If you're only here for the beer, you're missing out

At last, beer — at least here in Howard County — has attained the level of sophistication that wine achieved decades ago. That is due in part to the monthly beer-tasting dinners hosted by Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia.

Usually held on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, participants — 40 or so — are treated to a variety of styles from one particular boutique brewery

Such beers are a cut above the plebian beverages to which manh people become accustomed at sports bars, ball games and crab feasts. With the help of an "expert" guide, the Victoria beer tastings can easily be as much fun, if not more so than its wine-tasting dinners.

While the beer or wine may be the reason for a fun evening out, the food can be every bit as interesting, intriguing and delicious as what's in the glass in front of you.. That's due in large part to Victoria's executive chef, Joe Krywucki, a Baltimore International College graduate who also did a stint at London's Cordon Bleu cooking school. While in Britain, he studied the gastro-pub concept that's quite popular with city folk. The idea is to pair the best beers with the most creative food; the combination translates very nicely to this side of the pond.

Indeed, it is Krywucki's concept that helps make Victoria the popular dining destination it has become since opening in December 2007.

Sip 'n' savor

The dinners have been taking place for a couple of years; we finally joined the fun at the most recent tasting, which featured products from the Lagunitas brewery out of Petaluma, Calif. The choice of breweries is generally done by consensus, notes Tori Marriner, Victoria's Public relations person and general factotum. Team manager Jason Gotcher tends to be coordinator for the events.

On that Tuesday, our guest speaker was Jason Williams from Legends, an alcohol distributor in the area. He introduced each style that we sampled. And there were six of them, along with five small-plate food courses produced by Victoria's innovative culinary staff.

Don't get me wrong, the beers were wonderful. Nicely defined on our menu hand-out, so that we could try to taste the subtleties the more discerning among us were enjoying. And various among the beer choices were further described by Williams, who touted the productivity of Lagunitas, and predicted that it will soon outbrew Sierra Nevada.

The beers truly were a revelation for relative newcomers to boutique beer.

The Lagunitas products were charming and diverse. But in truth, had we gone to a bottled-water tasting at Victoria, we would have gladly spent the $75 per person (plus tax and tip) just to taste the food.

Between our arrival and the presentation of the first of our five courses there was a bit of a lag. But that was all right, since it gave us a chance to enjoy the Czech-style (read "crisp") pilsner (5.3 percent alcohol), which was balanced and mild and an easy way to start the evening while we talked to our tablemates.

Censored Ale (6.7 percent alcohol) led off the paired-with-food parade. "A nice copper color with a small tan head." More personable than the "pils," with a richer flavor. Quite lovely as an adjunct to the moist, tender slices of gently treated smoked pheasant breast (white meat and, happily, not too smoky, or gamey) set atop a warm, bacon-scented lentil salad, and sharing space with a frisee and yellow tomato combo inside a deep bowl that had been swirled with a rich sherry vinaigrette.

Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid (8.5 percent alcohol) was poured next. True to its description, we did get a "mouth full of hops and a huge rich malt flavor." It accompanied a huge seared scallop (again, moist and tender and gently treated) set atop a lightly curried seared cauliflower coulis with raisins and pine nuts. The combination of mild, sweet scallop; personable, earthy cauliflower; white raisins; and nuts was a delightful mix.

Much as we enjoyed this dish and this beer (my favorite of the evening), though, it seemed as if the Hop Stoopid would've done better highlighting the next culinary treat, a grilled lamb T-bone with a pomegranate seed-studded chickpea puree. The lamb was tender, nicely lamb-y and perfectly cooked to medium rare. The accompanying chickpea puree was another charming marriage of interesting ingredients.

This was paired with Lagunitas' Lil Sumpin Wild (8.8 percent alcohol), a Belgian-style ale featuring malted wheat, for a strong foundation, and imported Belgian yeast. Mellower than the Hop Stoopid, this complex brew can certainly sneak up on one. But I wasn't driving, so I enjoyed all of it.

And more

One final savory dish: roasted duroc pork loin with a parsnip mash, and grilled apple and cranberry relish. A really generous, nearly inch-thick round of moist and tender meat, through which Chef Krywucki showed that he cares about the quality of the food that comes out of his kitchen, knows how to put together intriguing elements to delight and satisfy, and clearly pays great attention to detail.

Lagunitas Lucky 13 (only 8.9 percent alcohol) complemented the pork. The beer was created for the brewery's 13th anniversary, then altered (for lighter color) but kept "rich and megadosed with loads of hoppy-sweet and spicy Amarillo goodness. …" Well, we certainly enjoyed it.

OK, so now it's dessert time. You're certainly aware that there are any number of wines that can be paired with dessert, but beer?

We were served Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout (8.8 percent alcohol, and our second favorite beer that night). Dark, rich and thick, the brew was served in small brandy snifters, which made for pleasant sipping and also pleasant sniffing of the dark malts, roasted barley and something called "Sebastopol's hardcore coffee." The combination of these elements created a thought-provoking background for enjoying — and we mean enjoying — the chef's smooth and fragrant vanilla bean and cinnamon panna cotta, highlighted by his chocolate hazelnut brittle and a salted caramel sauce.

And speaking of attention to detail, in addition to the written menu (with each dish and its beer accompaniment listed) and in addition to the more lengthy explanations of the beers on the back of our menu, Chef Krywucki provided several pages of food definitions as well. So, if you're not quite sure what a panna cotta is, for instance, you can simply read that it's an Italian dessert that combines cooked cream, milk and sugar with gelatin and is then poured into a mold. Think creamy, comforting flan with a bit more "chew" to it.

The beer tasting at Victoria that night was a delightful revelation. The food tasting was even more so. I raved about it so much to my children that we're planning to treat them to a beery delicious night out in the near future.

The Oktoberfest beer tasting set for Oct. 11 is fully booked. The beer tasting dinner for November is set for Tuesday, Nov. 8 (Election Day). If you're interested, this one will feature Southern Tier Beer (New York State). The tab is $85 per person, plus taxes and gratuity. If you join the Victoria Beer Club or even the Cork Club (for wine drinkers), you can get a 10 percent discount.

The next beer tasting dinner after that won't be until 2012, as the tasting dinners give way to other festivities in December.

To find out more, visit http://www.victoriagastropub.com Or call 410-750-1880.

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