It's a blast from the past today at Beer Vs. Beer Vs. Beer. The Belgian-style White ale (1-0) from Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewing will be defending its crown, but it'll have to do so against a past winner here, because we're bringing back Samuel Smith India Ale (2-1). The English IPA, you might recall, took down four strong contenders before falling to Saison Dupont last month. Also entering the mix is a newcomer: Spaten Oktoberfest.
Beer 1: Allagash White (1-0) The winters are awful, but I do miss New England's craft beers, and Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewing is one of the best. Allagash is an interesting case: way back in 1995, founder Rob Tod chose to eschew German and English beer styles to focus on bottle-conditioned ales in the Belgian tradition. Their White ale, made in the style of a witbier, is a must-have in warm weather. It pours a light yellow with a sizable head. The aromas and taste are a luscious blend of cloves, lemon, and banana. The hops come across in the sharpness and acidity of the finish rather than any bitter notes.
Beer 2: Samuel Smith India Ale (2-1) If you know my taste in beer well, you probably know about my antipathy toward many American IPAs. To my palate, the hoppy bitterness in the Yankee style tends to overwhelm everything else the beer has to offer; to quote Ron Burgundy, "it's quite pungent. Stings the nostrils." For some people, the smell of pure gasoline is the smell of desire. For the rest of us, it's unfortunate that most American beer drinkers aren't familiar with the classic British style of IPAs, of which Samuel Smith's is an excellent example. Rather than overwhelm you with a riot of grapefruit aromas and flavors, the India Ale uses smoother, milder hops as a counter to the higher-than-normal alcohol. The hop notes here are smoky rather than fruity, and the beer is balanced, with a long, pleasant finish.
Beer 3: Spaten Oktoberfest One of the originators of the Oktoberfest-Marzen style in Munich, Spaten is one of the few Oktober beers that's available year-round. While it's obviously not as cool to pour it out of a green bottle at home compared to the authentic experience in the Old World, the Ur-Marzen is still a fine lager. It pours out a honey-copper color with the classic aroma of sweet German malts. In the mouth, it's surprisingly full-bodied, with a variety of sweet notes clipped by sharp (but not bitter) hops.
Our Dish In keeping with the bringing-back-the-old theme, I decided to make a dish that diligent readers will be familiar with: veal-style tuna. The recipe here is easy and delicious: take a few tuna steaks, chop them into smaller cutlets, then dredge them in flour, beaten eggs, and corn flake crumbs. After that, you simply cook on both sides in some melted butter and olive oil, and then garnish with some parsley and lemon juice. The result combines the firm texture of the tuna with crispy breading. To complement it, I cooked up a spaghetti squash as well.
Tasting the White ale This is an incredible pairing. The sweet malts in the beer are wondrous in combination with the sweetness of the squash. Yet the Allagash also has enough acidity to tackle the oils in the tuna, allowing the fish to offer flavor to the palate before stepping in to refresh it.
Tasting the India Ale The juxtaposition is a bit of a problem for the IPA. As was the case last time I combined this beer with this tuna preparation, the crispiness of the fish is an excellent match to the smooth hops in the Sam Smith. Unfortunately, the squash presents a problem; this beer has no real answer for a simple, sweet vegetable. It just doesn't taste good to have both in your mouth.
Tasting the Oktoberfest The Spaten suffers from the opposite problem. In combination with the squash, this beer is incredible: it tastes better with sweet food than it does alone. Yet when presented with the fish, its hops are too soft and its acidity too timid to stand the test.
The Decision All three beers have their charms in this pairing, but the verdict is clear: unlike Samuel Smith India Ale (2-2) and Spaten Oktoberfest (0-1), which struggle with the range of flavors presented in this food pairing, Allagash White (2-0) has both the vibrant flavors and the backbone to accommodate that range. At least so far, there's nothing this beer can't do.