Laura Albert's/Sierra Nevada beer dinner is all about execution

Image by Timmons Pettigrew Butternut squash chili + Glissade Golden Bock

I love beer with a white-hot burning passion. I love food almost as much. Yet, for some reason, I've never attended a beer dinner.

I blame it on their weeknight scheduling. During the week I try to live a more Spartan lifestyle, knowing that things generally get ugly for my wallet on the weekends.

But that all changed this past Thursday, when I attended a Sierra Nevada beer dinner held at Laura Albert's on Daniel Island. It's hard to pin down Laura Albert's, as they cover a lot of ground. They serve as a wine shop, craft beer shop (complete with growler station), gift shop, take-out restaurant, bar, lunch/brunch spot, etc. While covering this much ground might backfire on some, it seems to serve them well. I can only speak to the beer selection from a place of knowledge, and it is really impressive. They are the only shop in town (that I know of) with a regular stock of aged beer with clearly labeled dates. Cool stuff.

Walking in I met one Mr. T. Ballard Lesemann of Charleston City Paper fame. We ended up sitting together throughout the meal and had quite a good time learning about our parallel lives. We were both there doing beer coverage for an "alternative" Charleston news source. We're both big fans of the featured brewery. We both go by our middle names, which are both Olde South last names. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

On to the dinner. Regional Sierra Nevada rep, Dave Kemper, was on hand to share stories, brewery facts, and guidance through the sequence of 4 featured beers. My hat's off to Dave, he knows his stuff and his enthusiasm was palpable. His presentation on the sustainable brewing practices that the Chico, CA brewery uses was especially interesting. That said, I spend my spare time filling my head with facts about lupulin glands and starch conversion instead of making friends, so the brew-talk was largely preaching to the choir.

The first course was a nice butternut squash chili, paired with Glissade Golden Bock, a Sierra Nevada lager that is replacing their old Spring seasonal, ESB. The chili had tons of bright tomato flavor, which we learned later was enhanced with some orange zest & orange juice. It was an interesting foil to a lightly hopped Sierra Nevada selection, since most of their beers have that big citrus flavor imparted by Cascade hops.

Next up, a spicy "Togarishi Winter Succotash", coupled with some arugula and local lump crabmeat. Beer-pairing 101 tells you to pair spicy food with hoppy beer, so the obvious selection was Torpedo Extra IPA. The hop bitterness almost helps to neutralize that spice, which was just right in this dish. It wasn't very spice-forward, the heat was in the after-taste, giving you the opportunity to chase the fire with a sip of IPA. This was my favorite pairing of the night, even if the most traditional.

Dave's favorite pairing, however, was course number three. This pitted 2010 Bigfoot Barleywine up against an aged flank steak - and Mr. Kemper specifically mentioned he had never seen a chef pair Bigfoot with an entree (only dessert). There was a lot of clever execution in this one. First of all we had the freshest version of the brewery's most age-able beer up against an aged steak. And then there was the bacon. Surprise bacon, I might add. After about three bites I turned into the dog from the Beggin' Strips commercial. All of this was placed over a bed of braised barley, a nice beer-y touch. I'm going with course #2 as my favorite because I love the play of hops against spice...but there's a reason you won't see a picture of this one on my Flickr page. It was gone by the time I remembered I brought a camera.

Lastly for dessert we had a crazy chocolate macadamia torte up against Porter. All my recent dark beer drinking has been with stouts, for whatever reason I just haven't had a porter in quite some time. Because of that, I totally forgot about their dry character, versus the creamier mouthfeel of a stout. That dryness was just right, not overtaking the creamy chocolate, but leaving you a little thirsty and ready for more of everything after each sip.

As I've said in previous reviews, my favorite dining experiences are about the little things. The tables were garnished with wine glasses filled with whole-cone Cascade hops and barley. The wait staff was completely attentive, yet invisible (in a good way). The store was ready with tapped kegs of most of the night's beers for anyone wanting a growler fill afterwards. Chef Matt Brigham and his sous chef spoke briefly and humbly afterwards about how fun it was the plan the meal, and divulged one or two secrets from the recipes. This stuff adds up to what makes a great night -- and without this kind of stuff, you leave with a lackluster experience. Laura Albert's really nailed those details.

Now, this wouldn't be a review if I didn't criticize *something,* so here goes. The forum-posting beer geek in my head had a few minor gripes. We talked with Dave about Sierra Nevada Chico Estate Ale, a beer made entirely from ingredients cultivated at the brewery. Their Estate Ale is exquisite, but it wasn't on the menu. We talked about how Bigfoot barleywine has been brewed for 27 years, and its popularity as a beer to age, but we had the 2010 edition. We talked about Kellerweis, their new open-fermented American Hefeweizen, but it was nowhere to be found.

However, the pragmatist in my head reminded me that the price of the meal would have been much higher had they not used regular Sierra Nevada offerings, which are plenty delicious themselves. A bomber of Estate Ale retails for more than a six-pack of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, for instance. And four courses means four beers, so you can't have everything.

The diner in my head, actually eating, was too busy enjoying the taste experiences to care. The meal was well-planned, well-paired, and well-executed. In words the internet can understand, "DO want."

Laura Albert's is located at 891 Island Park Drive in Daniel Island. Look out for their next monthly beer dinner with Victory Brewing coming up in March, and a Foothills Brewing draft event next Wednesday the 24th (Digitel coverage on that and other beer events leading up to Brewvival to come shortly). You can check out my Flickr page for more photos from the Sierra Nevada dinner.

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