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At the beginning of the event at Birch & Barley Monday night, Beer Director Greg Engert explained why inviting Garrett Oliver to host the beer-centric restaurant’s first large-format beer dinner was a natural choice. Oliver, the Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, literally wrote the book on pairing beer with food. Engert told guests he used Oliver’s book, The Brewmaster’s Table,  as a staff training manual at Rustico and it is the one book he tells people to buy if they are looking for one about beer.

That introduction set an appropriate tone for what was to come at Birch & Barley’s inaugural beer dinner. Garrett Oliver knowledgeably guided about 45 diners through executive chef Kyle Bailey andpastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac’s fivemasterfully prepared courses, excellently paired with Oliver’s selection of rare and special-batch Brooklyn Brewery beers. The ambitious menu followed a perfect story arc, starting slowly and subtley with the aperitif and first pairing, rising to a climax through the main courses and beers, and then resolving to a cathartic denouement with dessert.

Our favorite pairing was the third course, lamb loin served with bulgar wheat, asparagus, peas, and spring onion paired with Brooklyn Local 2. The dark, dry Belgian Dubbel-resembling beer, full of caramel, chocolate, and dark fruit flavors, worked very nicely with the savory red meat, which was tender and delicious. The raisin flavors in the beer were a perfect match for the bulgar wheat, as if the menu designers had considered adding raisins but decided to go with a beer with strong dark fruit flavors instead.

Our favorite beer of the night was Brooklyn Wild 1 2008, which is Brooklyn’s Saison-inspired strong Belgian-style golden ale Local 1 aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels for nine months and then refermented with wild Brettanomyces yeast. As a result of the funkifying “Brett” yeast, the beer’s aroma was quite sour, but these bottles (from two of Oliver’s personal stash of 65 cases) had been aged for two years and weren’t funky enough to stand up to the pungent, nutty Grayson washed-rind cow’s milk cheese the beer was paired with, much to our delight. The beer’s taste was only subtley sour, and instead had lots of sweet white grape, sour apple, and vanilla flavors with just a touch of bourbon, most notable in the finish. We found this special reserve brew to be an outstanding combination of styles.

A very close runner-up in our “best pairing” and “best beer” categories was the Brooklyn Dark Matter paired with P’tit Basque French sheep’s milk cheese. Dark Matter is a strong brown ale aged in both Bourbon and Rye Whiskey barrels for four months and then blended. The nutty, creamy, and salty qualities of the cheese paired fantastically with the beer’s roasted, hoppy, caramelized flavors, and even the textures went perfectly together. Also noteworthy was MacIsaac’s refreshing choice to prepare a non-chocolate dessert with the year-old Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Her almond rhubarb shortcake with mascarpone ice cream and basil was an engaging complement to the dark, bitter chocolate beer.

Just to prove how subjective all this is, our dinner companion and fellow Y&H blogger the Beerspotter shared his glowing opinion of the first course, the tuna nicoise crudo with Brooklyn Cuvee de Cardoz 2009. We actually thought that course was the least strong of the night. Alone the dish and beer were each quite good, but the delicate flavors in the food were overpowered by such a spiced, herbal beer.

We were more than impressed with the dinner overall, but if there was one small bone to pick we would have liked each pour to be an ounce or two larger, so that there would be enough of each beer to fully experience the beer alone, the food alone, and then the beer and food together. (But after tasting eight relatively high-ABV beers, we have to admit that we were thankful for the serving size.)

The reverence that Greg Engert conveyed for Garrett Oliver and his work early in the evening was met with mutual respect. Oliver began and ended the night with high praise for Birch & Barley and the restaurant’s role in pushing the boundaries of what can be done with beer:

I’m New York born and bred. If you get a couple drinks in me, I will defend New York all the way down the line as being the very best of everything, but we don’t have one of these. We’ve got some awesome stuff, but we don’t have one of these. So I just want to say that I htink you guys are either lucky or skillful or a combination of both to have this here.
This place overall is the next evolution of what happens in American beer and food. I’ve been doing this for some years. I haven’t seen a place like this before. I’ve done 600 of these and I still haven’t seen a place like this before. I think that this is a place that leads the way toward where beer will be in the future and where it belongs

I’m New York born and bred. If you get a couple drinks in me, I will defend New York all the way down the line as being the very best of everything, but we don’t have one of these… This place overall is the next evolution of what happens in American beer and food. I’ve been doing this for some years. I haven’t seen a place like this before. I’ve done 600 of these [tastings] and I still haven’t seen a place like this before. I think that this is a place that leads the way toward where beer will be in the future and where it belongs.

If you missed this dinner and are aching to go to one now, don’t fret. According to Amber Pfau, who does communications and PR for Birch & Barley, the beer mecca will soon have a pairing dinner every single month. In the meantime, you can torture yourself with our graphic account of the night. We’ll see how many of B&B’s dinners will manage to combine a world-renowned beer expert, a menu full of rare brewer’s reserve bottles, and brilliantly paired dishes like this inaugural event did. It was definitely a special occasion, but our guess is that the team at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey will continue to raise the bar for beer tasting and pairing events the same way they have upped the ante for everything about serving beer.