Beer Secrets, Revealed!

The night the beer sommelier told all over five courses

There are certain food topics on which I am the undisputed expert. I'm telling you. How to make pimiento cheese. Where to get the best mashed potatoes or grilled salmon in Knoxville. The science behind the glittery "stars" in a Starry Night shooter. But beer? I, well—I do appreciate how clear, weak as water American beers like Coors Light taste pretty darn good with pesto pizza.

So when I was invited (or you could say, a colleague wheedled and cajoled on my behalf) to a Brewmaster's Dinner at La Costa on Market Square, courtesy of local beer distributor Cherokee, I was pretty sure I had a little more to learn.

I opened the door on the cozy, dark wood dining room, tables laden with sparkling glassware, five at each place, black-clad servers making the rounds with Miller/Coors products. Ah, Miller Lite in a bottle. An old favorite from my Toddy's Back Door Tavern days. Very drinkable...

It was all going to be so easy, and then I got a gander at the menu, hoo boy. Turns out Miller/Coors now means Blue Moon and Leinenkugel, seasonal varietals like Rising Moon Spring Ale. To the rescue, Ryan Johnson, with what has to be one of the world's greatest job titles: beer sommelier. He talked the increasingly jolly crowd of chefs, restaurant bean counters, beer distributor employees, and me through five beer/course pairings. Did I ever learn a lot! Some of it from Johnson, even:

  1. Contrary to my college experiments with chocolate chip cookies and Wiedemann's, some beers are made for dessert. The trick is to pair something full-flavored, even heavy, with the sweet. I absorbed this advice along with vanilla-rum cake with raspberry sorbet and Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat.
  2. Pilot stores recently featured Red Velvet Twinkies. I got this tidbit from one of my tablemates, Bobbie, the lead beer distributor dude, whose last name I regret not learning.
  3. An etched "L" on the bottom of a beer glass increases the effervescence of the pour, and also tells you how clean the glass is.
  4. You cannot go into a primo dining spot like La Costa and expect them to let you skip one of the courses just because there are five and you are not a paying guest. When I was so uncool as to have to pass on the meltingly delectable, sweet smoked paprika rack of lamb (rare meat and I don't mix), I received my very own sweet smoked paprika scallops, the perfect foil to the grain malt, low alcohol, first dark beer I do believe I've ever enjoyed, Leinenkugel's 1888 Bock.
  5. One should sort of gulp beer, letting a mouthful pause on the tongue, then swallowing, not sip.
  6. There are different ways to prepare a mushroom garnish. I was in awe of getting to eat with Mark Wischhusen, the original owner of La Paz and now a caterer, and Martha Boggs, the wunderkind chef at Bistro at the Bijou. They astonished me by pronouncing the whole meal wonderful. Wischhusen's favorite was the Tilapia Fish Tacos with pico de gallo—he likes the hot food. Martha said the lamb was exquisite, the duck breast... I listened and braced for a slam of some sort. After all, La Costa Exec Chef Anthony Fowler is a rival, right? Here was the one critical remark: Those shiitakes garnishing the wild mushroom bisque in round three? Wischhusen's pretty sure they weren't fried. Menu said fried but he thought, maybe, could be... that they were roasted, instead.

I was still mulling that over when Johnson stood one last time. "This is my first time in Tennessee," he told us all. "People are really nice here. I'm from the Midwest, where we're friendly, but you all are even friendlier. It's great. But it's kind of scary."

Now that, I already knew.