Wabasha Brewing Beer Dinner at the Happy Gnome
One of the greatest culinary misconceptions is that beer does not pair well with anything other than a hot dog at a ballgame. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, beer is the ideal pairing to elevate any type of cuisine due to the exponential combinations of aromas and flavors in beer. The raw ingredients in beer provide a smorgasbord of potential for flavor combinations to dazzle the palate.
In Minnesota, beer education has become more prominent over the last decade, and that has lead to eateries elevating their menus and tap lists. Thanks to entities like the Better Beer Society causal beer geeks, and industry folks alike have been treated to first-rate education about the marriage of craft beer and all types of cuisine.
The Happy Gnome is the Place for Beer Dinners
The days of a restaurant getting away with the pedestrian burger and fries to pair with a Grain Belt are over. I see more and more menus with a purposeful focus on pairing beer with food. The Happy Gnome in Saint Paul, MN, is synonymous with beer pairings. For well over a decade, they have been enchanting and educating the palates of craft beer geeks with their beer dinners.
I have always been curious about the collaborative process between the brewer and the chef. Beer and food pairing is difficult and has to be precise in order to achieve success. On Tuesday, October 8th, I got the chance to peek behind the curtain of the beer dinner process at the Happy Gnome. I have to thank Sean Cooke for providing me with the opportunity to see, first-hand, how a service of this magnitude gets carried out.
The Calm Before the Storm
I arrive at 5pm and head upstairs to the event space where the beer dinners are held. The tables are set in silent anticipation for the room to be filled with the clinking of silverware, food and beer pairings, and the wonderful conversation of satiated diners. This is definitely the calm before the storm.
Sean Cooke meticulously checks the CO2 levels to ensure that all five of the Wabasha Brewing Company beers are pouring as they should be. What do I mean by that? Well, adjusting the carbon dioxide pressure is key to a good pour. You don’t want a firehose or a dribble. Beer lines can be temper-mental and once the dinner service starts, foam issues would really put an unwanted stressor on everyone involved. Once everything is pouring right, the tap handles go on and that is one more box checked off the list.
Sean takes me back to meet Chef Jeremy Bechtold, the Happy Gnome’s mastermind in the kitchen. Jeremy is soft-spoken and cordial. I make it very clear that I will stay out of the way and just need to take a few pictures. He is welcoming and assures me I am not in the way at all. He makes sure I know to ask questions about anything I am interested in and that is wonderful to hear.
At 5:20pm, there is still about an hour and a half before dinner service starts. Food has already been prepped and Jeremy has a piece of paper that reads like a missing chapter from a George R. R. Martin novel. He is still getting things ready and his Sous Chef, Brian, is with him every step of the way. They chat about where they will plate and some instructions are given about a strategy to prep the first course. This sounds more like a primer for a casino heist that a dinner because there are so many steps and the timing needs to be perfect.
I ask Chef Jeremy about this beer dinner and how the menu came to be. He said that working with Chris and Brett from Wabasha Brewing was incredibly collaborative and detailed. Sometimes, a brewery just sends a beer rep to chat about the beers. Jeremy notes that this one feels different due to an exciting creative synergy between both vision and expectation with everyone involved. The dinner is heavily Norwegian-inspired and that shows in both the food and the beer. From a Lingonberry IPA brewed specially for tonight to pickled fish and several old school Norwegian methods of food preparation, the menu definitely articulates the Norwegian roots of the chef and the brewer.
At 5:40, Jeremy disappears up a flight of stairs and Brian continues to prep. Constantly, people are coming up and down the winding stairs of this cramped and almost turret-like part of the building. I joke with Brian that getting 10,000 steps working here must happen pretty quickly. He says that this kitchen gets quite unbearable in the summer.
I am quickly picking up on a strong level of camaraderie in the kitchen. Another worker popped his head in to say hi and then went back down the stairs to another part of the tower. Jeremy asked Brian, “How does he have so much energy?” Brian quips back cheekily, “Cocaine?” Lots of jokes fly around the kitchen, and it is clear that there is a trust and friendship between Jeremy and Brian. Jeremy runs upstairs to grab a paper clip and someone tosses it at him from upstairs. Jeremy complains jokingly, “Don’t throw stuff at me, I’m blind as a bat.” The phantom office supply-chucker simply yells back, “Bats aren’t blind, it’s a common misconception!”
On a giant rack for sheet pans, there are blackened cucumbers, hen of the woods mushrooms, and some sexy-looking pork chops that have been marked up ahead of time. Once the third course looms closer, they will get popped into the oven to finish. It is almost unfair to have them just sitting there because they are filling the space with the titillating aroma of grilled pork.
Getting work done ahead of time is a big part of ensuring that this beer dinner goes off without a hitch. Without giving away too many trade secrets, there is some insane food alchemy happening in the kitchen. Jeremy has a pan of onions on the stove that look raw, but upon a closer look, seem like they are already cooked. I ask him what gives and he divulges that he separates the whey from buttermilk and uses the liquid to soak them. What happens is that they stay white, but the acid from the buttermilk changes the pH level in the onions keeping them crispy without tasting raw. This sounds like pure wizardry to me!
