The following is a guest post, written by a good friend of mine, Ryan Conaughty. I met Ryan while he was studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at SUNY Brockport. He’s taught me a lot about craft beer and has been a huge supporter of this site since it’s inception. If you enjoy his writing, I recommend checking out his bike journal titled,TransAm Blues, wherein he tells the story of the time he rode his bicycle across the whole freaking country, by himself. He’s a great writer, a great friend, and he knows a whole lot more about beer than I do. Enjoy!
In a small room just big enough to fit a stack of menus, a touchscreen cash register, and a pop machine; I try to conduct an interview with Scott Donnelly, owner of Donnelly’s Public House in Fairport, NY. It’s not easy. I have a list of questions that I want to ask him about beer, food, and Rochester, among other things, but we’re having a hard time communicating. People keep interrupting us. They’re shaking Scott’s hand, smiling, and telling him how much they enjoyed the dinner he and his team just presented. Words like “fantastic”, “excellent”, “unbelievable”, and “amazing” are all words they use. My favorite quote came from my girlfriend, as I pointed to her almost-full glass of Dogfish Head’s My Antonia, she smiled, putting her fork down from her Bourbon County Marinated Pork Loin stuffed with weaved bacon, horseradish, and aged 4-year Maple leaf cheddar cheese and said, “Sorry. The food is so good, I forgot I was drinking beer!”
“That’s our goal,” Scott says, “to ‘WOW’ people.”, when I ask him if he considers this reaction an indication of success for the two-night, sold-out event. “Tonight and every other Beer and Bites, I think, represents my business model: to, in a way, under promise and over deliver. I mean, Tom Willis, our head chef and I talked about the soup for literally two hours just to get it right. My opinion? I think this was the best 5 course beer dinner we’ve ever done.” The smiles on everyone’s faces serve as a testament to the kitchen and wait staff: the meal was prepared, delivered, and paired perfectly.
People trust us. They trust that we’ll do a good job and treat them right. I want them to say ‘Donnelly’s knows their shit’. I mean, this whole beer dinner idea is, from a business standpoint, a failure by design. We don’t make money from this at all. But that’s not the point of hosting them and bringing all these great people together. It’s about the experience that good beer and great food offers. People know that we’re gonna take care of them when they come here, be it a Tuesday for lunch, a Sunday watching the game, or a five course pairing dinner. We’ve got pretty good beer, too.
I’d say that 30 taps of constantly rotating craft beer is better than “pretty good.” I ask him about our city and its rise as a prominent beer scene.
Rochester makes good beer, that’s a given: Three Heads, Roc Brewing, Rohrbach, among others. The cool thing is that the beer industry wants to contribute to this scene, which in turn puts Rochester in the limelight. Ballast Point Brewing, out of San Diego, just sent two guys in a refrigerated truck, driving in two, twelve hour shifts, just to deliver their beer here as fresh as possible. They didn’t have to do that. That brewery wanted us to know, as beer drinkers and as a city, that Rochester is a prime craft beer destination. They respect what is happening here and what we’re doing. Rochester has the potential to become Portland if we want to.
Dem Jones, Rochester Beer Ambassador and frequent Beer and Bites host, agrees. “I’m glad we have a place like this just outside the city. Anytime I’m here, whether it’s for a pairing, a tasting, or just a pint with friends, I’m constantly on Twitter, letting everyone know that I’m here. People have to know about this place. I mean, I think it’s one of the premiere beer bars on the east side of Rochester. When I walk in here, I’m comfortable, I feel welcome, and I know I can get a great selection of fantastic craft beer. And the food? Dude, I’m still thinking about that desert!”
The dessert he’s referring to is a bacon butter pecan ice cream loaded with chopped bacon and chocolate covered bits, served on a bacon and chocolate chip Belgian waffle and topped with a butter rum drizzle, garnished with a piece of chocolate covered bacon.
(You can read that again when you’re alone. I won’t tell anyone.)
Scott asks what I thought of the third course: grilled pork belly, a gorgeous piece of perfectly prepared pork served over a brown sugar raspberry coulis, topped with watercress and Parmesan crisps. It was paired with Duchesse De Bourgogne, a Flanders red ale. I tell him it was wonderful but what I really want to say is that it made me reconsider my appreciation for pairing food and beer. I now see the beauty of what beer can do for food and vice versa. Events like this are about showcasing beer, whether it’s for veteran craft beer aficionados or novice beer drinkers, just beginning to explore the big, welcoming world of craft beer. Of course, it’s about the food too. A good beer pairing should include a menu that complements, punctuates, and enhances your appreciation of beer. But they also create an opportunity for great chefs to create food that speaks for itself, through the creativity and passion that guys like Tom Willis possess, a good beer pairing dinner should be just as much about the food as it is about the beer. Before Beers & Bites, I didn’t truly understand. I never really appreciated how to pair food with beer until I took the last bite of ice cream and washed it down with a smooth sip of Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout.
“I think I get it now!” I say, as I savor the remnants of that last bite. Throughout the meal, I try to contain how excited I am that I am finally experiencing how the right beer can change and compliment the flavor of food. Crispin Artisanal Reserve LansDowne Cider is great on its own; a bright, clean, and sweet sipper. But paired with a creamy, roasted apple and prime Kurobuta bacon bisque, it is otherworldly. Take the warm spinach and Frisée salad, topped with perfectly grilled smoked duck breast with a warm bacon dressing and orange segment garnish… That bacon dressing was full, I mean full, of a rich tartness that let the smokey, oiliness of the duck shine. The salad complemented itself to the point where I didn’t even want a beer. Then I drank some Orval Trappist Ale.
Have you ever eaten, or had something to drink, something that makes you close your eyes and smile? Maybe just hold that bite in your mouth a little longer than you know is socially acceptable? That’s what happened to me. That’s what can happen when you know how to pair food and beer, and that is what I discovered. That’s what Chef Tom Willis and Scott Donnelly are able to do, what they continue to do, with their Beer & Bites beer pairing dinners.
“ We’ve had requests from customers at previous pairings, for items they’ve had to become staples on the menu. I think that really shows what we can do and what we’re capable of. I, personally, like the idea of putting the popcorn on the menu.” He’s talking about rendered bacon fat popcorn tossed with butter, Parmesan cheese, and bacon dust… I like that idea, too.
So what’s next? “There’s talk of an airline themed menu,” Scott says, “people would be seated close together in rows, just like an airplane; meals would be served like you get on the plane, too. Diner food, maybe, I like that idea. We’re kicking around the idea of having a ‘spoon-centered’ menu, where everything has to be eaten by spoon only.”
Whatever the folks at Donnelly’s decide to do next, you can bet it will be great. So keep an eye out for more in the Beer & Bites series, along with other specials and events. I’ll see you there!