Come fall, South Jersey is flooded with wine tasting events that allow enthusiasts to sip vintages from local wineries and pair them with cheeses, steaks and poultry.
Less common are beer tastings. That's because often, people don't know what foods - beyond salty bar staples - stand up to a distinctive ale, says Lynn Hoffman.
Hoffman, who writes and teaches about beer, is on a mission to change that. He'll share that kind of information at a beer tasting dinner at Careme's Restaurant at Atlantic Cape Community College Mays Landing campus on Wednesday.
"I'm on a campaign to point and say, 'Hey, look at that.' To really force people to pay attention to what they actually taste," Hoffman says. "In a few years, we'll be talking about beer in the same volume and tone we use to talk about wine, where your voice gets all velvety and soft. I want these (students, at the Academy of Culinary Arts) to be completely prepared for that world."
To that end, Hoffman gets some help from his former student, Chef Joseph Sheridan, who now is a chef instructor at Atlantic Cape's Academy of Culinary Arts. You don't have to be a beer enthusiast to join Hoffman's "guided sensory experience." Guests can sample a range of brews from ale, to Belgian white, to one of Sheridan's local favorites: Victory Prima Pils, made in Downingtown, Pa. Each beer is paired with a full-size dish prepared by ACA students.
Sheridan says a lot of the rules for wine also apply to beer. For example, you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink. The same goes for beer.
"Can you cook with Budweiser? Sure. But it's made with a mild flavor, so it's not going to impart a lot of flavor," he explains. "It doesn't have a ton of character, not like a craft beer with a big, distinctive presence in your mouth."
For Sheridan, preparing a menu has to start in the heart, and when cooking with beer or wine, the central ingredient should anchor the entree.
"First, I want them to really taste the beers we're going to serve, just like wine," Sheridan says. "See what the flavors bring to mind, what memories they evoke, and put it all together."
Philadelphia holds a special place in Sheridan's heart. His wife, Mary Jo, grew up there. When she tasted the Yard's Extra Special Ale of Philadelphia, it evoked memories of soft pretzels with rock salt on top, her husband said. So together, the couple whipped up a Yard's Ale and cheddar soup, with a Philadelphia-style soft pretzel stick, for the dinner's soup course.
Another offering Sheridan is particularly excited about is the pan-seared quail with pancetta, braised napa cabbage and pan gravy, to go with the Chimay Premiere, of Belgium. Sheridan admits the amber beer isn't his personal favorite, but as a chef, he respects it's full-bodied flavor, and interesting back-story.
"It's brewed by the Trappist monks, who donate a portion of their revenue," He explains. "So we're drinking beer and saving lives, here."
For the seafood lover, Belgium offers Hoegaarden Wit, a white beer. Sheridan paired it with coriander-dusted tuna with roasted corn relish.
The main course - braised beef short rib with creamy polenta seared on the outside, 'just like mom would make' with a Dogfish Head reduction sauce - accompanies another of Sheridan's favorites, Dogfish Head Raison D'Etere. The label says it is "brewed with bold, strong flavors ... green raisins ... and a sense of purpose."
Hoffman says he once asked a fellow foodie from Bologna, Italy, why, with so much amazing food, there were no wines distinctive to the region. The man explained hotly that without Bologna, there would be no Barillo wine, because Bologna created the market for it. With small breweries and brew pubs popping up, and the advent of cooking and taste shows becoming widely popular on TV, there certainly is a local market for craft beer, Hoffman says.
Hoffman's own love affair with brews began in 1980 when a Saison Dupont "showed up in my favorite neighborhood tap room." Although he wasn't yet a "serious student of beer" he says, "It stopped my breath for a minute. It was so interesting, like if you were in a room full of gossip and somebody suddenly mentioned Plato."
Hoffman won't expect such a dramatic conversion for every casual visitor Wednesday, but he hopes to spark some excitement and maybe nudge a few more foodies in a new direction. If they want to learn more, they can pick up a copy of his book, "The Short Course in Beer" at the tasting or on Amazon.
"I ask (people) to put their prejudices aside, forget everything you think you know about beer. Put aside the question of whether they like it or not, because when you answer that, you really stop seeing it," Hoffman says. "Suspend your judgement and just really taste the flavors and aromas of the food with the flavors and aromas of the beer. What's there may not be the idea you had in your head."
Contact Felicia Compian:
Yard's Ale & Cheddar Soup
•1 teaspoon unsalted butter
•1 onion, diced
•1 potato, peeled and diced
•1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
•2 cups chicken stock
•2 ounces Yard's Extra Special Ale
•1 cup heavy cream
•1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
•6 ounces aged cheddar cheese, grated
•1/8 teaspoon Tabasco
•1/8 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
•Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter over low heat. Sweat the onion, garlic and potato over medium-low heat, until the onions are tender, but not browned. Add the beer and stock and simmer until potatoes are cooked.
Puree the soup in a blender or food processor, until smooth. Place the cream in a pan; add the dry mustard and scald. Simmer about 5 minutes, then whisk in the pureed soup.
Simmer briefly and stir in the grated cheese. Season to taste with salt, pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire.
Note: Increase or decrease the amount of beer to suit your taste. Just keep the total amount of liquid in proportion, by adjusting the amount of stock used.