The idea that beer has just as much right as wine to be on a fancy dinner table is not a novelty. And during the annual Baltimore Beer Week celebration, which begins Friday, it's a matter of principle.
The beer dinner, a multicourse meal built around beer pairings, is not only a staple of Baltimore's annual craft-beer celebration, it's become a year-round event in restaurants with adventurous beer programs, where suggested beer pairings now show up on menus as often as wine recommendations.
But some chefs know that beer can be more than just a suitable companion for a well-prepared dinner. Beer can be a surprising, and sometimes transformative, ingredient in great food, too.
And it's user-friendly.
"Cooking with wine is intimidating," said Jeremy Price, executive chef at the Marquee Lounge, the restaurant inside the Creative Alliance, an arts venue in Highlandtown. "Cooking with beer is more forgiving."
Price will be showing off his favorite beer-infused recipes, and a few new ones, on Oct. 22, when the Marquee Lounge hosts a Baltimore Beer Week event called "This Beer's Cooking," a five-course meal that starts with mussels steamed in Brewer's Art Ozzy Ale and ends with a chocolate torte suffused with Union Craft Brewing Blackwing Lager.
It's not a coincidence that Ozzy and Blackwing, both of which are brewed in Baltimore, happen to be among Price's favorites. Price cooks with the beers he enjoys, and he advises home cooks to do the same.
"Don't grab a beer if you don't like it," he said. "Cooking should be about familiar flavors."
The Marquee Lounge dinner falls right in the middle of Baltimore Beer Week, which begins Friday with a hearty kickoff lunch at Heavy Seas Alehouse hosted by the event's founders.
Hundreds of beer-related events, big and small, fill the 10-day schedule of activities, and while many of them are purely about the love of and appreciation for good beer, there are dozens of events where the focus is as much on food as drink.
These include a breakfast of pumpkin beer and pumpkin pancakes, a homemade chili-cooking contest and, almost every night, a full-blown beer dinner where every course is paired with a specially chosen beer.
But the Marquee Lounge dinner is the only event that focuses on the culinary potential of beer.
Price said "This Beer's Cooking" began with his simply wanting to have some kind of beer dinner at Marquee Lounge during Baltimore Beer Week. The idea to focus on cooking rather than pairing just came naturally.
"I've always been throwing beer into chili, stews and mussels," Price said. "Creating this dinner was not much of a learning curve."
The menu includes chicken sausages simmered in a Belgian-style India Pale Ale from Frederick's Flying Dog Brewery; wild mushrooms sauteed in Cutlass, a malty lager from Heavy Seas Beer; and pork belly braised in Saison, a farmhouse-style ale brewed by Baltimore-based Stillwater Artisanal Ales, which will be served slider-style on scallion biscuits.
Price said that how he uses beer in a recipe varies. When used in steamed mussels, the method is straightforward. A good ale will retain its basic flavor profile from start to finish. But something like pork belly needs more maintenance. "The Saison is going to cook for hours. It's going to be a background flavor, mixed in with the rich pork belly flavors. There are different techniques for different results," he said.
Price said that baking with beer takes more trial and error than cooking with it.
"Yesterday we were messing around with the chocolate torte. When you're baking with beer it's not like you throw in a bottle of beer," Price said. "We reduced the beer by 35 percent, and all of these awesome coffee flavors were coming back."
Chad Wells, the executive chef at Alewife, a beer-friendly tavern across from the Hippodrome, said the sky's the limit for cooking with beer.
"It wasn't until we had this crazy explosion of craft beer that we really started trying to refine what can be done with beer in cooking," Wells said.
Wells said that learning to cook with beer didn't come overnight. "For a long time, there was a lot of trial and error," he said. Sometimes the beer's flavor would get lost in the cooking process.
The challenge in cooking with beer, Wells said, is not overdoing it. "There are some dishes where you want the beer's flavor to be subtle and some when you want the flavor to explode. You want to be able to emphasize the qualities of the food and the qualities of the beer," he said. "When you start to learn what those qualities of beer are, you find the harmonies that make both things shine."
When Wells was developing a barbecue sauce for Alewife's short ribs using Full Tilt Brewing's Baltimore Pale Ale, he started thinking about the elements that contributed to the ale's pleasant hoppy flavors and subtly warm herby and citrus notes, which were getting lost in the slow-cooking process.
Then he thought of the one ingredient he could add to the sauce to give it a more pronounced hoppy character: hops.
