There’s an oft-uttered phrase in the winemaking business: “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.”
A great wine vintage is celebrated by winemakers the world over with a great craft beer. And a hard day’s work in the winery is followed by a few cold ones at the local tavern. And nearly every wine-tasting event I have been to has been followed by a frosty pint of draught at the nearest pub.
Beer and wine are linked even though the two elixirs are vastly different, both in ingredients and in how they are made. But with the growing popularity of local craft beers, the question more and more has become: What pairs better with food? Beer or wine?
To answer that question, Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery and Niagara’s 13th Street Winery have been travelling around Ontario. Joining up with various restaurant partners, Mill Street and 13th Street have paired their beers and wines with dishes prepared by the restaurants, and participants were asked to vote for the favourites.
At the Ottawa event, beer emerged the victor in a closely fought battle with wine. In the Niagara event, at the 13th Street Winery, wine scored a decisive victory over beer.
I attended the Niagara event. This is how it went down:
The Smackdown in Grapetown
Billed as “the Smackdown in Grapetown,” a “bottle royale of beer versus wine,” the reputations of both 13th Street Winery and Mill Street Brewery were on the line, at least for one glorious summer night.
Niagara food truck pioneer El Gastrónomo Vagabundo prepared their Thai-inspired street food while the other food combatant, Toronto’s Amaya, cooked up its Indian-inspired restaurant food.
The dishes were matched to 13th Street wines and Mill Street’s craft beers. Winners were declared in three categories: Best Dish, Best Drink and Best Pairing. The people would decide this smackdown by voting with their mouths.
It was such a perfect evening at 13th Street’s lush garden setting as dusk set in. Diners had staked their claims around the winery wherever they could find an empty spot, whether it was on the comfortable back porch, around the fire pit surrounded by art installations, or just standing around the many empty wine barrels. But mostly they stood in line waiting for fresh-cooked food from El Gastro or Amaya and then sought out the suggested wine-beer pairings. It was a feast, a glorious feast of spicy Asian-Indian food washed down with plenty of tasty beer and wine.
Thirteenth Street’s resident sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod and Mill Street brewmaster Joel Manning have conducted this “poetry of winemaking versus the science of brewing” before, and results always differ. From my point of view, a wine guy, it was a chance to appreciate the pairing of good craft beer with food. I don’t often think to match the two, primarily because I don’t know a lot about beer.
Many people believe that beer just might be easier, and certainly more versatile, to match with food. Beer certainly offers far more variations. While wine has primarily one ingredient (grapes, two if you count oak), with beer it’s really unlimited (barley, hops, yeast, spices, nuts, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables).
There are very few rules for making beer, and brewmasters are riding a wave of popularity right now and throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their recipes, as followers of the craft beer movement are more than willing to try anything at least once.
So, was the event stacked in favour of Mill Street for this Smackdown? Not if you listen to the voters. Here’s what they liked:
• Best dish went to El Gastro’s Seared Scallop and Twice-Cooked Pork Belly.
• Best beverage went to 13th Street’s June’s Vineyard Riesling 2011.
• Best pairing was a tie between El Gastro’s Smoked Chicken Tostada paired with June’s Riesling, and the Seared Scallop and Pork Belly from El Gastro paired with 13th Street White Palette 2011.
On this night, wine bested beer, and Asian-inspired food bested Indian-inspired food.
I only partially agreed with the results, but understand why Amaya had its challenges. The Indian dishes all contained high heat from the spices. Some of the beers worked well, but more as an extinguisher than perfect pairing. I loved the dishes; the Fish Taco was fantastic and was paired brilliantly with the Riesling and Lemon Tea Beer. But for me, the bomb was El Gastro’s Seared Scallop and Pork Belly with Mill Street’s Lemon Tea Beer. It was one of the first matchups I tried and couldn’t get the flavours out of my mind. It was perfect, for my palate, both from a flavour point of view and texturally, with the coconut tapioca. The wine pairing would have done better with June’s Riesling rather than the White Palette.
I also enjoyed the Amaya Indian Chicken Tikka Masala with the bold and flavourful 13th Street Red Palette 2011. The acidity and ripe red fruits cut through the spices nicely and added a new dimension to the dish. I also loved the Amaya Jackfruit Biryani as a single dish, but nothing, beer or wine, would ever pair up to the heat of the spices in that dish.
It was a wonderful experiment, and I’m happy to see beer and wine people getting along so well. I don’t know where or when there will be another Smackdown, but you are well-advised to take in the next event. It’s a wake-up call for all of us wine folks who merrily go through life pretending nothing beats the marriage of food and wine.
Here are some of the other pairings served at the Smackdown in Grapetown:
Food from Amaya Indian:
Cheeseburger Samosa (curry puff with fresh brisket, garam masala served with spicy tomato chutney) served with 13th Street Pink Palette Rosé 2011 and Mill Street Tankhouse Ale. A tough pairing, but the beer worked better for me.
Spicy Fish Taco (crispy fish marinated with green chili, pickled red onion, arugula, radish, kachumber and raita in whole wheat chapati) served with 13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2011 and Mill Street Lemon Tea Beer. Fantastic dish, and both the Riesling and Lemon Tea Beer paired nicely with it.
Chicken Tikka Masala (cooked on-site in a tandoor oven) on fresh garlic naan topped with cilantro chutney, paired with 13th Street Red Palette 2011 and Mill Street Tanhouse Ale. As mentioned above, the Red Palette with this was delicious.
Jackfruit Biryani topped with korma sauce and raita, paired with 13th Street White Palette 2011 and Mill Street Belgian Wit. Extreme heat, and a nice dish on its own.
Food from El Gastrónomo Vagabundo:
Seared Scallop, Twice-Cooked Pork Belly, chili caramel, coconut tapioca, kaffir lime, Thai basil, crispy shallots, and crispy garlic, paired with 13th Street White Palette 2011 and Mill Street Lemon Tea Beer. Best pairing of the night (in my opinion) with the Lemon Tea Beer.
Smoked Chicken Tostada, avocado, candied jalapeño, and green papaya salad, paired with 13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2011 and Mill Street Hellesbock. Voted (a tie) best pairing with the Riesling. I thought the Hellesbock was a pretty hot pairing as well.
Crispy Tofu, rice noodles, Asian herbs, chili caramel, and roasted peanuts (vegan and gluten-free), paired with 13th Street Red Palette 2011 and Mill Street Barrel Yard Brown Ale. I am not a tofu guy, but it got a lot better with both the Red Palette and brown ale.
Rick VanSickle can be reached at email@example.com