Grapes vs. Grains, The Ultimate Matchup – Reviewed

“Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.”
-Legendary boxer and tabletop grill peddler George Forman

Beer and wine glasses

Grapes vs. Grains pitted beer against wine

I wonder sometimes if you can say the same thing about beer. I mean, when you really think about some of our favorite beers – the ones we wake up early in the morning to acquire, travel across the country to taste or reserve with our local retailer months in advance – doesn’t it sometimes seem like the best ones are the ones that go unnoticed or unappreciated except for those “in the know”? That need for better information is what inspired me to start this website in the first place, and I’m far from the only person trying to spread the word about better beer. Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head has spent his life trying to teach others about the unacknowledged gems of the beer world. Likewise, Marianne Frantz, president of the American Wine School, expresses her passion by striving to educate the public about wine and perfecting the art of pairing wine and food.

So, if you’ve bought into the beer is like jazz analogy, that’s great. If not, maybe this one works – you could also say better beers and wines are like boxing in that each beer can exhibit techniques similar to a prizefighter’s offense and defense in the course of a tasting. Some beers and wines come out like Mike Tyson, ripping through the drinker’s palate in an attempt to club the taster over the head with their best combinations, leaving them dazed and receptive to whatever follows, good or bad. Other fermented favorites wait until that special moment to unveil their secret, playing possum until the time is right to lash out. When you bring pairing food into the equation, you’re bound to have some boring bouts and some knockouts.

At the kickoff event of Cleveland Beer Week, there was nothing but action as the stage was set for a battle of epic proportions. Beer and wine were ready to face off in a four course battle, and the victor would be crowned the champion. Sam and Marianne had made their selections; there was no backing down from the imminent impact. Now it was time to see who would emerge victorious.

Before the Battle Began

Jimmy Malone, Marianne Frantz, Sam Calagione and Ed Thompkins

Jimmy, Marianne, Sam, and Ed

We arrived at the Crowne Plaza ready to watch two heavyweights duke it out. We were greeted by Cleveland Beer Week’s own Christine Montague who was kind enough to check us in a few minutes early proceed to our seats. We got a perfect location, close enough to the ring to witness all the action, then we socialized with all the other friendly fans. Some notable heavyweights of the industry were on hand – both local celebrities like the Wright family of Buckeye Brewing fame, many regional distribution representatives and some surprise guests like Lincoln Anderson from Three Floyds Brewing (and no, to squash the rumors before they start, we’re still not going to see Three Floyds in Ohio for a while). We were greeted with some outstanding cheese and the wonderful Starlight Lager from Fat Heads Brewery in North Olmstead. As the room filled, the excitement built until it was time for the battle to begin.

George Forman also often said “the referee is going to be the most important person in the ring tonight besides the fighters.” And that held true as Jimmy Malone of Cleveland’s WMJI took to the microphone and introduced the panel. Jimmy served as master of ceremonies and the scorekeeper, both refereeing and providing hilarious commentary. Also present was Ed Thompkins from Heinen’s who began each round offering some insight on the wine and beer pairings. But the stars of the show were clearly Sam and Marianne, and both were introduced to a reverberating ruckus. The stage was set, and we were ready to begin. With the “tale of the tape” completed, the two touched gloves, clanked glasses and we dove into this night’s main event.

Round 1: Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer vs. Thirsty Dog-Cerberus

Paired with a Root vegetable salad w/red wine and dill vinaigrette, feta, mint

Wine started the event at a disadvantage not only because this was Beer Week, but because a mishap led to some docked points. It turns out that Marianne forgot her corkscrew and beer started up 2-0 on a technicality. Marianne introduced the first wine, a Gewürztraminer from France and had some fun teaching the audience how to pronounce the name of this white wine (interestingly enough, the Gewürztraminer was included as one of the grapes in this year’s Vertical Epic beer from Stone, so many beer drinkers may encounter it’s flavors soon enough). The wine was nice with some moderate creamy sweetness and flavors of lychee, apples, spices, and cream. Sam introduced Akron’s own Thirsty Dog Cerberus, a Belgian triple with expressive Belgian yeast, some peppery notes, apple and pear tastes, and a bit of alcohol in the finish. The alcohol and the mixture of four yeasts seemed to pull the beer in too many directions at once, but it was still well received at my table. Overall, both the beer and the wine were good, but the wine seemed to go a bit better with the root vegetable salad because of the way Chef Symon makes his signature vinaigrette. By using about 1 part acid to 2 parts oil, the resulting dill vinaigrette was sharp and extremely flavorful and the wine seemed to be able to cut through and compliment it well. However, when I deconstructed the salad a bit, I noted that the feta and mint went better with the Cerberus. From the crowd’s response, it seems I wasn’t the only one torn between the two excellent pairings. The applause for the wine was just a touch louder, and wine took the lead to some expressed outrage from beer’s corner. Not to worry, it was still early in the fight.

