Taking a Lesson in Beer Dinners from Pelican Brewing
An ocean breeze strums past Haystack Rock, a monolith that juts out of the sea, over the Cape Kiwanda shore pines that stand towering over the sea cliff, past the 240-foot-high sand dune that marks its outer edge, and over the relaxed, happy beer drinkers who sit and sip al fresco on Pelican Brewing’s back patio. They are transfixed, perhaps hypnotized, by the view and sound of rolling waves that sometimes carry dory boats to this bountiful stretch of the Pacific—where people like their seafood like their beer: ultra-fresh.
Pelican wears its expertise not on its sleeve but all along its walls, where the company has racked up hundreds of awards in beer competitions around the world, including 39 medals from the Great American Beer Festival, indubitably the most prestigious in America.
Between the coastal setting and all those medals, it’s easy to see why locals enroll in Pelican’s mug club and why Portlanders make the 100-mile drive to visit the brewpub in Pacific City, even when the company has opened two more brewpubs a little bit up the coast and therefore closer. It doesn’t hurt that the restaurant serves a high level of pub grub and dishes cooked with house beer. In the winter nothing beats its Tsunami Stout Chili. The clams and mussels are steamed in Kiwanda Cream Ale. Beercakes aren’t dessert; they’re pancakes made with MacPelican Scottish Ale, as Pelican is one of the few brewpubs open in the morning.
But we’re not going to focus on breakfast. In an era of “beer dinners”—prix fixe meals where every course is paired with an ideal ale or lager—chefs, brewers, and restaurateurs can take lessons from Pelican.
“I’ve been doing brewers’ dinners from the time we opened,” says decorated brewmaster Darron Welch. (Pelican opened in 1996.) “We’re always looking to elevate the experience: our own perception and the customer’s perception for beer cuisine and pairing possibilities. And we continually challenge ourselves to think more creatively and push our comfort levels further.”
I’ve left many beer dinners quite content, but after a recent Brewers Dinner at Pelican Brewing, I left buzzing—and not just because throughout the six courses, from an amuse-bouche to the dessert, I’d been treated to six glasses of beer.
It was also because their quarterly dinners are themed, and this one was conducted as a murder mystery with a local theater group. The dinner was a highly engineered experience of brew meets Clue, involving the dramatized murder of a tea magnate. Examples of courses included tea-smoked scallops, chai-spiced duck breast, and chamomile mousse.
Similarly, January’s themed “Luck” dinner served dishes deemed to bring luck and health for the New Year, including pork belly lollipops with black-eyed peas, paired not with the luck of the Irish (like a stout or red ale) but the luck of the Scots in the form of a wee heavy ale.
Events such as this take some time to pull together. “We try not to be deciding the theme eight weeks before the event,” says Welch. For many, especially creative types, two months would be too far out to have such a venture planned, but for the Pelican crew—and there are at least half a dozen folks within the company who brainstorm the Brewers Dinners—Welch says, “We like to have a road map about a year in advance, so we’re prepared to think about what beers we want to put into the pipeline for each event.”
Restaurateurs and beverage directors take note: It certainly doesn’t require a spin around the calendar to piece together a pairing menu, but when guests attend such an event, they’re typically looking for a taste of something they couldn’t get otherwise. As such, beer buyers or managers ought to order special releases and—if the meal is built around a specific brewery—a beer created specifically for the event is likely to appeal to, and appease, the guests.
The co-owner and director of restaurant operations, Ken Henson, points out, in addition to serving great food and great beer, each Pelican Brewers Dinner “has to tell a story. But the beer is the star of the show.”
Of today’s myriad styles and flavors of beer, he says, “The craft has been elevated. Even some of the people who come to our dinners, they don’t think of beer as being sophisticated. Then they have that epiphany: Beer is magical. It’s as good as the best wines in the world.”
And where certain foods are notoriously difficult to pair with wines, foods rich in umami or potent, like blue cheese, have found ideal complements in beer. That can be even truer when the flavors contrast.
“We have this cool amuse-bouche with fruit, whipped blue cheese, and toasted spent grain bread,” notes Welch, referring to Pelican’s recent dinner with the title “Refreshing.” Initially, he anticipated their dark, toasty, malt-driven MacPelican’s Scottish Ale would do the trick. But group tastings suggested otherwise. So they landed on a beer called Cloud Breaker, a Belgian-style IPA where the phenolic yeast contributes hints of pepper and cloves to the citrusy, bitter ale.
“Historically, I’m drawn to contrast,” adds Welch, because he thinks the shock to a diner’s palate provides a revitalizing jolt perhaps akin to jumping into a cold pool after soaking in a Jacuzzi. “But it’s good to have a mix within the context of one dinner.”