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Road Tripping: Visiting New Holland With Paul Kahan, Part 1

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 15, 2009 3:20PM

“Cooking with beer is a little new for me.” To hear a chef say such a thing would be surprise enough. That the chef admitting this was Paul Kahan made me take even more notice.

Kahan uttered those words nearly 20 minutes into a menu planning session at New Holland Brewing in Holland, MI. One Sunday each month the Publican pairs selected beers from one brewery with their family-style Sunday dinner, at a cost of around $60. Given the portion size of many of the Publican’s menu items, that price is one of the best deals in the city. For a late winter dinner featuring Three Floyds, Kahan and Michael McAvena, the 25-year-old director of the Publican’s beer program, brewed a dunkelweiss redolent of bananas and spices they dubbed “Banana Split 7-Inch” for the dinner. In addition to having the restaurant and brewery collaborate for these dinners, one of McAvena’s goals with collaborative brewing is to develop a library of beers from watershed moments of the restaurant’s history; the remaining dunkelweiss was the beginning of that. Over two days in Holland I found that Kahan is very receptive and encouraging of McAvena’s ideas.

The Publican/Three Floyds collaboration was so well-received that Kahan and McAvena began discussions in March with New Holland partner/“Beervangelist” Fred Bueltmann and brewmaster John Haggerty about brewing another beer for a dinner scheduled for August 23. The Publican’s beer dinners usually draw around 80 covers. With a camera crew filming most of Kahan’s moves and the expected press leading up to the New Holland dinner, Kahan and McAvena were estimating anywhere between 120 to 140 covers.

For the New Holland dinner, Haggerty, inspired by discussions with Kahan and McAvena (an avid homebrewer), developed a recipe for a bière de garde, a French country ale intended for consumption later in the year after a period of aging. August will bring forth a treasure trove of in-season produce and Kahan already had a dish in mind for this bière de garde: sanddabs with artichokes, sweetbreads, corn and brown butter.

This menu planning session, held after a Haggerty-led tour of New Holland’s brewing operations, served to formalize the other four courses and their beer pairings, and to give Kahan and Bueltmann an opportunity to get to know each other a little better. “When you go to a standard beer dinner, they often feel forced with the patter between the chef and brewer,” Kahan said at the meeting. “A family-style dinner means that it’s great to stretch things out over one dinner, so both the chef and brewer can walk around and better engage the diners.”

Bueltmann offered words of caution when discussion turned to actually incorporating beers into the cooking of the dishes, another common misstep at beer dinners in the hands of a less-experienced chef. “High-hopped beers can be trouble in the kitchen when you heat them. So can stouts, because bitterness can sneak into the food,” Bueltmann warned.

With the bière de garde/sanddab pairing set, Kahan, Bueltmann, McAvena and Haggerty began hashing out the other four courses and beers. Notes were passed out recapping the beers tasted at the March meeting. Bueltmann opened and poured two vintages of Blue Sunday, a wild sour ale New Holland brews once a year to commemorate the brewery’s anniversary. Blue Sunday 11 was aged in bourbon barrels, giving it a darker color and some warm sugar notes, while Blue Sunday 12 was a straight sour ale, lighter in color but with more acidity. Kahan was thinking of suckling pig with heirloom apples, Tuscan kale and guanciale. Bueltmann thought that the acidity of Blue Sunday 12 would match the apples perfectly.

The other courses quickly started to fall into place. New Holland’s Golden Cap saison will be served with pickled Calabrese chiles, grilled cheeses and tomatoes. Kahan had some of the chiles on hand from Chicago to taste with the beer. Country ham and peaches will be paired with Charkoota, a smoked rye doppelbock. New Holland’s Full Circle kolsch was named the reception beer.

For the final course, Bueltmann suggested that Kahan consider New Holland’s Pilgrim’s Dole wheatwine. “We think this is a very unique beer whose potential with food is untapped and limitless”, Bueltmann said. Tasting the caramel and yeast notes of Pilgrim’s Dole for the first time, Kahan’s eyes began to gleam. Suddenly he’s talking in staccato, listing off a litany of foods for the beer: “dried figs, ricotta, graham crackers. This beer is amazing!” Kahan exclaimed. Bueltmann nodded in agreement.

After nearly 90 minutes of tasting and discussion, an ambitious-but-simple five-course menu was in place. Glasses were raised to toast and we headed back to New Holland’s brewpub for dinner. This initial back-and-forth set the foundation for Kahan and Bueltmann to bridge whatever gap was between them over the following two days in Holland. The next step was for Kahan and McAvena to brew the bière de garde the following day.