer: "If you were on a desert island, you'd want a case - no, a pallet - of this beer to wash up." The beer has a dank aroma, which lends to its nickname of "dime bag in a bottle." Originally a home brew created by Adam Avery himself, this one ranks at 100 international bittering units and 9.24 percent alcohol by volume. Bemis' "hogs and frogs" pairing for this beer was the first to cause me pause: I'd never had frog legs. I'm from Iowa; we used to catch frogs to use as fish bait. I wasn't the only one at my table who seemed a bit apprehensive about it, but after a brief inspection, I dived right in. The amphibious little limbs were wrapped in beignet pillows with saffron mayo and sauce puttanesca, a sort of bastardized Southern tomato salsa. Once again, the pairing was dead on.The fourth and final round was the knock-out punch. The beer, Samael's (sch-males) oak-aged ale, comes from Avery's demonic series."Samael was God's knee-breaker," Thrall said, and this 15.4 percent brute definitely packs a wallop. Thrall said it's brewed more in the style of an English ale, heavy on the malt and light on the hops. The limited-release beer has a dark caramel color and a woody aroma that comes from being aged in American oak.Bemis was given explicit instructions not to pair this sweet, strong ale with dessert. So the Atwater boys brainstormed and came up with a savory spin on bananas Foster. The dish featured seared foie gras with a slice of banana drizzled with pineapple sweet and sour and garnished with a fin of delicate dried pineapple. Bemis was able to showcase the fruit and malt characteristics of the beer without resorting to a cloying, syrupy finishing course.Next up on the docket for this monthly frugal foray into beer and food pairing is a visit from Odell Brewing Co. on Aug. 17 and 18. Call the Vail Cascade at 970-476-7111 for more information or to reserve your spot.
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