The Houston Beer Experiment: It Takes Grit(s) to Win

The buzz in the air at Fitzgerald's on Sunday could be attributed to more than just the $4 Brooklyn drafts: the Houston Beer Experiment had arrived. Seventeen teams were lined up and ready to compete -- whose beer-infused recipe would win the grand prize trip to New York City to compete in the national Food Experiments competition?

The parking lot and surrounding streets near Fitzgerald's were already packed with cars when we arrived just before the 1 p.m. start time. A line had formed at the ticket window, but it wasn't long before the doors opened and the hungry audience swarmed inside for 17 beer-y bites of food. For three hours the crowd of foodies, friends, and families ate, drank, and discussed the merits of each dish.

Food Experiments co-creator Theo Peck played emcee at the Houston Beer Experiments, and his excitement about food was positively infectious. Peck, a longtime amateur chef, has clearly found the perfect way to marry his love of food and cooking with an outsize, outgoing personality. Every time he stepped up to the microphone, the crowd would end up rewarding him with a big belly laugh.

The dishes ranged from the expected (a beer and cheddar soup, beer-braised beef and pork) to the decidedly unexpected (beer "charcuterie" and chicken Parmesan bites). While some dishes were more successful than others at making beer the main focus, all of the amateur chefs who competed put out delicious food. We also appreciated the real sense of camaraderie between the contestants, who enthusiastically recommended their favorite dishes from their competitors.

Although their "Syracuse ribs and Pittsburgh grits" wasn't our favorite dish of the day, we had a special place in our hearts for the team "Beasts of the East." Go 'Cuse! We were excited to see several beer-inspired dessert dishes, including a spicy beer brittle (our favorite sweet dish) and a brownie adorned with a piece of candied bacon (yummy, but for some of us the whole bacon thing is kind of over). The Sorachi Kolache -- an oxtail kolache with a spicy mustard sauce -- was a crowd favorite. It was a personal favorite, too, after the discovery of a sweet/tart bite of a pickled grape tucked inside the soft dough.

The contestants and their food were arranged in two areas, one inside and one outside, a set-up that both caused and solved some problems. At the apex of the tasting frenzy, it was good that the crowd had a secondary area, as the inside tasting section was crowded and hot. Unfortunately the crowd would often bottleneck at the entrance leading outside, encroaching upon both the audience and the cooks who were set up near the door. The crowd was patient and cheerful, though, and after that initial first wave, settled into a dull roar. By the time the judging started, around 3:20 p.m., there was plenty of standing room for the audience members who stuck around to see the results.

The winners were split into two brackets: the top three audience picks (including the grand prize winner), and the top three judges' picks. Props to all of the winners, who showed Houston lots of love, and encouraged the crowd to shop, eat, and drink local.

Here's who scored big with brew-inspired recipes:

Judges' Choice

1st place: Sybarite Pigs/Guava Wheat Lamb Stew 2nd place: Gastro Chic/Sweet Charcuterie 3rd place: Sorachi Kolache/Oxtail Kolache

Audience's Choice 1st place/Grand Prize Winner: Magic Hops/Pork & Grits Under the Influence 2nd place: Beer Belly/Fried Pork Beer Belly 3rd place: Sybarite Pigs/Guava Wheat Lamb Stew Theo's Prize for Experimentation: The Brittle Bakers/Spicy Beer Brittle with Chocolate Stout Ice Cream

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Christina Uticone