An employee at Alewife brought Wells hops from Maryland Homebrew, a beer supply store in Columbia. Eventually, Wells found the aroma he was looking for in Citra hops, a popular aromatic varietal. Wells still had his work cut out for him — the barbecue recipe is complicated, with multiple strainings and reduction — but he knew he had found a way to get the flavor he wanted.
"The hops made the barbecue sauce shine," said Wells, who uses the ale itself in the ribs' braising liquid.
Cooking well with beer takes skill. And the popularity of craft beer has given rise to bad cooking with craft beer, said Stillwater Artisanal Ale founder Brian Strumke.
"When a trend hits, people start jumping on it without really understanding what it's about," Strumke said. "Now it's being used in ways that don't make sense, just so the names of beer can be used as a catchphrase on a menu."
Strumke, whose globe-trotting collaborations at established breweries earned him fame as the "gypsy brewer," said the European chefs he knows are primarily against using beer in marinades and stocks. Many of those chefs use beer as a finishing touch.
That's Matt Seeber's approach, too. He said he didn't have much experience cooking with beer before he accepted the executive chef position at Heavy Seas Alehouse, which features the brews produced by Halethorpe-based Heavy Seas Beer. But he knew that diners would be expecting beer to show up not only as a beverage but as an ingredient.
"Heavy Seas beer is assertive," Seeber said. "I've learned how to use it so that it doesn't affect the food in an adverse way."
Seeber uses beer as an extra element. He adds Heavy Seas Gold, a pale ale, in the mignonette sauce served with oysters, and Small Craft Warning, an award-winning pilsener, in the restaurant's cocktail sauce.
And Seeber doesn't throw beer into everything.
"It's woven into the menu in such a way," he said, "that's not going to be hokey."
Chad Wells' Citra hops barbecue sauce
1 Spanish onion, diced
7 cups ketchup
1 cup pale ale (he uses Full Tilt Baltimore Pale Ale)
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/8 ounce of dry Citra hops, finely diced into powder, divided in to two equal portions
2 tablespoons molasses
4 tablespoons chipotle in adobo, pureed
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Kosher salt to taste
Add cooking oil to sauce pan over high heat
Once oil is hot, add the diced onion and allow to cook until nearly translucent
Lower the heat and add the brown sugar, stir on low until the sugar has began to liquefy
Add Worcestershire sauce and add half of the hops to the mixture, stir until hops become fragrant
Add beer, ketchup, honey, cider vinegar, molasses, and chipotle and stir until the mixture is combined and is a deep dark red color
Allow mixture to reach a slow simmer and simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally (be extremely careful to not allow it to come to a boil, the sugars in this barbecue will burn)
Remove mixture from heat and strain through a fine strainer. This will remove the onion pieces and the first half of the hops. This is an important step because after hops cook for an extended period of time, the pieces will become extremely bitter.
Place mixture back into a new sauce pan over very low heat and add the second half of the hops, stirring until they become fragrant. Once you have the hop smell, the sauce should then be strained again, and seasoned with salt to taste. The first round with the hops gives the bitterness, the second "warm up" gives the aroma with this barbecue sauce.
Rub your favorite chicken, beef or pork with the spice rub detailed below, grill it and finish it with the barbecue sauce. Once the sauce is applied near the end of the cooking process, let it cook on the meat until it begins to caramelize. Pair your creation with Full Tilt Baltimore Pale Ale, or if you are looking for something a bit more bold, it will go great with Flying Dog Single Hop Citra.
Mix the following into a bowl and thoroughly combine
2 tablespoons smoked sea salt
6 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons fine ground black pepper
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons finely diced fresh thyme leaves (substitute dry thyme leaves if fresh is unavailable)
Jeremy Price's wild mushroom pancakes
3 cups finely chopped mixed mushrooms
1 loaf of bread, cubed
4 cups of milk
Thyme, marjoram and garlic
Canola oil for frying
Salt and pepper
1 tasty beer
In a large mixing bowl, pour milk over cubed bread and set aside. Next, saute the mushrooms in a little oil. Add thyme, marjoram and garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Pour in beer and let reduce until liquid is gone. Let the mushrooms cool a little, and then add in your bread-and-milk mixture. Mix with your hands until it turns into a thick paste. Form mixture into small pancake shapes, and pan-fry until golden brown. Serve with your favorite topping, such as a fruit chutney or whipped pumpkin butter.
If you go
This Beer's Cooking, a five-course dinner featuring Jeremy Price's beer-infused recipes, is 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, at Marquee Lounge, in the Creative Alliance at The Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $30. For information call 410-276-1651 or visit creativealliance.org.
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For information about Baltimore Beer Week, which begins Friday and runs through Oct. 27, visit baltimorebeerweek.com