Another thing that Jeremy does to rutabagas to elevate the humble root vegetable is to bake them in a salt crust. As a result of this, the steam from the liquid creates a steam bath in the salt crust. This ensures that it cooks perfectly without coming out dry. The more I learn about the extra steps to turn ordinary foods into delightful parts of a dish, the more I realize that I am in for an unforgettable meal.
It is approaching 6pm and that means guests will be arriving and enjoying the Son of Eric Cream Ale, tonight’s reception beer. The format for the beer dinner is that guests get a beer to enjoy while they mingle and the service starts at 7pm. Each course is paired with a beer and so nobody leaves thirsty. I see the Wabasha Brewing Company crew come up the stairs with smiles and energy. This is a fun group of people who clearly love what they do. To say they are excited about the beer dinner is a drastic understatement.
Chris cannot say enough good things about the Happy Gnome. He loves that Happy Gnome has been at the forefront of showcasing craft beer in its best state. Like Chris, a lot of us have learned about craft beer here in one way or another. Tonight, I am receiving a unique education in how a beer dinner comes together. I am anxious to get Brett’s take on how the beer dinner process has been.
Brett, like Chris, also cannot say enough fabulous things about the communication between Chef Jeremy and the brewery. Brett explains, “They came out to our place, and we came out here. We just started throwing stuff out there and it was pretty aweseome.” There were multiple sit-downs to talk menu, beer, and how to create a unique experience. I ask Brett about the Lingonberry IPA and he explained that he wanted to brew something special for the beer dinner. He also wanted to incorporate his own Norwegian heritage. The lingonberry is a unique food to work with. On its own, it doesn’t have a whole lot of sweetness. He thought it would be a nice accent in an IPA and would certainly compliment food. It is being served with a scallop crudo and it is the course that we are both quite excited about.
The time has come to sit down and begin the festivities. Luckily, I am sitting with some really fun ladies who definitely add to the excitement of the evening. Among them are Chris’s wife, Johnell, Brett’s signifcant other Kelly, and several of their friends. I am happy to be among fun people to share tonight’s experience. The brewery crew is seated at the head table like they are at a wedding reception. We get settled in and Nick Nelson, the self-proclaimed Happy Gnome Beer Goblin comes out to get the fun started. After a short welcome, he turns it over to Chris to say a few words. This is interesting, because Brett claims he doesn’t like to talk, but anytime we record an interview or a podcast, you can’t get the man to stop talking!
After the course begins, the amazing servers start pouring the beers. The first course is a pickled fish tartine with beet, chèvre, dill, and fennel salad. This is all paired with the Red Desert IPA. I am quite familiar with this beer. It is a bigger IPA (7.2% ABV) that has a decent malt backbone. A deep amber color looks really nice in the background and connects with the vibrant red of the beet.
As far as IPAs go, this one is more of a Midwest IPA. It isn’t hazy, it isn’t tremendously piney. It is good middle of the road hoppy ale. I really like how the hops cut through the fat of the cheese highlighting the grassiness of the chèvre. In turn, this elevates the hop profile of the beer. The bread accents the malt base of the beer and the pickled trout is absolutely delicious. The beet jelly and fennel add a herbaceous freshness to the bite and we are off to a great start.
I run back in the kitchen to compliment the team kicking out the food in the kitchen. They are already plating the second course. I head back to my seat and take a look around the room. Everyone seems quite taken with the food. The only pickled fish I have ever had is pickled herring. I know that pickled fish is a polarizing idea. As a first course, it is a bold move by Jeremy. It plays perfectly, and I think that if you take even one element away from it, it would lose a lot of its harmony.
The second course beers are being poured and we have another Wabasha mainstay-the Westside Popper cream ale. This beer won a gold medal at the 2018 US Open Beer Championship and is one of the best jalapeńo beers I have ever tasted. What makes this a tremendous beer is how delicately Brett smokes the jalapeños. The smoking process takes a big amount of the heat out but leaves all the depth of the pepper.
The beer is going with a beet salad with pickled fennel, Westside Popper-infused cherry, and vanilla vinaigrette. The earthiness of the pepper hits it off with the beets. The beer-infused cherries are incredibly vital to the success of this dish. They give it that 10% extra that pushes if from a good beet salad to an amazing feat in culinary genius. The coupe de gras of this dish is the black lava salt sprinkled on the salad sparingly. Every so often, you would get this incredible burst of salt along with a crunchy texture that rounds out the dish. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know that black lava salt was a thing before tonight.
I am a huge fan of beet salads, so I knew I was going to like this course, I was not prepared to love it. The slight heat from the beer is cooled down with the awesome blue cheese in the salad. I think that another reason why it works so well is that the beer is wonderfully light and crisp. There are some sweet elements in the salad that balance out by the beer making it a match in craft beer heaven.
