This post first appeared in Indy Week.
The second annual Bull City Food and Beer Experience expressed its name admirably on Sunday as hundreds of patrons enjoyed the experience of thoughtful food and craft beer pairings that put the flavors of food first.
During a panel discussion on the state of craft beer in North Carolina, Sean Lily Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam brewery said that’s exactly how it ought to be.
“The point is not to make a wacky beer that takes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” says Wilson, who admittedly makes a seasonal fruitcake beer, “but to make a great beer that takes a back seat to really enhance the flavor of food and encourage conversation. I really think that’s where the industry is going, and it’s exactly where we want to be.”
While some offerings did not stray far from typical pub fare, exceptional food and beer pairings abounded at the event, which filled two floors and spilled onto the stage of the Durham Performing Arts Center. A portion of proceeds from each $75 ticket will benefit the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.
Without a doubt, the most ambitious and delicious presentation came from Durham’s G2B Gastro Pub and Unibroue brewery of Quebec.
“For an event like this, it’s go big or go home, right?” says G2B Chef Carrie Schleiffer, who presented four upscale nibbles – pork rillettes with fig chutney; Scottish salmon ceviche with walnuts, red onion and cilantro; pear agrodulce; and sugar dough chocolate ganache – to complement the complex light and dark beers poured by a representative of the Canadian brewery.
Other strong pairings included 21st Amendment Brewing of San Francisco, which offered its full-bodied Back in Black and the crisp Sneak Attack to complement the hearty smoked pork belly, sauerkraut and potatoes provided by Vin Rouge. End slices of the massive pork bellies – they started with 60 pounds’ worth – tasted like the best salty candy you could imagine.
The experience of walking upstairs to the second floor was like entering a cartoon in which a snake charmer draws you in. Fortunately, the first station was operated by Billy and Kelli Cotter of Toast. They were steaming mussels in Carolina Brewery’s Tripel Belgian. The mollusks were served in little cups with spicy, buttery broth that made a great shooter on its own.
Spicy seafood also was on tap at Saltwater Seafood Joint’s table, which paired a savory chowder with with Founder’s Brewing Co of Grand Rapids, Mich. “Durham’s got a reputation now. We’ve got to bring it,” quips chef Ricky Moore. “No more bolgona sandwiches for these folks.”
Patrons were dazzled – and some a bit tipsy – after sampling the fare offered by 30 Durham eateries and 50 brewers. Food was offered in bite-sized portions, with providers happily offering seconds to swooners, and beer was poured as samples in short souvenir glasses.
Courtney Whilden of Chapel Hill had just a sip or two the whole evening. “I’m pregnant but didn’t want to miss this because it was so much fun last year,” Whilden, who was toting a water bottle. “We learned so much about craft beer. I think we drank more beer, really good beer, last year than we ever did before.”
The opportunity to sample a diverse assortment quality beer also was irresistible to Debbie Lidowski of Durham. “I thought beer was just disgusting when everyone was drinking it in college,” says Lidowski, who despised beginner brands like Miller Lite but was glad to stand in line for a pour from New Holland Brewing of Holland, Mich. “I’m so happy there’s been a whole movement of craft beer that’s being celebrated right here in our town.”