Preview: American Craft Beer Week @ Smith Commons
BYT at large | May 14, 2012 | 12:00PM |

All words: Brittany Martin
All photos: Stephanie Breijo

While there is a tremendous amount to appreciate in the centuries-old beer-making traditions of the Old World, craft brewers in the U.S. have flourished in recent decades, innovating and creating some exceptionally high-quality beers. Many cities have started hosting “beer weeks” to get brewers, enthusiasts, and the general drinking public together to learn about and enjoy small-batch beers, often particularly focusing on local ones. Inspired by these local events, American Craft Beer Week was founded as a national celebration of the culture, community, and, of course, product, of the small breweries movement. At the first American Craft Beer Week in 2006, there were 124 events scheduled; ACBW 2012 will involve over 1,520 events in every part of the country.  Lucky for us, our very own SMITH COMMONS on H Street, will be the host of American Craft Beer Week in D.C.! Woohoo!

With DC’s major beer culture – second on the Eastern Seaboard maybe only to Philadelphia, but poised to overtake even that famously beer-loving city in sales, enthusiasm, and discerning palates – obviously plenty of local ACBW events are in the works. They will be happening at various locations, but the major hub for the week will be Smith Commons on H Street. Smith Commons may not be the place in town with the longest or most-gourmet list of beers, but they are planning to make up for that by bringing in fun events every night of the week with an appeal beyond just beer geeks – bringing together art, fashion, music, and food along with the often-local, always-well-crafted beers.

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We were invited to sit down with representatives from some of the featured breweries including Ommegang (event on May 16th), Flying Dog (May 18th), and Dogfish Head (May 15th), and sample some of these classic craft beers paired with Chef Kamal Chanaka’s upscale modern American menu. Drinking beer is great on its own, of course, but when paired well with food the synergy of flavors and textures really brings out the best in dish and drink.

As with wine, the standard rules-of-thumb for beer-food pairing is to think of something like a color wheel of flavors. There are complimentary and contrasting flavors and mouthfeel experiences, and either create great pairs. Unlike wine, however, the broad range of wildly experimental ingredients and styles of beer allows for even more diversity when looking for a perfect companion to a chef’s creation.

It was that experimental, even whimsical, approach to brewing which created one of the biggest hits at the tasting. Last November, Maryland’s Flying Dog brewery released a dry stout brewed with local Rappahannock River oysters in the boil. The oysters do not give the beer a strong seafood flavor, rather they leave behind a protein which imbues the finished product with a pronounced silkiness. The Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout was paired, naturally, with oysters, in the form of an oyster po’ boy slider sandwich. Pinned into a buttery, round little bun, were hot, slippery fried oysters, enhanced by a light touch of chipotle mayonnaise and confit tomato. The roasty flavors in the stout cut through the richness of the sandwich, keeping it from veering to the greasy and complimenting the smoky qualities of the chipotle.

Similarly, a boneless, stuffed chicken wing was saved from fried-food overload by a light, crunchy breaded exterior that complimented the succulent dark wing meat within. Topped with a spicy-sweet chili glaze, it was a terrific take on updated comfort food, and a witty inclusion on the beer-themed tasting menu. This was paired with a second Flying Dog offering, the Woody Creek Belgian White.

Another Belgian-style white beer, the Ommegang Witte, appeared alongside a delightful tuna tartare, making a perfectly refreshing summertime bite. Sitting on a crunchy little boat of a chip, was the circle of fresh tuna, flavored with capers, mustard seed oil, and tobiko, accompanied by a beautiful and flavorful edamame puree which itself had a bit of spice. It played harmoniously with the citrus and spice notes in the Witte, and the beer, in turn, brought out the inherent sweetness in the fish. Ommegang Witte has long been one of my favorite warmer-weather beers, with a classic wheat beer profile with coriander, pepper, and a bit of fruitiness. We did the tasting in Smith Commons’ lovely first-level dining room, but this pairing would have been equally at home on their large roof deck upstairs on a sunny afternoon.

Many of Chef Chanaka’s beer-friendly snacks will be only five dollars during American Craft Beer Week – including those impressive po’ boys we all loved so much, along with other dishes, like hamburger sliders topped with macaroni and cheese – and there will be some special exclusive and limited release brews to sample. Regardless of if you sit for a full tasting menu or just grab a beer at one of their fun events during the week, American Craft Beer Week is a fine excuse to try something new or go back to an American-made craft beer you might not have sipped in a while.