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The bold beers: different style of suds with dinner

IT WAS HOT, I was thirsty. Naturally, I thought of drinking beer. The question was, did I stick with my usual brews, Clipper City Pale Ale and DeGroen's Pils, or did I dare to change my drinking habits to cope with rising temperatures by downing a different style of suds?

Once I got out of my easy chair and headed to a beer dinner, the decision was made. I was prodded into drinking daring summer beers by Garrett Oliver. Oliver, the brewmaster and a partner of New York's Brooklyn Brewery, came to Baltimore last week to promote his new book, The Brewmaster's Table (Ecco, $29.95), and to preside over a summer beer dinner at the Brewer's Art.

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Oliver is a strong believer in the proposition that beer is a better companion for food than wine. "Wine is limited but special. It has a relatively narrow band of flavor compared to the range of flavors offered by beer," he said, addressing the group of about 40 who had gathered for dinner at the North Charles Street restaurant and brewery.

To demonstrate, Ravi Narayanan, chef at the Brewer's Art, prepared a five-course meal of exotic summer fare, and Oliver picked a handful of beers from around the world to be served with the food. This was not your normal steamed-crabs-and--pale-ale get-together. Instead it was a duck-meat-salad-with-Japanese-stout kind of evening.

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For openers, we sipped some of Oliver's brew, Brooklyn Brewery's Saison, which he had carried down in a refrigerated vessel with him from Brooklyn. Saison is a summer ale traditionally made for the farmers of southern Belgium, he said. "If I were forced to choose one style [of beer] to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, Saison would be it," Oliver wrote in his book. "It seems to go with almost everything."

Oliver said several breweries, including Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., do a good job producing Saison. But the pinnacle of the style is made by Belgian brewer Brasserie Dupont. "Dupont Saison," Oliver said, "is God in a bottle."

I liked the glass of Brooklyn Saison. I had a little trouble adjusting to its orange color. But it was light on the tongue, slightly fruity and faintly sweet, an OK antidote to summer's heat.

The first course of dinner was traditional summer fare - tomatoes and basil - served in an unusual way. The tomato was a granita - think tomato ice. The basil leaf was wrapped around a piece of steamed scallop, and the whole creation was served in a martini-style glass.

With this came a glass of Brewer's Art Wit Trash Ale. This is a pale, almost-white brew (wit means white) that is made with barley malt, wheat and usually spiced with coriander and orange peel.

Oliver refers to witbeer as tasting like "a summer breeze on a lazy, happy day." He had predicted that the citrus and spice notes of the witbeer would not be blown away by the tomato's acidity, and he was right. I had trouble fishing the basil-covered scallop out of the cocktail glass, but as I spooned down the cold tomato granita I was a happy eater.

While I was a newcomer to the concept of drinking a beer while eating a salad, Oliver said it was old hat to him. "I have beer and salad all the time," he said. We had it for the second course. This was a match of duck meat formed into proscuittolike strips served with a salad of watercress and apple.

The beer for this course was a stout, Hitachino Nest Lacto Stout, from Japan. The dark roasted flavors of the stout paired up with the rich notes of duck. In a few bites, I was warming to the beer-and-salad concept - this version of it, anyway.

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The next offering, giant prawn and squab (or shrimp and pigeon), was not my favorite. The prawn was gigantic. Mine not only covered my plate, but its claw could even reach out and pick the pocket of the guy sitting next to me. But the prawn was dry and, for me, the union of shellfish and dark, fleshy squab was not a happy marriage. After a few bites, I sipped my Corsendonk Brown Ale, a Belgian beer with pleasing rumlike flavors, and ate the tasty lentil ragout.

Next came the cheese, a camembert, and a surprise flavor, hot pepper. The hot pepper was designed, I figured, to cut the sweetness of a fig compote that was also part of the course.

The flavors were big and bold in this dish, and so was the beer, a strong Scotch ale, Orkney Skullsplitter. It hailed from a brewery that sits off the north tip of the Scottish mainland, a place that did not care for either the hops or the kings sent over from England, Oliver said. He described the beer as packing a wallop of "unctuous malt."

It was hard to imagine a more powerful beer, but one arrived with dessert. Dessert was a soupy chocolate porter ice cream with fresh cherries. With it came a glass of Dogfish Head 2002 Worldwide Stout, a muscular brew from Rehoboth Beach, Del., that packed an amazing alcohol content of 23.4 percent, about four times higher than most beers. Even after a cooling spoonful of the porter ice cream, when I took a sip of the Dogfish stout I felt that if I had put a candle near my mouth and exhaled, I would breathe fire.

Later I realized that the summer beers I sipped at this dinner were like Fourth of July fireworks. They were flashy, bold, unusual and spectacular. But for my every-night summer beer, I think I will stick to brews with less wattage.


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