I would like to meet a certified cicerone. More specifically, I would like to meet a certified cicerone at work in a local restaurant that puts as much thought into pairing food with beer as most French and Italian places do with wine.
Let me back up. For those who don’t know what a cicerone is (I didn’t as of an hour ago), this old English term for “knowledgeable guide” has been appropriated to designate those individuals who’ve attained training to recommended, serve, and acquire beer. What a sommelier is to reds and whites, a cicerone is to ales and lagers.
As I taste more and more local craft brews, I become more and more amazed by how many different drinking experiences can be found from tap and bottle—and I’m not even drinking beer from out of state, much less from around the world!
Why isn’t Portland lousy with cicerones? I don’t know of any local restaurants that have a cicerone on duty during service. If there is one, let me know.
Of course I don’t want to discount the work of beer pairing pioneers like the legendary beer writer Fred Eckhardt. But I’d like to see an Eckhardt in every restaurant. It only makes sense for Portland.
I love pizza as much as the next guy. I also love barbecue and bratwurst and any other form of grilled meat. But to relegate beer to these safe foods is a bit ludicrous. Beer can compliment so much more. I understand that there have been a few brewers dinners recently that have gone out of their way to pair beer with unique cuisine, and that’s a great start. However, I want a restaurant serving fantastic food with the specific intent of being paired with beer (local or from abroad), and I want a cicerone there to guide me through my options. But please (pretty please), don’t call it a gastro-pub.
Why am I so worked up about this? It was a little experience I had last night with Laurelwood’s Free Range Red Ale.
The beer poured lovely amber red with a light, quickly vanishing head. On the nose it gave up a beautiful bouquet of pineapple. A few sips revealed the beer to be just as fruity and aromatic on the palate after a bright, biting start. Though it lacked sweetness, I definitely picked up pineapple, but also notes of bergamot (think Earl Grey tea), which progressed into a nice bitter drying. After the bitterness, the finish mellowed into hints of praline.
As I sipped I began to think of food pairings. I focused primarily on the fruit, which led me towards egg dishes like quiche or soufflés. Then, a thought occurred to me: How about some nice rich cheese? Everything clicked.
I headed straight for the ice-box where I found some mini Babybels, the only cheese I had on hand that I thought might be suitable with the Red. I removed the little white round from its wax encasing and took a bite. Then I sipped.
Ahhhh. So the cheese wasn’t quite right but it was good enough to see where these flavors could go. The Babybel offered a kind of creaminess to the beer that mellowed the fruit and bergamot tones, but also had the effect of amplifying the bitterness on the back end of the flavor profile, as if the hops had been cranked up a notch or two. That bitterness, in turn, cut through the heaviness of the cheese.
If I can pull together a pairing like this, with my fairly untrained palate and an impulsive trip to the fridge… Well, the possibilities at that moment seemed endless.
So, send in the cicerones. We have everything we need right here: a city with a robust and creative food scene, and a population of brewers building incomparable beer. I think we’re ripe for a revolution.
What are you eating with your beer? Let me know in the comments!