One of the main things that I hadn’t considered about Niagara College was the existing programs. It will probably not come as a surprise to regular readers that I have done quite a bit of research into the Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program, what with being a prospective student. The truth is that I hadn’t given any thought to the other programs that they offer. There’s the winery, of course, but there’s also a pretty prestigious culinary program down there.
I showed up early to the grand opening on Wednesday, since I’m on a freelancing journalist’s budget and that meant cadging a ride off of whichever good natured commuters were willing to stump up. Fortunately, I know a couple of the Brewery Program students. Andrew Bartle (an SEO professional who blogs infrequently, but whose beer reviews are practically poetry) and Mark Murphy were nice enough to help me get down there.
As it turned out, I had some time to kill upon arriving and I stumbled around in order to get the lay of the land. The culinary building is impressive; Chef jacketed students crashing through the hallways, discussing the amount of time chicken wings need to spend in the fryer. Wafting aromas from the various classrooms meant that it was hard to nail down exactly what was being worked on in which classroom. I’m relatively sure that there were Cinnamon buns being baked somewhere, but it was hard to nail down. Perhaps most impressive was the gallery of chefs who had come down to help out with the program. Rick Moonen. Susur Lee. Ming Tsai. Hubert freakin’ Keller.
I had been invited on a media junket, meaning that I was around for lunch and dinner, both of which had been paired with beer. Possibly because of the comparative youth of the program, many of the beers being used were from outside breweries, which is what you want. Seamless integration into the existing market is a strong selling point for the brewing program. If you’re going to tout real world experience as a feature, you have to take into account your competitors.
Having been to the Brewer’s Plate the previous week, I suspected that the meals produced by Benchmark at Niagara College would be of a tasting portion size, since that was my only frame of reference. Michael Olson was on hand and had designed the menu. Everything about Michael is big. Big frame. Big personality. Big sense of humour. A welcoming host for the evening.
The portions, as you have probably intuited, were also quite large. Not that I’m complaining. It was interesting to see what he was able to do with the pairings, given that he had time to design the menu and play with the concepts.
For lunch, you actually had choices for the appetizer and the entrée. Impressive, given that both dishes were to be paired with the same beers. This seems to have required a certain amount of lateral thinking on the part of the chef, and I found myself somewhat torn between the choice of entrees.
On the one hand, you had a classic pairing the likes of which you might find in Bavaria.
“Brewmaster’s Manifesto” – Hommer’s Ham, Smoked Sausage and Little Schnitzel with Beer Mustard, Spaetzle and Juniper Braised Cabbage
Lager Steamed Fresh BC Salmon in Parchment with Sweet Peppers, Celeriac and Quinoa
Both of these served with Saint Andre Vienna Lager.
On the one hand, I’d never had fish served “En Papillote,” and I like Quinoa, so I was sorely tempted by the lighter option. I ask you, though: How can you turn down a dish with a title like “Brewmaster’s Manifesto?” It’s impossible. Add to this the fact that I’ve been hooked on spaetzle since Budapest, and it becomes a no brainer. The pairing worked well, but that’s not a surprise given that the style of beer is indigenous to the region that the food comes from. The nuttiness of the Quinoa would have been more difficult to pull off as a pairing, but I’m sure it would have highlighted the malt and body of the Vienna Lager.
The dessert was Sticky Toffee Date Pudding with Milk Stout Caramel paired with Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. It was incredibly moist and rich, and it was approximately the size of your head. I can’t really do it justice in description. Easily the best Stick Toffee Pudding I’ve ever tried if only because of the light, spongy texture. One of those situations where the pairing doesn’t even matter because of the quality of the dish.
Dinner came on the heels of a two hour cask tapping and beer sampling event, so good humour and red cheeks abounded on the way into the dining room.
Terrine of Quebec Foie Gras (Duck) with Spent Grains Brioche and Bok Jelly paired with Niagara College Teaching Brewery Educator Dopple Bock.
This was an interesting pairing given that the Educator Dopple Bock was fairly subtle. It weighed in at about 7% alcohol, but I’m not sure that you would have been able to tell. Relatively light bodied, but with the malt sweetness you get in that range. If I had to pair something with Foie Gras, I would be tempted to go with a hoppier brew to try and cut the lingering fatty texture, but this ended up supporting that element. Interesting.
Erie Whitefish “Waterzui” with Hothouse Peppers, Yukon Gold Potatoes and Sweet Shallots – in aromatic coriander citrus beer broth paired with Muskoka Summer Weiss.
This was delicate. Mike was joking with us that his wife was joshing him about it being feminine. Interesting to see the dish served, given that the broth was poured at table. James from Muskoka pointed out that the Weiss was not meant to have any elements of orange peel or coriander. The pairing did contain both of those elements and the sweetness from the shallots created an interesting situation where the dish suggested notes that were not actually in the beer, meaning that the alternation between tasting the dish and the beer resulted in a single range of flavours that were not strictly present in either. Easily the most successful pairing I’ve ever seen.
Traditionally, a sorbet is used as a palate cleanser. This was a light sorbet flavoured with wort from the teaching brewery. I’m not sure that it actually worked as a palate cleanser since it imparted its own subtle flavours, but it didn’t need to because I think it was put there to do something more clever than that. The lingering malt sweetness from the sorbet led directly into the beer pairing for the next dish: Neustadt 10W30 Brown Ale. If that was the intention, great googily moogily is that an incredibly complex concept.
Roast Tenderloin of Black Angus Beef on Barley Root Vegetable Stew and roasted Garlic Lemon Hollandaise.
Protein well cooked. Medium rare on the outside, rare in the middle. The description of the Barley Root Vegetable Stew doesn’t really do it justice as it was more of a buttery pearl barley risotto with what seemed to be a large dice roast root vegetable. Delicious, but less adventurous as a pairing than the first two courses. Brown Ale and Beef is a staple pairing of English and faux English carveries the world over, and therefore well worthy of inclusion.
Dark Prinz Espresso Torte with Laurel Cream paired with Grand River Russian Gun Imperial Stout
Interesting. I’m not sure that I liked the pairing of the torte with the Imperial Stout. I know that the combination of flavours works in theory, but I feel like there’s an astringent note in the mid palate of the Imperial Stout that didn’t quite jibe with the torte. The Laurel Cream (flavoured with bay leaves. I didn’t know this was a thing.), on the other hand, combated that note, so it worked when the elements were composed. I would have been tempted to try a Laurel Cream Eton Mess with it, but I suspect that might not have stood up this well. The texture of the candied Dark Prinz malt really added to it.
To Sum Up
I think that the benefit I hadn’t seen previously of attending Niagara College is that you would have the opportunity both to try and to think about some fairly sophisticated food pairings. Imagine someone with that context starting their own brewpub. I don’t suppose that the students get into the dining room often, but just having a sense of what’s possible would be invaluable.