So there we were, brewmaster and food writer, contemplating the potential union of a hoppy red ale and a Cuban sandwich. Our mission was to explore the concept of amber ales, red ales and the foods they love.
It was noon, but Sky High Brewing's taproom in downtown Corvallis wasn't open until 4 p.m. for Hoppy Hour, so brewmaster Laurence Livingston and I had the joint to ourselves. What Laurence's Big Kahuna Northwest Red brought to the party is exactly what I love about a fine-tuned American red ale: a hoppy personality, tempered by a generous layering of caramel maltiness.
Find Jan's recipes for Potato-Cheese-Beer Soup, Golden Quesadillas and Southwest Shredded Beef in our online Recipe Box, a searchable database of more than 3,700 dishes. See mailtribune.com/recipes.
My spunky Cuban slider had its own delectable layers to anticipate: garlicky-mustardy aioli, smoked pork, ham, nutty Jarlsberg and slender slices of my homemade Damn Good Garlic Dills. After assembly, the sliders were warmed and gently pressed into submission, panini-fashion.
Laurence pulled two 4-ounce pours of his Red from the tap. Then, just for comparison's sake, he pulled two more servings of his amber ale. He thought the amber might go just as well or better than the Northwest Red because in 20 years of merging beers with the foods he loves, ambers and barbecue are a winning combo. Of course, I was equally confident that his Big Kahuna would be up for taking on the Cuban.
We dove into our sandwiches. "OK, amber first," said Laurence. It only took a moment of chewing and sipping before Laurence's eyes lit up.
"Wow! That really brings the smoked pork right out — right in your face."
And he was right. The Base Jumper Amber Ale really was merging with the dominant flavor of the sandwich and creating an entirely new level of rich flavor, which is the very definition of a successful pairing: two flavors uniting to form a new and better experience.
On to the Big Kahuna. Same program: chew and sip. But it just didn't happen. What I thought was going to be the perfect pairing turned out just so-so. The Big Kahuna Red Ale failed to create the same synergy, and in fact, the high level of hops actually was fighting the character of the sandwich. Yet all ingredients in the sandwich were listed as compatible for the red.
So what's the deal? There's a lesson here: Sometimes, what looks good on paper doesn't come together in real time.
The hoppiness of Laurence's Big Kahuna is just assertive enough that it doesn't meld as gracefully with the sandwich's ultimate character. If I'd used a slightly less sweet bread and a more robust ham, I predict it would have worked out. After all, it wasn't a bad pairing — just not perfect.
Next up, my creamy potato-cheese-beer soup. I was pretty sure this was going to be a winner with the Big Kahuna Red.
One of my favorite cold-weather picnic soups, it's loaded with plenty of American red ale-friendly goodies: chicken broth, Yukon Gold potatoes, scallions, soy sauce, Jarlsberg, extra-sharp cheddar and a pinch of white pepper.
Plus, the clincher? When Laurence wasn't looking, I whisked a shot of the Big Kahuna right into the soup.
Laurence took a sip and smiled. "Wow, the potato comes through, doesn't it? Nice — real nice — balance of cheese. And is that a bit of Big Kahuna in there?"
Laurence's persnickety palate had detected the secret ingredient. After much sipping and slurping, we agreed that although the Base Jumper Amber held its own with the soup, it was the Big Kahuna that boosted the experience.
Next and final offering: my shredded Southwest beef, served on a Golden Quesadilla with sour cream and a bit of fresh salsa. The beef portion of this dish is a zesty stew of braised, falling-off-the-bone-tender beef chuck, diced tomatoes, Anaheim chilies, cumin and chili powders, salsa, cilantro and — for an undertone of whang — minced, pickled jalapenos. With it, we sipped the Big Kahuna.
"Oh my!" he said between bites and sips. That was a definite thumbs up for the pairing. But I had predicted the outcome far ahead of Laurence, knowing full well that Big Kahuna's extra spank of hoppiness was going to join forces with the richness in the beef dish, handling everything the zesty stew threw at it, from the pickled jalapenos to the generous doses of chili and cumin powders. The amber was just OK.
So, at the end of the sipping and savoring, with our primary objective complete, it was Big Kahuna Red, 2, Base Jumper Amber 1.
Here is a summer-into-autumn, craft-beer dish that I created last year when the International Barley Conference came to Oregon State University. The creamy, flavorful risotto served at the final evening's gala nicely balances with the hoppiness in an American red ale. A less sharp beer couldn't stand up to the risotto's richness and wouldn't cleanse the palate enough between bites.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.