Brew U: Annual State College BrewExpo offers education for beer fans and newbies alike

Pat Little
Fran Chew, of Pittsburgh, inspects a sample of beer during the Tom Peters seminar at the 2006 BrewExpo in State College.
By Bob Batz Jr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

STATE COLLEGE -- I drove all the way out to Penn State University and spent Saturday in seriously strenuous scholarship.

The discipline: Beer.

Pat Little
Beers from all over the world form a pyramid at the center of the 2006 BrewExpo.
Click photo for larger image.
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People's Choice winners
Attendees at the State College BrewExpo could vote for their favorite of participating craft and imported brews. This year's People's Choice winners, tallied yesterday, included some Pittsburgh beers:
Best of Show
     Gold: Stone Arrogant Bastard
     Silver: Legacy Euphoria
     Bronze: Unibroue 15
     Honors: East End Brewing Co. Black Strap Stout, Church Brew Works Pious Monk Dunkel, Lancaster Milk Stout
     Gold: Stone Arrogant Bastard
     Silver: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
     Bronze: North Coast Red Seal Ale
     Honors: Erie Railbender, East End Brewing Co. Big Hop, Unibroue La Fin du Monde
     Gold: Dogfish Head Imperial Pils
     Silver: Victory Prima Pils
     Bronze: Golden Pheasant
     Honors: Spaten Oktoberfest
     Gold: Ommegang Three Philosophers
     Silver: Unibroue Chambly Noir
     Bronze: Legacy Euphoria
     Honors: Young's Double Chocolate Stout, Unibroue Ephemere

Laugh if you will, but I can assure you: The next day, some students' heads were hurting.

The setting was the ninth annual State College BrewExpo. It's a big beer festival, yes, but one that's well-regarded in part for promoting beer appreciation and education (its motto: "Drink Less, Drink the Best.")

About 2,300 attendees crowded into the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center over two, four-hour, $35 sessions that weren't just about sampling 150-plus brews and hitting the gourmet international buffet. Each session also included not only several "Beer 101: An Introduction to Craft-Brewed Beers" classes, but also three "BrewForum Seminars," which 372 people attended.

As organizer (and math teacher) Greg Somers announced at the start of one seminar hour, "We thought this is one of the missing ingredients at most beer festivals. Not serious talk, but interesting talk." All 80 seats were filled at the two afternoon sessions I took and were indeed stimulating.

The first was "Pairing Fine Food and Beer," "taught" by a pioneer -- Tom Peters, co-owner and executive chef at Monk's Cafe, Philadelphia, which is a bastion of all things Belgian.

Mr. Peters, in fact, was inducted in 2004 into the Belgian beer guild, the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mashstaff. His very bearing exudes expertise. As he grinningly put it, "It's research and development!"

For Monk's second-Tuesday beer dinners, they pick the beers first, then the food. He shared this formula for making it work if you try this at home: Serve beers that complement some dishes and contrast others.

His classroom materials were petite samples of foods on a plates set before us. Then servers began bringing out Belgian beer.

The first, a favorite "white" beer of his, Troublette, has notes of citrus and coriander that complement seafood, including mussels ceviche.

The next, Saison Dupont, "is a desert island beer for me," he said, telling us how its bold, peppery flavor goes with salty foods as we sipped it with a trio of Belgian cheeses. (He also pointed out the beer's massive head and the foam residue on the glass, its "Belgian lace.")

The next beer was a rare Flemish sour that actually is made and labeled for Monk's Cafe, where they use it to make a sorbet. We cleared our palates with sips, then savored how well it contrasted with the richness of a lamb, barley and apple salad. (My notes -- hey, this was work -- include note to myself to get more of this unusual brew.)

The next course was a Slaapmutske Triple Nightcap served with Thai peanut chicken. Triples "lend themselves very well to Thai foods, spicy foods. It cuts right through it."

We got to be among the first Americans to try the newly imported Rochefort 6, brewed at a monastery in the Ardennes Mountains. Mr. Peters said, "This is, I think, the most food-friendly of their three beers," including the stronger 8 and strongest 10. This one still has big flavors of caramel, chocolate and coffee, which nicely complemented a rich pate.

The last brew, the intensely raspberry Lindemans Framboise, a sweet and tart spontaneously fermented lambic, he lauded as "a dessert island beer." Many in the class loved it with the triple chocolate cake and chocolate biscotti.

"Oooooh," raved Milton, Wisconsin's Peggy Hirschberg, whose State College daughter-in-law brought her for some beer edification and fun. "I've been to wine tastings before, but nothing like this," she said, as she eagerly awaited the start of the next seminar -- on Belgian beers.

Pat Little photos
Above: Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia, leads a seminar about beer at BrewExpo.
Below: Richard Schwab, of Ligonier, joins others in sampling beer and food during Peters' seminar.

Click photos for larger image.

I've studied beer more than she has, but I'm less learned on Belgians, so I was drinking in knowledge, too.

The most capable instructor of this seminar also was a "Belgian Knight" -- Randy Thiel of Brewery Ommegang. That's the Belgian-style farm brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Its tagline is "Great food deserves great beer," and so his talk (and PowerPoint presentation!) had a pairing angle, too. (The Web site suggests foods for all of its beers.)

"I think beer is much more flexible" when it comes to pairing with foods than wine, he said, and it's not hard to do. Dark, roasty beers go with roasted red meats because they both have caramelization in common.

Professor Thiel started out by instructing us to respect beer and breweries, even the macros, and told us to "please use a glass" when drinking. But he's no beer snob or "beer Nazi."

Still, he noted that classic Duvel (Flemish for Devil), whose maker now owns his brewery, is best served in its special glass. Just hang on, as the contents are 8.5 percent alcohol. "It's one of those beers you don't feel until you stand up."

I had to concur with him on the relatively understated elegance of Ommegang Rare Vos (Sly Fox) Amber Ale. It's named for a famed cafe in Belgium, where, he explained, beers are described more by region than by style, which encourages very individualistic brewing.

Like Mr. Peters, he took questions. As we sipped Ommegang Witte, he answered one by explaining how lighter beers like the Witte do not age well at all, but darker, stronger beers can be cellared (stored upright, in the dark, at about 55 degrees) to good effect. Case in point: Ommegang Abbey Dubbel, which is flavored with spices and "almost borderline overpowering."

So popular are Ommegang brews that, until an expansion is completed, they've had to have some brewed by the Duvel Moortgat parent company in Belgium.

Pat Little photos
Above: Participant tested beer samples from numerous vendors at the BrewExpo in State College.
Below: Rogers McLane, of State College, samples beer.

Click photos for larger image.

With that, he passed out the multiple choice test -- a "triangle test" just like the brewery's "sensory panelists" would take.

Servers brought each of us three glasses of the Dubbel, marked A, B and C, which we set on corresponding spots on a sheet of paper. Our test: To determine which of the three was different.

It was easy, and I'm happy to say I was in the majority that chose the correct A answer. Version A had been brewed here and was better, many of us thought, then the samples brewed in Belgium. But we couldn't claim beer genius: As one woman shouted out, A also was a lighter brown.

My biggest learning experience was the last beer, a two-year-old Rodenbach Grand Cru that ferments with many yeast strains in open oak tuns. Mr. Thiel said, "If you're expecting a beer flavor, you're going to be shocked and maybe disappointed."

He prepared me for it to taste like cider or wine, which it did, but it was extraordinarily funky.

This was a moment of enlightenment that strengthened my resolve to continue my beer education.

And so I took up my souvenir sampling glass and headed out to the BrewExpo hall.

Send beer news and ideas to Bob Batz Jr. at or 412-263-1930.


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