It’s been a bit of time since my last “Beer & Food” article. It’s certainly not easy spending loads of time in the kitchen while taking care of my 15 month old son. However, the funny thing is that I tend to do these articles when I’m home alone with him, which would certainly be much easier if my girlfriend was around. I started writing this article in June, so please forgive the time lapse. Just think of it as traveling back to a time where you weren’t perpetually moist from the humidity.
It happens to be June, but it also happens to be cold and rainy. It won’t be cold for long, and before we know it, it’s going to be scorching outside, with humidity through the roof. And the last thing you want in that kind of weather is any sort of big, dark and sweet high alcohol beer. You know, the kind that warms you up while you sip it, the kind that you can imagine sitting in front of a fire with, in a snifter, pondering life – or more likely, pondering your next beer choice. Well, I just so happen to have placed a nice “winter warmer” in my wine cooler, and today’s the perfect day for it.
What we have here is a bourbon barrel aged “Belgian Imperial Stout” from Smuttynose Brewing Co. Some of you might be wondering what a “Belgian Imperial Stout” is exactly, and I guess so am I. This would be my first Belgian/Stout hybrid, and for the most part I’m imagining a lot of dark roasted flavors, mixed with some big Belgian yeast spiciness – and of course, the Bourbon barrel notes. This is also my first from Smuttynose, a brewery located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Smuttynose has been producing beer since 1994, they have since expanded, and currently have a huge line up, available in over 20 states. I’m unsure about their availability in the rest of Canada, but they are certainly not available in Quebec, and I’ve never seen them in Ontario either.
But before I crack this one open, I need to decide what to eat! As usual when I write these posts, I have to deal with what we have in my fridge, and basically wing it because I haven’t prepared anything. But that’s the fun part! There are no meats thawed, and virtually no veggies. However, there is asparagus, which I love pretty much more than any other vegetable. I have eggs as well, but I’ve done the breakfast for dinner thing far too many times in the last few weeks, and I still haven’t found a beer to go with an omelet, and I’m not sure I want to. Then I remembered the bacon I had in the freezer, and it clicked, I knew what I wanted. No, it’s still not breakfast as you would presume from the Bacon and eggs combo. Rather, I decided to make spaghetti carbonara. Carbonara is up there as one of my most favorite meals to cook, it also happens to be one of the more decadent meals I make, and there is nothing wrong with that, especially when I can pair it with a beer like this one. It’s actually quite simple to do. I found a recipe a couple of years back in a book I received as a gift from a friend. It wasn’t so much a recipe, but rather the author explaining that people often over complicate the dish, and it should really only contain a few ingredients. Basically, it only needs pasta, eggs, pancetta, parmesan, and black pepper. However, for our purposes, I’m going to replace the pancetta with bacon, and I’m throwing in asparagus and some french shallots as well.
Now that the food decision has been made, I want to dive into this beer in order to see what kind of deliciousness I’m in for. Carbonara is rich, so it made sense to drink a big bodied, flavor forward beer to match the robust fatty elements of the dish. The beer pours out extremely dark, bordering on black. It is certainly thick, but looks slightly less dense than an imperial stout. It has a good level of carbonation, but the head is certainly not over the top by any means. It appears to be bottle fermented, which makes sense given that it’s suppose to be a Belgian style of beer.
The aromas are complex, but not overly intense. There is a lot of coco and coffee coming through right away, followed by some subtle star anise, and a lot of Belgian yeast zestiness. I’m also getting a good amount of woody vanilla aromas from the oak aging, as well as some subtle whiskey elements. It certainly has a great nose, both styles come through and work well together – I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Now for some actual tasting. It has a lighter body than I expected, with some dark fruit, a big Belgian yeast presence, and hints of dark roasted malt – chocolate, star anise, and coffee all playing a role. However, there are certainly less “stout” elements present in the taste as compared to the aroma. Just like in the nose, I’m getting some vanilla and whiskey barrel aged flavors as well. It’s quite good, and surprisingly easy to drink. The aftertaste has a tangy yeastiness with a nice bitter kick to cut it all down. The carbonation lightens up the mouthfeel, and it froths up nicely when I spin the glass, releasing more tasty aromas as I sip it. It is quite well balanced, with a sweetness that’s cut by a perfectly bitter finish.(I will say though, that I had a hard time finishing this one, as the richness sneaks up on you – It’s best to be shared).
As I was mentioning above, carbonara doesn’t have to be complicated, and making it is quite simple really. The way it’s made might actually seem kind of off putting to some – as it involves raw eggs – but I assure you that it is delicious. I start with the bacon, as it’s the ingredient that takes the longest to cook. I generally cut it into small pieces, about half an inch by half an inch, and toss them into my cast iron pan on medium heat. You can use as much or as little as you like, it all depends on how “baconey” you like it. Once the bacon fat is rendering nicely, and I can see it start to bubble and crisp, I toss in the French shallots, letting them simmer in the fat in order to caramelize. After another few minutes I toss in the asparagus, which I cut lengthwise to ensure they get cooked though.
While doing all this, I took a large bowl, cracked 2 eggs into it, and added a crap ton of freshly cracked black pepper and freshly grated parmesan cheese. A crap ton is certainly not an exact measurement, but again, it’s to your taste – however I recommend a lot of both of these things. Adding salt can be tricky, because if you use grocery store bacon, it’s already over salted, but if you buy some nice panchetta from your local butcher, it’s probably not overtly salty, so you might want to add a pinch to the dish. While the bacon cooked, I also prepared a pot of boiling water and threw in the spaghetti when it was about 10 minutes before the Bacon mixture was ready. I also chopped a bunch of chives because, well, I put chives on everything.
At this point the pasta is done and the bacon is looking crispy and delicious. It’s at this crucial moment that everything comes together. I Drain the pasta from the boiling water and immediately toss it in with the bacon mixture. Be careful here because the pasta will stick to the pan, and you still want it to be on medium heat (this is particularly important with cast iron). After a few tosses, the whole mixture then goes directly into the bowl with the eggs, cheese, and peeper. After a good tossing and then topped with some sprinkled chives, and Parmesan, it is ready to serve. The idea here is that the heat from the pasta and the bacon cooks the eggs just enough to basically turn it into a sauce. This dish needs to be served fresh, so don’t let it linger very long. Also, leftovers will not work; I tried it, it was nasty.
Let’s see how these two wonderful things go together. The dish is creamy and fatty with a salty bacon backbone and some crunchy asparagus to help freshen it up a bit. After taking a bite and sipping this big, dark and yeasty Belgian brew, the first thing I notice is how much the barrel aged oak flavors come out, with vanilla and general woody elements really coming through. The salty bacon really helps cut through a lot of the sweetness going on in the beer, while the beer compliments the richness of the dish, acting as a good companion to each heavy bite. The dish also really helps bring the dark fruit elements of the beer to the foreground; cherries, blackberries, and plums start to make a big appearance. This is certainly a lot of fun to eat, and drink!
I wouldn’t say that this is my best pairing, with no fault to either the dish or the beer. I think although the asparagus worked well in the dish, it didn’t match the richness and big flavors of the beer very well. However, as I was saying earlier, the salty crunchy bacon really brought out some hidden gems in this bold Belgian bombshell.
An Article by Noah Forrest