If you've ever been to a winemaker's dinner, you'll have a pretty good idea of what sort of refreshing, laid-back twist a beermaker's dinner might take on this popular, group dining concept.
Though I'm sure it wouldn't necessarily take a gourmand's pantry to whip up a pretty decent four of five course homestyle meal to pair with some of the best micro-brewed beers in the country (think American classic comfort food and a lot of meat), this basic idea was a whole lot more elaborate, at the Artisan Cheese Loves Lagunitas Beers six course supper at the Sheraton Marina, Petaluma, this March.
For those who missed the fast-growing (6th annual) Artisan Cheese Festival, based here in Southern Sonoma County's gateway riverfront city, take note for next year - the Friday night cheese and beermaker's dinner with Lagunitas and Sheraton Executive Chef Danny Mai was about as good as it gets here in beer, wine and cheese country.
First things first - guests (and that could have been you, for the beauty of the Artisan Cheese Fest is the option to sign up for as many or as select a range of tours, seminars, dinners and marketplace experiences as you'd like) were treated to a pre-dinner VIP tour of Petaluma's explosively-fast growing Lagunitas Brewery.
First course was served up in the foyer of the Sheraton as visitors from all over the country gathered for a seat on one of a fleet of Pure Luxury minibus shuttles across town to the home of the country's most quirky and rapidly-growing iconoclastic craft breweries, for a behind-the-scenes tour.
Chef Mai paired Spring Pizetta with a duo tasting of Lagunitas Pilsner and IPA. Piperade (onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices, Basque style), Pinot-caramelized Cipollini onions and Laura Chenel's Chevre topped appetizer-sized wedges of mini pizza to whet the appetite for later on.
Over at Lagunitas HQ, out-of-state tour and dinner guests were stoked to be witness to the fine art of beer geekery being elevated to superstar status in the world of independent craft breweries.
It made me proud to be a Petaluman, hearing how at home Lagunitas is here, in its second location since being booted out of its native West Marin back in the mid-90s. Funny thing is, plenty Petalumans have yet to make a pit-stop over at Lagunitas, to the beer garden or one of many special, local fundraising events, let alone take a tour. If you're one of the uninitiated, take my word for it and head over for a pint one evening, soon. The secret's out and Lagunitas Brewing Company's one of the best spots for a beer in the county, if not the entire North Bay!
Lagunitas has come along way from Tony Magee's near-legendary Christmas 1992 home brew kit to an anticipated 600,000 barrels of beer this year alone. Undergoing a $14 million expansion, including a new ampitheater for free concerts, there's some sort of hop-infused fairy dust in the air over this unasumming East Petaluma industrial site.
First stop on tour was the upstairs break room, complete with orange velvet couches, a saddle seat at the full-length, saloon-style bar, vintage refrigerators, guitars, stocking-legged lamps... a haven of hospitality for the weary brewery worker, tie-dyed t-shirted and content to be a part of one of the coolest operations for a beer-loving local to put in a regular day's (or night's) shift. The Lagunitas set-up operates 24/7 - so fast has it ramped up production to supply demand.
Craft breweries are defined as producing less than 2 million barrels of beer annually, so Lagunitas has a way to go before blowing through the roof with its rocketing cult-status. And according to the tour guide, that evening, expansion has brought with it better lab equipment, better everything as far as production's concerned. And anyway: "As long as Tony is the owner, he's not going to sacrifice quality," he said.
I took a lot of notes on the tour, but technicalities are technicalities for good reason and unless so as not to reveal the myriad, fine-tuned tricks of this particular trade, let's settle for saying that it takes about three hours to make a batch of really great beer, much of it seasonal.
Meanwhile, back at the Sheraton, the kitchen crew under Chef Mai's keen eye were busy plating up another five courses, each one delivered to tables in the upstairs function room, perfectly presented and at all the right temperatures to highlight the variety of cheeses and beer pairings.
Second course was charcuterie - salumi and condiments with local veteran producers Marin French Brie, served with Lagunitas Northern Cal interpretation of a rich, though mellow American Brown Ale, Wilco Tango Foxtrot (or WTF for short - Wilco substitutes Whiskey as you can't put that on a beer label by law).
Next up was my favorite dish, a finely shredded brussels sprout salad with Lardon Lyonnaise (creamy poached egg), La Bodega Sherry vinaigrette and Cypress Grove fresh chevre, Ms Natural cheese, paired with Lagunitas' super-popular crispy wheat and pale malt flavored, big round & juicy hop finished Little Sumpin' Sumpin'.
Fourth Course (breathe in, breathe out, drink a glass of water!) was a little roasted quail with creamy Oregon truffle polenta, pomegrante pan jus and Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel cheese with Lagunitas spicy, dank and roasty, newly returned Imperial Red.
Despite the fact that these were small plates, the spectacle of this dinner definitely increased with each new, infallible delivery, including a Fifth Course, that consisted of melt-in-the-mouth braised veal osso bucco with a wild mushroom risotto and another favorite of mine, Farmstead Point Reyes Blue paired with Lagunitas rich, malty, coppered Censored Ale. As with all Lagnitas beers, there's a great story behind the naming of each ale and this one's particularly interesting!
For dessert, a scrumptious, individual pear tart tatin appeared complete with salted caramel drizzle and a side of Bellweather Farm's buttery, Jersey milk-flavored Carmody Cheese, coupled with Lagunitas' knock-your-socks-off caramel and rich toffee flavored, barley, Gnarly Wine.
It's taken me over a week to absorb this experience - in more ways than one. I'd highly recommend this dinner if they do it again at next year's Artisan Cheese Festival. Totally a one-of-a-kind, Sonoma County gastro special. Beer and cheese lovers unite on this one. If you happen to love both, what could be better?