3Grapes
Grapes vs. Grains: Round 1Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer vs. Thirsty Dog-CerberusA controversial decision sent grapes into the lead by a score of 3-2
2Grains

Round 2: Louis Latour Meursault vs. Dogfish Head Midas Touch

Paired with Lobster pierogis w/wild mushrooms, crème fraiche

Dogfish Head Midas Touch

Dogfish Head Midas Touch

The bell rang on round one and, after a short rest, a fantastic lobster pierogi was served and all signs pointed towards a sensational set two. The food was incredible, with amazing crème fraiche and perfectly sautéed wild mushrooms atop a pierogi that had succulent Lobster meat inside. Marianne introduced her choice for the round – a rich Chardonnay aged 15% in oak. The wine was intense with huge butter and some honey notes, plus just a touch of nice wood. A rather abrupt finish made me wonder what happened to the acidity of the wine, but it was a good choice to compliment the Lobster and added a nice mixture of both contrasting and complimentary flavors. Sam said he enjoyed the wine, but that he had a very special beer in Midas Touch that would be the perfect pairing with Lobster. And I totally agree, although I must say, Sam cheated a bit. See, Midas Touch is an ancient recipe from the tomb of King Midas that uses honey and grapes plus a secret ingredient that I think made all the difference. And that ingredient is saffron. The wonderful spice added a delicate balance to the beer and made it compliment the lobster so well, almost making me think of a Spanish Paella for a moment. Ok, so it wasn’t like putting barbed wire on a boxing glove, but I felt Sam had a true advantage in that beer can incorporate additional flavors and spices. I’ve had Midas Touch before and liked it, but it’s never been my favorite. The beauty of this pairing was that not only did the beer make the food taste better, but it reciprocated and made Midas Touch a fantastic experience. The crowd seemed to agree, as beer wiped the mat with wine this round and received huge applause.

3Grapes
Grapes vs. Grains: Round 2 Louis Latour Meursault vs. Dogfish Head Midas TouchA perfect pairing had beer back on top, 5-3
5Grains

Round 3: Layer Cake Shiraz vs. Dogfish Head India Black Ale

Paired with Smoked shortribs w/salsa verde, parsley and pickled chili salad

Beer was starting to make its move, bobbing and weaving, and anticipating all of wine’s strategy with some fancy footing. Marianne was on the ropes, and she knew it was time to pull out a wine with some serious appeal. Layer Cake Shiraz from Australia was just the ticket, and I remarked at the wine’s dense red and black color with just a hint of fuchsia around the edges. The wine had nice dark fruit characteristics with some plum and fig shining through. It also had some notes of mocha, cherry, and currants. Some tannins and lingering wood made this a great wine drinking experience. With a flurry of punches, wine emerged from the corner and beer was now on the ropes. When it began Sam’s turn to explain the pairing he selected, he announced that this was a wonderful moment for beer. That was because red wine is made to go with beef. That’s why it exists, and the fact he thought his beer could hang on the same stage meant that beer may pull off the upset round of the century. Dogfish Head’s fantastic Indian Brown ale was poured and made a huge splash with its unique genre-bending mix of IPA, Brown Ale, and Scotch ale. Some nice roasted chocolate malt gave brown sugar and caramel notes, plus the hops really jumped out with nice leafy, green scents and slight earthy and citrus flavors. Mild to medium bitterness worked well with the salsa verde. Interestingly, both beverages had some subtle chocolate qualities that seemed to indicate that both experts approached the choice with some similar thoughts. And both the wine and beer both complimented the shortribs by adding some earthy depth to the palate. But a few wine drinkers in the crowd commented that a more “advanced” Shiraz may have done better – I told them to put their monocles down. I’ve had the Layer Cake before and enjoy the wine, but I agreed with Sam’s assessment that a beer is able to compliment meat in a whole different way because of the range of malt and hop flavors that beer can exhibit. Apparently the crowd agreed as a huge cheer went up for the beer. But referee Jimmy Malone didn’t think beer had followed the rules of the belt and added four points to wine because Sam forgot to cheers Marianne before drinking. It was all tied up going into dessert.

