It’s just after lunch at Edina’s Pig & Fiddle and Summit head brewer Damian McConn is seated at the bar alongside Pig & Fiddle owner Mark Van Wie and executive chef Dylan Benkenstein. With samples of several Summit beers lined up in front of them and a lively, in-depth conversation about pairing options taking place, surely something tasty is afoot.
As beer becomes ever more present on the tables of fine dining restaurants, designing beer dinners—a process that brings brewers and chefs together to conceptualize unique dining experiences—is both a challenge and a delight.
Aside from showcasing the qualities of individual beers and dishes, the real goal of a beer dinner is to highlight how the two can enhance each another—how a beer can bring out flavors in a dish and vice versa.
Beer dinners come in all shapes and sizes, notes McConn, who has hosted his share of the events in his 12 years at Summit. He’s worked single rooms with less than 50 people and seated events with 100+ attendees; his preference is the former, with the tables in close proximity to one another. Over dinner he’ll tell stories—beer facts and ingredient information—and says avoiding repetition and microphones helps keep the experience low key and intimate. He tries to walk a line between being providing enough information and background so guests feel informed, while also getting out of the way and letting them socialize. “You don’t want to overdo it,” he says. “You still want to give people the chance to hang out with their mates and enjoy the food.”
In four years since opening, Pig & Fiddle has made an effort to discover everything food and beer pairings can be. On their first week in business they hosted an Alaskan Brewing beer dinner and have held more than 30 of them since, about one every six to eight weeks.
Pig & Fiddle’s Summit beer dinner on Thursday night (which as of Wednesday afternoon had about 10 spots open) will showcase Summit’s new Union Series Old Blaggard Barleywine, their True Brit IPA, Winter Ale, and more. The restaurant prefers to highlight lesser-know, seasonal, or limited release beers with their dinners—hence choosing True Brit over the popular Sága in this particular case.
With samples flowing, the discussion between McConn, Van Wie, and Benkenstein touches on flavor characteristics of yeast strains, hops and barley and, for a seasoned brewery like Summit, what’s been paired and featured at previous dinners. Sticking with True Brit as an example, McConn notes that red meat isn’t ideal, whereas the IPA works well in taming heat in spicier dishes. Benkenstein counters with how he’d like to try a dish that draws out the subtle citrus flavors in the beer. The final choice: pancetta agnolotti in a mornay sauce, which will draw out the lemon notes in the beer without overpowering its other characteristics.
With the amount of experience in the room, it’s clear that Summit and Pig & Fiddle have a process. While it’s not written in stone, it’s unspoken that the session beers start off the dinner and beer with higher ABVs come into play as the courses get heavier.
Opening courses are typically light: salad, soup, or finger foods to allow for socialization and whet the appetites of attendees for the rich and earthy delights that build up in a crescendo, gaining complexity and calories as the evening wears on. It’s a balance between filling up the diners, keeping them social without intoxication, and providing value for their money. You don’t want them overstuffed, Van Wie notes, and they need to be able to drive home. It’s not just a balance of bitter and sweet, rich and savory, but also one of moderation.
With the lineup Summit is pouring on Thursday at Pig & Fiddle, difficult decisions must be made. For example, Old Blaggard’s powerful 10.1% ABV means it should be served toward the end of the meal. It’s a big, bold beer with a sweet tooth and, between brewery and restaurant, it’s debated if the porter or barleywine will pair better with a dessert. Benkenstein has the final call and decides on the barleywine with dessert (a fig blondie) and a post-meal cheese plate with the porter.
The sample glasses are drained, the menu is complete, and everybody is hungry. McConn grabs a menu for a late lunch, and Benkenstein returns to the kitchen to refine and plan, ironing out details and aligning the kitchen for the full process. “Everyone has a hand in planning it,” he says. There are dry runs and plating discussions still to come, all before the seared ahi and Summit EPA hit the table on Thursday night.
For more information about Pig & Fiddle beer dinners, including Thursday’s Summit beer dinner, visit pignfiddle.com.