Ten strangers met on a warm summer evening in Bellingham, WA for a night of wine, beer and cocktail pairings at The Real McCoy, which is owned and operated by in-house mixologist, Brandon Wickland. Oh sure, it would have been easier for one person to write all the comparisons, organize all the details and forego the planning. But this cozy roundtable had a great discussion about what tastes do, and do not, pair well. Tasting goes best in groups, and this crew consisted of a feminist activist, a salumi maker, an artist, a kickass mom, an extreme sports dude, a wine broker and a craft beer connoisseur. What follows is a summation of the evening in all its glory. We started with a wine pairing, moved to beer and ended on cocktails. Once beer entered the discussion, we were four wines in, and things got really unruly. And fun. But mostly unruly.
The guests sampled a selection of tasting items to test the various components of taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. The items were brined grapes, quince jelly, beet soup, foie gras, carrots, chocolate ganache, pickled onions, cornichons, peppered crackers, bread, apricots, rosemary almonds, shaved gouda and a selection of breads.
-Flavors that consist of fat, salty, sweet, acidic, sour, bitter and umami.
-Foie gras, pickled onions, grapes in brine, aged gouda, chocolate ganache, cornichons, peppered crackers, bread, apricots and rosemary almonds.
The wines we drank were all from Spain. They were hand-selected by Gabriel Lukeris, a wine broker. He didn’t just pour the wine, he offered interesting information about the history and bottling of wine, and brought an incredible amount of knowledge to our group.
The first wine Gabriel introduced was a white Torrentes La Linda. Carla noted that the wine was very aromatic and floral. Chris noted the hits of fruit. Lisa commented, “It didn’t hold up to the foie gras. A more acidic wine would work.” The group agreed. In fact, of all the tasting items, the foie gras was the most difficult to pair. The quince, on the other hand, paired very well. Gabriel followed the white with Ontañon Clarete, a rosé. A fruity wine with a dry finish, Lisa exclaimed, “Love this wine!” Chris pointed out that it had, “Very bold aroma of fruits and oak.” Of all the food items, the pickled vegetables were the tastiest. “Pickled items bring the fruit to the top,everything lingers,” said Matt. In what was to become a familiar complaint, the foie gras didn’t pair well.
Wine number four was a favorite. A red Ontañon Crianza Côtes de Rhone, it had the most surprising effect when paired with brined grapes. Justin exclaimed, “Now we’re getting somewhere!”
The pickled items were also very good with the red, standing up to its full body. “Now we are getting somewhere!”-Justin “Carla was surprised that the foie gras didn’t go well with the red. One would think meat and red wine would be natural.Lisa commented, “It’s all the worst flavors of liver without anything good about red wine.” The group seemed to agree that the beet soup didn’t pair well, either. But the gouda was a perfect match.
The last wine was a rosé, the Chateau L’ermitage. It had a peppery acidity of fats, texture and a sweet mouthfeel. It was the sweetest of the wines, and paired best followed by the gouda, but not with the gouda beforehand.
After quaffing a lot of wine (no spitting at this table), our group was starting to bond a bit and loosen up, putting us all in the perfect mood for drinking some fine beer.
Local brewer and certified beer judge Chris McClanahan was our beer expert. Chris’s first instruction to the group was to make sure to smell the beer. “Aroma is the calling card for all brewers. People underestimate aroma when tasting beer.” Chris also told the crew that everyone’s palate is different, so don’t be embarrassed to state what you smell or taste.
“Also, look at the beer’s appearance. What is its color? Is it highly carbonated? When I pair beers with foods, I look for balance.” He gave a summer salad as an example — great with a witbier, a kӧlsch or a Bavarian Hefeweizen, but not with a stout or robust porter. Conversely, Chris would pair a grilled steak or heavier entrée with a Belgian Dubbel or an American porter. It’s about balance.
Chris brought six beers. Did we mention no one was spitting and there are still cocktails to go? The first beer is one of Chris’s favorite locals, the Chuckanut Brewery pilsner. Pilsners are crisp beers, and bad ones tip into bitterness. Not so the Chuckanut, which is smooth with a very clean finish. Matt exclaimed that the finish was like clean hay, which fit perfectly. It paired well with the carrots and lighter raw vegetables. The next beer up was Hales Supergoose Double IPA, a huge contrast with the crisp pilsner. IPAs are hoppy, spirited beers. Gabriel said, “IPA reminds me of chardonnay 20 years ago. It’s like a race to see who can make the hoppiest the way chardonnay was trying to be the oakiest.” Kristen liked the fig and cheese with the IPA. Gabriel found it to be too hoppy. “It burns my eyes a little.” Matt pointed out that people are pairing marijuana with IPA, the next frontier in pairings.
Chris then opened the Saison Dupont, a Belgian ale made for farmers in the field. Belgian ales use a particular kind of yeast and are bottle fermented, so they are particularly foamy. In what could be one of the best observations of the evening, Chris asked the group “Anyone taste bandaid and clove?” The group agreed. The brined grapes that had stood up so well to wine were failing a bit with the beers so far. The foie gras was still not functioning well. The group agreed that Thai food would be a great match.
Chris moved into a dark beer for the next pouring: Westmalle Duppel. A rich amber ale with a thick, creamy off-white head, the Duppel had the aroma of raisins, malts and caramels. Chris noted that worked particularly well with the chocolate ganache. Dessert beer, anyone? Next up was Southern Tier. Chris’s description is apt: “Pours black as ink with a tan head with medium carbonation at best.” The aroma is of sweet milk chocolate and tootsie rolls, and the flavor followed suit. Chris said, “ The chocolate seemed to dominate, and I felt it was not chocolate of good quality.” The last beer on Chris’s list is Goose Island Bourbon Barrel stout. With its knockout aroma of chocolate, brown sugar, bourbon and coffee, it was smooth and sweet on the palate. As the beer warms, black cherry and plums come forward, giving it light topnotes. Chris loved this beer with the aged gouda, but Lisa and Lucas both found it too sweet. Lucas said, “It tastes like chocolate milk.” But Chris thought of it as a great beer to enjoy by the fireplace on a winter night.
Mixologist and Real McCoy owner Brandon Wicklund prepared some mini-sized tasting cocktails for our crew. Brandon makes his own infusions, tonics and bitters, and builds amazing craft cocktails with the freshest ingredients he can find.
The first cocktail was the Whiskey Smash. It consisted of Michters small batch bourbon, lemon, sugar and fresh mint. Kristin loved it with the smoked gouda, while Justin found it too sweet. The group tried it with a dish of braised oxtail, romesco, smoked garlic, preserved lemon and crispy quinoa. Most of the group would have preferred the dish with a red wine.
Brandon mixed up cocktail two next, a combination of of Brokers Gin, Cocci Americano, yellow chartreuse, dandelion and burdock bitters. Paired with Artichoke, House-made grilled flatbread and an herbed white bean puree, it tasted like summer. To some in the group, the combination was too sweet. Gabriel said that artichoke pairs well with cocktails because there is a compound in artichokes that makes everything sweeter.”
Many thanks to the supertasters who came out, and to Brandon Wicklund and the Real McCoy for a magical summer evening. We should do this again some time.