Hominy Grill and the Charleston Beer Exchange ventured into new beer dinner territory with their second-ever beer dinner collaboration last Sunday night. The event was unique for two main reasons: it brought all four Charleston-area microbreweries together and it offered an all-vegetarian menu.
"Most of the beer dinner events in town are very meat-centric," says Scott Shor, co-owner of the Charleston Beer Exchange. "To work with great pieces of meat just seems to be the natural course for the chefs, and I don't blame them for that. But there is a vegetarian demographic out there that's very underserved. You can usually get a vegetarian option at beer dinners, but the vegetarians are never the first considerations in the chef's minds with these things."
Hominy Grill recently expanded its dining room, refurbished its front patio space, and installed a new draft beer system. Chef/proprietor Robert Stehling decided it was a great time to collaborate with the staff at Charleston Beer Exchange on a beer dinner. The last time they joined forces was for the Bacon, Eggs, and Beer dinner in 2009.
"Over the course of the last year and a half, we'd been discussing the concept of doing an all-vegetarian beer event," says Shor. "We really wanted to do it with Hominy Grill. It's something that had never really been addressed in the local community."
Despite healthy camaraderie, there's never been an event under one roof in which all four local microbreweries participated. The congregation of brewers and enthusiasts certainly felt like an all-star event. Jaime Tenny and David Merritt of COAST Brewing, Edward and Morgan Westbrook of Westbrook Brewing, and all four partners of Holy City Brewing — Chris Brown, Sean Nemitz, Joel Carl, and Mac Minaudo — were on hand at Hominy. Chris Winn, a representative from Palmetto Brewing Co., joined in as well. Winn called the gathering "the Super Bowl of local beer lovers."
Shor and Beer Exchange colleagues Rich Carley and Brandon Plyler selected three beers from each brewery and paired them across six courses (including passed hors d'oeuvres on the patio). Each course featured two styles of beer from two different breweries. The menu emphasized new seasonals and limited-release varieties.
More than 80 attendees mingled in the spacious patio, sampling COAST's brisk and hoppy All Chinook Pale Ale and Palmetto's brand-new Aftershock Steam Beer, an amber lager brewed as an autumn seasonal.
Shor and Carley took turns guiding the brewers and reps from room to room to introduce each new course and pairing.
"Robert Stehling is never afraid of trying something different and offering different things to his customers," says Shor. "This dinner was a fine example of that."
The first course was about as Lowcountry in style as possible, with lightly boiled okra and tangy basil butter with a rich helping of smoked shiitake mushroom and shallot purloo. Diners could choose between Westbrook's yeasty and light Saisson Ale and Holy City's nearly-black, surprisingly hoppy Lowcountry Dark Ale.
Fried yellow squash arrived atop a zesty heirloom tomato relish and a side of lady peas (tiny field peas), paired with Palmetto's fruity and well-balanced Extra Pale IPA and Westbrook's unusual Zwickelbier, an unfiltered, hazy, German-style pale lager with a fresh graininess resembling young beer from the fermentation tank.
The delicate cabbage, apple, and arugula salad with spiced pumpkin seeds could easily have worked as the starter, but it provided a light break between heavier, starchier courses. Westbrook's traditional Oktoberfest Märzen and Holy City's soon-to-be released Shiftee Golden Ale, a malty, butterscotchy strong ale, matched the nutty flavor of the pumpkin seeds more than the greens and dressing.
If any non-vegetarians grumbled about the lighter dishes, the main course of baked cheese grits with creamed butter bean and corn succotash and sautéed greens shut 'em up. Stehling specializes in creating traditionally Southern side dishes, and all of these were hits. Holy City's new autumn seasonal Pecan Dream, a dark-brown ale made with roasted pecans, provided a roasty, nutty counterpart. COAST's sweet, floral, golden-colored Wadmalaw Sunset Belgian Honey Ale paired particularly well with the fragrant succotash.
The dessert course was a knockout. A hearty peach pudding with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce matched quite well with the final beers. COAST's two-year-old, super-malty Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Nuptial Barleywine complemented the caramel and clove flavors of the pudding, while Palmetto's roasty Espresso Porter balanced the sweetness of the ice cream.
Stehling made an appearance in the main dining room as the dessert course hit the tables. "This was a vegetarian dinner for everyone," he said. "We went with familiar vegetable dishes with nice textures, made from local produce. It's Southern fare ... just without the meat."