Brew Blog: Real Ale Cask Beer Dinner at Down House

With a flair and a flourish, and a bit of a mess, Real Ale Brew Master Erik Ogershok pounded a tap into a cask of beer. A cheer went up from the crowd as he was hit with a brief spray. He wiped his face, licked his lips, and declared it "delicious." The Real Ale/Down House Cask Beer Dinner had begun.

According to Ogershok and Down House owner Chris Cusack, my gracious host (whatup, disclosure?), this was a first-of-its-kind event. Nobody, Chris and Eric maintained, had done one quite like this, exclusively pairing cask beer with food.

As we awaited the first pairing, Eric launched into an explanation of cask beer, its living nature, and the importance of keeping the real ale tradition alive. At one point, he even advocated for cask beer keggers, pointing out that anyone who can operate a portable tap can work a gravity tap. I think a world in which Abercrombie-clad brohams are doing cask-stands with firkins of dry-hopped Russian Imperial Stout might cause some sort of temporal/spatial singularity, destroying all of reality in the process, but it would still be kind of cool.

I must admit I had some concern about the first course, and for two reasons. First, I'm afraid of crabs. They're delicious, but, as I've mentioned before, I suck at eating them. These, large stone crab claws, proved a bit easier. I still managed to send one flying, nearly hitting a kind young woman who dodged the flying knuckle, then smilingly whispered, "I didn't see that." Thanks for your willingness to conspire on behalf of my fragile ego, but my readers want the truth.

My stronger concern was with the pairing, itself. A full pint of dry-hopped 15th Anniversary Ale seemed like it would be a sledgehammer paired with sweet crab and country ham, obliterating the delicate flavor of the seafood. The beer offered a ridiculously fruity nose buoyed by notes of coffee and brine. On the palate, the fruit came on strong, with raspberry and orange leading the charge. A slightly charred bitter edge closed it out amid a mousse-like texture, both airy and rich. Surprisingly, this all worked well with the food. The sweet, rich flavors were the perfect foil for the earthy, salty ham, its slight funk both underscored and held in check by the beer. The clean sweetness of the crab was refreshing and light in comparison, also reinforcing the sweet, citrusy elements in the beer.

I ran into Ogershok in the bathroom, washing crab fat off my hands, and had a brief conversation about the first dish. He seconded my initial concerns, mentioning that he hadn't actually been consulted on the food pairings. He seemed similarly won-over, though, a convert to the seemingly odd pair.

A pint of Real Ale Porter came next, their Coffee Porter pulled off before caffeination, and dry hopped with Falconer's Flight. The vibrantly hoppy beer offered notes of citrus and cocoa, with an herbal kick that made me think of marjoram. It seemed surprisingly, disarmingly light and bright, managing to come off as something unto itself, rather than simply as a porter with a ton of hops added, nor an IPA with a bunch of dark malt thrown in. Ogershok said they're campaigning to make this one a production beer, and I'm all for it.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure the pairing, a scotched egg with spicy winter greens, really worked. The greens were bright and peppery, sliced into ribbons and sparingly dressed with an HP vinaigrette. The egg was one of the better examples of its form, blessedly crispy on the outside with a light, slightly sweet sausage swaddling the egg. The dish was terrific, and played well against the beer. The beer, however, ended up seeming washed out and thin in comparison to the spicy greens and rich egg. It prompted an interesting question, though, regarding the purpose of beer pairings. If the design was for the beverage to support the food, then this was a success; if it was to showcase the beer (as I have to assume was the case here), it fell flat.

The next pair got things back on track, despite a few flaws. A crisp ESB, all citrus and caramel with a strong, straightforward bitterness, paired well with Curried Red Snapper and Chips. The beer and the curry hit my table simultaneously, and the aromas of the dish threatened to overwhelm the beer. As mint and cilantro perfumed the atmosphere, I tried to get a sense for the beer's aromas. It was a losing battle. Against all those herbals, all I could sense was a pleasant yeastiness. Fortunately, the flavors were far more congenial.

The curry was nutty and vibrantly flavored, not skimping on spice, though the snapper it swaddled was slightly overcooked, and its flavor was completely masked by the insistent character of the curry. It seemed extraneous at best, though the dish was enjoyable on the whole. Sweet coconut milk and the aforementioned mint and cilantro rang clear, with a savory depth supporting them.

The spicy, herbal kick of the curry was well-balanced by the bitterness of the beer, bringing everything back into focus via pleasant contrast. In turn, the curry brought out some of the innate sweetness of the beer, also highlighting its citrus nuances and playing them against the well tempered acidity of the dish. Once the plate was cleared, the toffee notes re-materialized in the beer, acting almost as a sweet intermezzo.

The final pairing was 2010 Vintage Sisyphus Barleywine and Shepherd's Pie sided with braised kale. The beer was solid, though less interesting than I had expected from previous Sisyphus experiences. Citrus, caramel, and an elusive floral character (lilac?) were predominant, but seemed a bit thin. The Shepherd's Pie was likewise disappointing, playing as overly sweet with an odd combination of chunky and overly processed textures creating a slightly disconcerting experience. Large, shreddy chunks of meat were interspersed with the usual ground meat and veg filling, topped with potatoes that bore an uncanny textural resemblance to instant potatoes.

I'm not partial to whipped potatoes, nor their airy consistency, so my opinion might have been biased. Still, the combination of lightness and slight graininess just didn't work. The kale, for its part, was delicious. Braised only until just tender, the greens were earthy and slightly sweet, with a judicious jolt of acid keeping them fresh. Studded with a few more of its crisp little chunks of pork, I could have eaten a bowlful.

The dessert of Cranachan, the Scottish poor-man's version of trifle, was a bit one note. While the toasted oats had a nice texture and a pleasant, popcorn-like nuttiness, everything was overwhelmed by the slightly flat sweetness of raspberries. A bit of acid here, or maybe an herbal kick, would have brightened and freshened the dish, which seemed a bit heavy.

Overall, it was a very successful dinner, by any measure. It was a treat to try some of my favorite Real Ale offerings in cask form, each with slight tweaks on the original recipe. Some of the food was quite good, and a couple of the pairings were both impeccable and surprising. Portions were generous to the point that every table was graced by a slew of takeout boxes by the end of the night, and the full-pint pours had the room in a jovial mood. Ogershok also hinted at some new brews headed our way from Blanco, and they sound like fun. He also hinted at more events like this in the future, and that definitely sounds like fun.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall