It's been 2 months, 17 days, but who's counting? Well, I suppose I just did.
Back on August 24th, 2011, Mad Fox, a one-year old brewpub in Falls Church, Virginia, hosted its first ever vegetarian beer dinner. As a post for VeggieDag Thursday —my occasional look at an animal-free diet and its issues— here's my review.
AS the evening began, Mad Fox's side Stammtisch room was quickly filled to capacity. The more than 40 attendees comprised the largest crowd for any of the four (three, carnivore) beer dinners the pub had held. Welcome and introductions aside, executive brewer and co-owner Bill Madden would describe the beers while executive chef Russel Cunningham would describe the meals. Both would discuss the 'pairing' of flavors.
The first beer was a Kölsch, a style of 'lagered' ale that Madden told us he has been brewing, here and at other breweries in the northern Virginia area, for over 15 years. He has won several awards for it. Madden imports a yeast from Weihenstephan in Germany, specific to the style. The beer was golden in hue, 4.8% alcohol by volume (abv), with a soft floral hop presence, and a slightly grain-sweet flavor. It finished dry with a floral aftertaste.
With the Kölsch, Chef Cunningham served a Chilled Fruit Soup of cantaloupe, papaya, ginger (a lot!), a non-dairy yogurt made from coconut, and a lecithin foam of grapefruit and pineapple.
Separately, the beer and the soup, were delightful. Together: neither complimentary nor hurtful.
Next up was English Summer Ale and an Heirloom Tomato Salad.
Madden explained that Summer Ale is a new 'style' of beer popularized in the UK by newer craft brewers who brew a lighter-colored 'bitter' ale, using American hops. The pub's version was golden and 5.4% alcohol-by-volume, brewed with German Pilsner malt and a bit of wheat malt, and hopped with citra hops, a new U.S. varietal that many find to have an orange taste and aroma.
The salad was arranged with multi-colored heirloom tomatoes from Hummingbird Farms, of Ridgely, Maryland, grilled hearts of palm, and 'micro-greens,' all tossed with a house-made vinaigrette of pumpkin-seed oil and Orange Whip, the pub's IPA, brewed with Citra hops.
I'm not a fan of Citra hops: I find their aroma and flavor to be a weird mixture of artificial orange scent and anise, but I'm in the minority. This pairing of salad and beer, however, demonstrated the ineffable character of such things. Together, there was no single point of pleasure or displeasure, but a tasty melding of citrus and tomato.
The third course served was a Quinoa and Black Bean Cake and a Saison ale.
The 'cake' was deliciously 'meaty' tasting, topped with a spicy green onion sauce. The tempura vegetables were sparingly battered, just right. Another sauce —pureed bell peppers, curry powder, garlic, cilantro, and orange juice 'gelled' with agar-agar (not the yogurt as the printed menu stated)— was served on the side. Both sauces were terrific. The tandem was one flavor too many.
Madden's Saison was a good foil for all the spiciness. 6.1% abv, crisp, yet medium-bodied, with a spicy and 'lemony' flavor and finish, derived, Madden told us, from the French yeast he uses to ferment the beer.
For the fourth course, Madden served his Big Chimneys Robust Porter. He named it for the first permanent building in Falls Church, erected in 1699, noted for its two chimneys. A porter is a dark ale, not quite as roasty as a stout. And Big Chimneys indeed was that: 6% abv, a character of bakers chocolate, toasted bread, and a hint of dark fruit and earthiness. Madden told us that the yeast he uses drops quickly out of the beer after fermentation, yielding a 'bright' beer without filtration. He hops the porter with First Gold, a favorite varietal of his, he told us. First Gold, grown in England, is a dwarf hop, its bines half the height of 'standard' hops. Madden likes its earthy, woody flavor that he finds similar to another English hop, East Kent Goldings.
Cunningham created a Vegetable Wellington to accompany the Porter. He filled a puff pastry with couscous, zucchini, squash, and local mushrooms (button, cremini, shitake) soaked in cognac. He finished it with an apple-carrot/ginger puree, and flash-fried spinach shreds, with grilled local white asparagus, and a crescent-shaped streak of tomato 'water' set in agar-agar, on the side. For two vegan diners, he served a similar Wellington but in a phyllo pastry, containing no egg or dairy.
When talking about pairing beer and food, descriptors can become somewhat fanciful. Suffice it to say, that this pairing 'worked.' The flavors of the porter and the Wellington did not overwhelm each other, but were similar enough (roasty, earthy) that they complemented each other, creating an experience greater than the sum of the two. This was my favorite dish of the evening, and a consensus favorite of other diners. When one asked if it might be added to the pub's 'regular' menu, Cunningham concurred: "Soon."
Then, it was time for dessert: Wee Heavy Scotch Ale with Chocolate & Berry Crème Brûlée.
"It's pure joy for me to brew Wee Heavy," Madden told us. He first brewed it in 1996 for Capitol City Brewpub in Washington, D.C. There, an inefficient kettle caused a long brewing day: the boil lasted for more than six hours. The boil at Mad Fox, with its more efficient system, takes up less than half of that time. Shorter brew days are more conducive to a successful marriage, Madden chuckled. "And, I'm married now.". (His wife Beth is a co-investor. Her maiden name —Fox— is half the pub's name: "She's the fox; I'm mad.") The beer has garnered Madden several awards, some of which are displayed at the pub.
The Wee Heavy was 8.6% alcohol by volume, hopped with First Gold; the grist was English pale malt with only a "touch" of crystal and roasted malts. The result was marvelous: an ale, deep reddish-brown, with flavors of chocolate and dark fruit (think Concord grapes and plums). There's been so much demand for the beer, which has won Madden awards in the past, that he brews it throughout the year, where he once offered it only as a 'Winter Warmer.' Madden told us that some of the Wee Heavy he also matures in oak barrels that have held bourbon and whiskey. These can be seen in the main dining room.
Chef Cunningham's dessert was the Brûlée, a caramelized chocolate custard finished with a reduction of blueberries, raspberries, a and strawberries. For vegans, he brought out a chocolate-ginger cookie, topped with chocolate/soy milk foam, and with a dollop of coconut milk ice cream on the side.
The dessert overwhelmed the Scotch Ale, surprising for a beer of such strength and depth of flavor. There was, fortunately, a simple remedy. Take a taste of the Crème Brûlée. Wait. Take a sip of the Wee Heavy. Wait. Repeat.
At evening's end, Chef Cunningham brought out his sous chefs. They and Madden, and the serving staff, received strong applause. It was a delicious dinner, and I and others made a point of thanking them. A vegetarian beer dinner is a rare thing. Being a non-animal eater, I can only hope for more.
Here, Cunningham (l) and Madden (r) relax afterward.