8Grapes
Grapes vs. Grains: Round 3 Layer Cake Shiraz vs. Dogfish Head India Black Ale Things were all tied up after two amazing pairings
8Grains

Round 4: Osborne PX vs. Brew Kettle-Jackhammer Barley Wine

Paired with Caramel cake w/carrots, dates, cream cheese and walnuts

The last course of the evening

The final course, caramel cake

It was time for round four, the deciding round in the battle. Could wine do the impossible and rise from a huge deficit to knock out beer? Or would beer win on a technical knock-out after two hard-hitting rounds? Well, both Sam and Marianne had some tricks up their sleeves. The hard-working wait-staff, comprised of volunteers from the Winking Lizard stores, delivered the deciding dish. The caramel cake with carrots, dates, cream cheese and walnuts was sweet and savory, with earthy nuts and dates adding depth and the caramel and sauce adding sweetness. It was to die for. Marianne gave some background on her bold pairing, a Sherry that was huge, sweet, and impeccably complex and smooth at the same time. I got some subtle herbal notes and some anise, plus a ton of raisin, toffee, and chocolate. The candy aromas made this wine accompany the cake in style. However, in my opinion, the pairing Sam came up with was hands-down the best of the night. The amazing malt bill in the GABF bronze-medal winning barleywine from Cleveland’s newest superstar brewer Jack Kephart has incomparable toffee, brown sugar, caramel, and butterscotch. The way the barleywine paired with the cake was just amazing – the intensity of the malt and the sweet cake became one, and I didn’t hear a single complaint from our table about the weight of the beer. There seemed to be some debate at other tables if the wine was too strong and too flavor-forward, and I even heard some debates over what the proper style for the wine should be (port or sherry). At any rate, the room seemed to be united in the love of the Brew Kettles Jack Hammer and Osborne PX. And, consequently, the applause for each was the loudest of the evening. Referee Malone had a tough call to make. Well, after four rounds of excellent pairings, the match was considered a draw – but for beer, this was a winning moment. Officially, beer is not only wine’s equal in our hearts, it is now wine’s equal in the culinary world!

10Grapes
Grapes vs. Grains: Final Round Osborne PX vs. Brew Kettle-Jackhammer Barley Wine This friendly competition ended in a delicious draw
10Grains

Reviewing the Decision

Hanging out with Sam

Sam Calagione and Bobby

If jazz and, consequently, beer and wine are like boxing, I guess that makes reviewers like me the equivalent ringside commentators. Well, if that’s the case, I have a few insights to share as we wrap up another stellar night for the beer world. Although the heavyweight of hops, Sam Calagione, sometimes has a tendency to go on a rampage and land a flurry of blows, he really showed the restraint of an experienced veteran. His pairings were near perfect and he executed his game plan well. I also need to give some major kudos to Marianne Frantz, who would play the role of a prizefighter whose conditioning and stamina eventually prove that (in a situation reminiscent of the “Tortoise and the Hare”) it’s not about the knockout punch, but about consistently chipping away until the opponent is left absolutely devastated.

Of course, it was a huge advantage for Sam to be in a friendly forum and to have some experienced members of “team beer” in his corner. But Marianne also converted some attendees to the sommelier’s side of the split decision and showed why she’s such a highly regarded professional in the wine world. As for a highlight reel, well, there really isn’t one moment, movement, or crescendo that defined this event. In the end, both wine and beer were able to dazzle the crowd and bring home another victory tonight for the better beverage industry in general, all accompanied by delicious food from Chef Symon.

You could say that the real winners were the fans who got to participate in one of the best beer and wine events ever. I certainly felt like a champion by the end of the night. This event has indubitably set the stage for an amazing Cleveland Beer Week. Look for the beer fans in Cleveland to remain undefeated for years to come. And I’d be remiss to not mention that all proceeds from this event benefitted the Malone Scholarship Fund, making this a captivating culinary contest for charity. Thanks to everyone who worked so hard at the event and to those who attended. Here’s to an amazing week ahead and we’ll see you at “Grapes and Grains 2: the Rematch” next year!

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Join the Discussion

  • http://YourWebsite John Massie

    Great blog!

  • http://YourWebsite Theresa

    Great site, Bobby! Remember to look for a gluten-free stout for me!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, I actually know of a few from Green’s in England: Endeavor and Pathfinder! They’re available in the US as well!!

  • http://blog.bobbylikesbeer.com/2011/03/second-annual-winking-lizard-barleywine-festival/ The Second Annual Winking Lizard Barleywine Festival – Bobby Likes Beer

    [...] here is one of my favorites, and also one of Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head’s choices at the Grapes VS Grains pairing at Cleveland Beer Week. So, what happens when this goes in a barrel? The resulting beer is [...]

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