Pairing food and beer, once limited to washing down your pizza pie with an ice cold pitcher, has evolved from afterthought to accepted practice to art form. An increasing number of chefs prefer beer to wine when pairing their dishes. It is now difficult to find a fine dining restaurant without a well-curated beer list.
Some chefs are even getting into the brewing act themselves. Jamie Bissonnette, chef and co-owner at Boston restaurants Coppa and Toro, recently collaborated on his own beer with New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company.
Bissonnette met Smuttynose director of brewery operations Dave Yarrington in Aspen three years ago, and the pair had been kicking ideas back and forth ever since, On his brewing day, Bissonnette brought with him kaffir lime leaves, spruce tips, and 25 pounds of grapefruit zest. Those unorthodox ingredients replaced the traditional coriander and orange peel used in a Belgian witbier.
“We bounced a ton of ideas around, and thought this was interesting and had some of the flavors and ingredients that we could get and have fun with,” Bissonnette says.
There are elements of fun in most of the food at Bissonnette’s Boston restaurants and at a newly opened Toro in New York City. Dishes with ingredients like sea urchin, beef heart, and sweetbreads dot the menus of the Italian and Spanish tapas joints, respectively. Not always adventurous eaters, my wife and I have fallen in love with the food at both establishments.
It’s with that backdrop of unfairly high expectations that we get to Bissonnette’s beer. The smell of banana, characteristic of Belgian yeast, is the first scent coming off this brew. It took me a few whiffs, but on one noseful I got a strong smell of fresh pine, just a hint of what was to come.
The first sip skews toward a traditional Belgian witbier, but the variations quickly creep in. Sappy pine, without the sticky fingers, make its presence known. Lime essence butts into the taste in the middle and lingers into the end of the sip. Both flavors are noticeable but not overpowering.
One quibble: the grapefuit zest doesn’t fully make up for a lack of citrusy hop character in the brew. A little more bitterness would have been welcome. Belgian witbiers generally aren’t hoppy, but 15 IBUs (international bitterness units) seems like too little. Not everything Bissonnette has a hand in can be as spectacular as the grilled corn at Toro. Still, this is a tasty beer, one that would pair well with that dish and other eclectic items from the menu. Bissonnette describes diners’ reactions to the beer so far as “wicked good.”
This is Smuttynose’s third chef collaboration. Thirty barrels of the beer, which weighs in at 5.4 percent alcohol by volume, were brewed. Bottles are available at both Toro locations and at Coppa, and the beer is making rounds in kegs and bottles around New England.
Rhode Island Brew Fest
The second annual Rhode Island Brew Fest winter event takes place on Feb. 1 in Pawtucket. Some 125 beers from 40-plus breweries will be available to sample at the event, which takes place at the Pawtucket Armory (172 Exchange Street). Beers will be poured from Cisco Brewers, Uinta Brewing, Finch Beer Co., Shebeen Brewing, and many more.
There will be two three-hour sampling sessions (1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.) There’s a VIP banquet the night before. Tickets for the tasting sessions are $55 and can be purchased at ribrewfest.com.