Wine people seem more open-minded than ever about beer these days. That's not including the snobbiest ones, of course. Those who turn their delicate noses away from ale and lager in disgust and disapproval, as if sipping any style of fermented malt is entirely beneath them. It's the more adventurous and good-humored wine enthusiasts who seem willing to sample interesting beers with the same expectation, criticism, and curiosity as wine. It's one of the coolest trends gaining steam within the contemporary craft beer world, actually.
Laura Alberts Tasteful Options (891 Island Park Drive) on Daniel Island started out in 2002 as a cozy wine shop and bistro, aimed at offering wine dinners, tastings, classes, and members-only club meetings. The opening foyer and bar area is still stacked with endless shelves and racks of reds and whites.
In recent years, however, these dedicated wine vendors have embraced fine beer as well, adding more and more bottled and draft varieties of tasty micros and imports to their menu and limited shelf space. Owner Karen Elsey has especially warmed up the craft beer world this year, installing a growler fill station, scheduling multiple-course beer dinners, and promoting new commercial releases from regional breweries.
Last week, on Thurs. Feb. 18, she and her small staff welcomed about 45 diners to a special beer dinner featuring five ales and lagers from the acclaimed Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., based in Chico, Calif. A four-course dinner in the main dining room by Chef Matt Brigham followed a beer reception at 6:30 p.m.
This event was my first time attending a beer dinner at Laura Alberts. I'd heard encouraging things about previous dinners, featuring beer from Smuttynose, Stone, Terrapin, and other terrific micros. My hopes were high.
Elsey greeted diners as they arrived with a fresh pint of Sierra Nevada's signature pale ale, a bready, amber-hewn beer full of citrusy hop flavor and aroma. Dave Kemper, a Sierra Nevada regional manager based in Florida, stood ready to make his presentation as folks found their seats and settled in for the first course, a butternut squash chili. Two waitresses buzzed gracefully around the room, pouring Sierra Nevada's latest seasonal beer, the Glissade Golden Bock, into tall wine glasses.
Kemper totally knew his stuff — from the brewery's humble beginnings in 1980 in northern California when owner Ken Grossman made ales in refurbished dairy tanks, to the wide variety of beers on their roaster today. He described Glissade as a refreshing lager based on the traditional Munich-style Helles Bockbier, low in bitterness with a dry finish. At 6.4 percent a.b.v., the golden/amber lager was fairly potent, but highly drinkable. The light hop notes matched the orange zest flavors accented in the surprisingly light-bodied chili.
If Glissade possessed a delicately sweeter malt character, the brewery's new year-round Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2 percent a.b.v.) leaned in a much more aggressive hop direction (the style's name derives from a customized, torpedo-shaped vessel used to "dry-hop" the final wort during fermentation). Full-bodied, bitter, grassy, and earthy, the Torpedo was a bold choice for course number two, a flavorful winter succotash tossed with arugula and local lump crab. Maybe it was the green spiciness of the arugula that best matched the wild hop flavor and aroma of Torpedo.
Kemper was noticeably impressed with Brigham and Sous Chef Josh Johnson for pairing Sierra's huge, high-strength, malt-propelled Big Foot Barleywine (9.6 percent a.b.v.) with the main entrée, a very tender flank steak rouladen on a bed of braised barley and sauce. A strong and malty beer like Bigfoot can offer complex caramel and roasted-grain flavors that match well with the rich, caramelized meatiness of such a dish. The barley with the malted barley was a nice touch as well.
Another old-time Sierra Nevada favorite, the black, zingy Porter (5.6 percent a.b.v.), accompanied the final course of Chocolate macadamia torte with coconut creme. Carolina's served this Porter with a similar dessert last year with fine results. It was a smart pairing here, too, with the rich, chocolaty malt flavors overlapping the nuttiness of the torte, but with enough careful bitterness from hops and long-roasted barley to balance the sugary flavors as well.
If Elsey and her professional staffers continue to hold such well-executed and enjoyable beer dinners, they might earn an extra reputation as a fine beer bistro as well.