We reach the halfway point of this tour de force of beer pairing. The third course features a beer that has never been released by Wabasha before. In talking to Brett before dinner, he says that this Grand Cru spent nine months in Alexis Bailey red wine barrels. Anytime a brewery puts a beer into barrels, they are gambling with many variables. In this case, I don’t know if the beer could have turned out any better. The body of the beer is fantastic. It is chewy and robust enough to support big flavors of toffee, raisins, figs, and dark cherries. You get tannic notes from the red wine along with a dry oak character that balance out the sweet esters of dark fruit. I have enjoyed many of the beers to come out of Wabasha Brewing, but this Grand Cru might be the best beer as far as nuance and complexity that they have ever brewed.
The servers bring out a perfectly grill-marked pork chop leaning atop a bed of hen of the woods mushrooms, salt-baked rutabaga, and sour onions. The earlier courses are highlighting bright and acidic notes. This course is showcasing umami and savory flavors. This pork chop is a distant departure from the Reebok-like ones I used to get off the grill growing up. Ah, yes, remember when your parents were convinced it had to be cooked to 165 degrees, or your face would melt off? Yes, sadly, so do I. I have been living the lie that pork chops are awful and always come out dry. Well, an experience like tonight is akin to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for my taste buds. A salty and seared crust keeps all the juiciness of the meat sequestered until I cut into it. Absolutely tender and seductive, each bite convinces me more and more that I love pork chops.
In an attempt for the perfect bite, I try to round up the onions, rutabaga, and mushroom with the pork chop to really see if anything gets overpowered. Luckily, each element of the dish enhances the other. After each bite, I take a sip of this decadent Grand Cru and it makes the food sing. So many of the fruity notes of the beer harmonize with the umami flavors of the mushroom and savory notes of the pork chop. The sour onions connect with the red wine acidity in the grand cru in a wonderful way. Between the amazing beer and the sharply conceived plate, this pairing is probably my favorite.
The Lingonberry IPA is the beer for the fourth course. This beer, specially brewed for tonight’s dinner, is paired with a scallop crudo with chive oil, cucumber water, blackened cucumbers, dill pollen, and horseradish sour cream. Visually, the dish is stunning. The scallop is topped with mini sticks of radish and is almost submerged in the refreshing and herbal green mix of the cucumber water and chive oil.
I love scallops, and have had them both cooked and raw. The raw scallop is sweet and extremely smooth. When sautéed, it takes on a smoky, almost bacon-like note. Today, my mind is receiving an education about what a smart chef can do to a culinary assumption. My brain is fully expecting a sweet and herbal bite of food that leans more towards refreshing. Instead, because of the cucumber water, radish, and chive oil, the scallop tastes rich and buttery to me. It is a polar contrast to what I thought it was going to taste like.
The Lingonberry IPA has moderate bitterness and a brightness to it. There is a little bit of a hop dryness to it that pairs wonderfully with the blackened cucumber. The blackened cucumber gives the entire experience an edge. The charred cucumber bitterness matches the hop bitterness for a quite harmonious pairing. The buttery scallop is cut by the acidity from the lingonberry. The lightness of this dish is perfect after the incredibly savory and filling pork chop.
The fifth course means that the beer dinner is almost at its finish. Thinking about all the amazing flavors and textures that Chef Jeremy has impressed us with, it is bittersweet that this night has to end. That being said, I am amazed at how satisfying everything has already been. How can things possibly get any better?
In fact, I worry that Chef Jeremy has maybe set the expectations bar so high with the first four courses that it will be damn near impossible to put the proverbial explanation point on the finish. I love that life continues to prove me wrong. Chef Jeremy did what any smart chef does when wanting to impress a diner-he baked from the heart. In this case, it is Chef Jeremy’s Grandma’s Coffee Cake that is the finisher for the night. This perfectly baked coffee cake comes majestically floating on a generous portion of caramel sauce.
Grandmas are special. They love us, spoil us, and teach us life lessons. If we are really lucky, they also leave us some of their special recipes. Jeremy’s Grandma’s coffee cake recipe is incredible. The coffee cake is the perfect ending to this meal. It is simple and perfect. It tastes familiar. This coffee cake fits so well into the architecture of this meal-not because of its flair or ostentatiousness-but because of its sophisticated simplicity. To bake something this familiar, comforting, and delicious takes balls and chops. Chef Jeremy has the confidence to pull it off.
The coffee cake is paired with a 10% ABV Imperial Stout aged in 45th Parallel Whiskey. For 10%, this Cave Stout is not extremely viscous, in fact, it is almost thin on the barrel-aged stout continuum. It possesses a huge amount of roasted malt flavors of coffeee and dark chocolate. The Wabasha Cave Stout is a perfect foil for the richness of the caramel sauce and rich cake notes of the dessert.
Getting to see this beer dinner from start to finish has been nothing short of marvelous. The amount of work that goes into ensuring this meal provides diners with a memorable experience is staggering. If you have not treated yourself to a Happy Gnome beer dinner, you need to experience this at least once. I cannot say enough great things about the staff and the beer paired with the dishes in a congruous and inventive way.
There is a reason that the Happy Gnome has been a leading stalwart of the Twin Cities for quality beer and incredible food. The Happy Gnome is perennially recognized as one of the best craft beer bars in the country. If you want to see why for yourself, check out their upcoming Apple and Brandy Pairings Dinner on October 22nd. Prost!
Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer. Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged. If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org .