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Chicagoist at the Great American Beer Festival: Of Medals And Cooking With Sai-Shan-Tea

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 20, 2010 4:00PM

One of the more surprising developments that came from the brewing of Sai-Shan-Tea was the decision of Goose Island to showcase it at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The festival has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years — this year's version sold out five weeks in advance — with an estimated 49,000 attendees.

Goose Island Clybourn pub brewer Jared Rouben was so impressed by the result of Sai-Shan-Tea that he convinced Goose Island to enter the beer for medal consideration at the festival. Because of the inclusion of Rare Tea Cellar's Emperor's Lemon Meritage tea in the brewing, the beer was entered as one of 43 entries in the "experimental beer" category, where it came up short of medaling. (The full list of winners is available here.)

While neither Rouben, Rare Tea Cellar's Rod Markus nor myself thought that the beer was a certainty to medal, we did hope that the beer would at least be well-received by the wider audience of brewing professionals and beer geeks. There was, however, one change to the beer. When Goose Island entered Sai-Shan-Tea at GABF, they changed the name to "Goose-A-Peel" - it's still "Sai-Shan-Tea" at the brewpub. I didn't find this out until Thursday, when Rouben and I went to the Colorado Convention Center to fill some growlers for a presentation he was working on with Sean Paxton, the California-based "Homebrew Chef" who's been known to prepare marathon beer dinners across the country; Paxton was the chef behind the World Beer Cup's brewmaster's dinner this year.

"When I do my dinners," Paxton said, "the reason I make them 12-courses is because I want your attention." Rouben and Paxton were introduced to each other during World Beer Cup by beer writer and Cicerone program founder Ray Daniels, and hit it off immediately due to their shared histories as brewers and chefs.

In the months between World Beer Cup and GABF, Rouben and Paxton kept in touch and eventually planned a presentation for GABF focusing on cooking with beer. Rouben, Markus and I approached brewing Sai-Shan-Tea as a beer that would also pair well with food. I recently had a glass of Sai-Shan-Tea with Goose Island's "Black Earth" burger, which worked very well with the goat cheese in the dish. It seemed academic when Rouben forwarded the recipes Paxton created with beer as an ingredient that Sai-Shan-Tea could also be used for cooking. Paxton developed recipes for goat cheese tart with Sai-Shan-Tea poached apricots, and short ribs braised in Sgt. Peppercorn, a coffee stout spiced with Szechuan peppercorns that I previously tasted with Rouben during a February visit to the brewpub.

Paxton hadn't tasted Sai-Shan-Tea until prep day. "As a chef, I have to be able to trust my own palate," Paxton said. "With Jared's background as a chef and the way he described the beer to me, I already had an idea of what I wanted to cook." Paxton cited the dominant citrus of Sai-Shan-Tea as something he could use to poach the apricots for the tart, as well as work with the tangy flavor of goat cheese. Similarly, when he first tasted Sgt. Peppercorn at the brewpub in April, he immediately knew he wanted to use the beer as an ingredient in a short rib dish. "With Szechuan peppercorns, a little goes a long way," Paxton said. "That's a flavor that, to me, just screams autumn: a time for hearty comfort food.

"We eat seasonal," Paxton continued, "for me, it's only logical that we choose our beer based on seasonality. I'm not going to drink a kolsch in the dead of winter. And I'm not going to drink this stout in the middle of summer."

I entered the kitchen at the Marriott Denver's All-American Grill to find Rouben and Paxton doing prep work for their presentation along with Chef Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore's in Washington, DC. Folkman was filleting sirloin for steak tartare:his presentation, which followed Rouben's and Paxton's, was about pairing food with Belgian beers. Paxton was busy mixing a dry rub for the short ribs while Rouben was slicing onions, shallots and leeks. Even though I knew Rouben started out as a chef, it was still a bit of a shock to find him slicing onions with long practiced, near-perfect knife strokes. He sliced a three-pound bag of onions in the amount of time it takes me to slice a half-pound.

"When I met Sean and found out his background, I became very excited to want to work with him, because we have similar views as to how beer should be used with food, not only as a pairing, but as an ingredient in cooking," Rouben said. Paxton added, "For me, cooking with beer is more than just adding a can to some chili. When someone like Jared, who brings a chef's sensibility to brewing, bringing these beers for me to use, it further inspires me to create something unique."

Later that evening during their presentation, Rouben and Paxton repeated what they told me in the Marriott to a standing room only audience at GABF that included Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall, Senior Brewer Wil Turner and former Flossmoor Station brewmaster Mat Van Wyk, now at Oregon's Oakshire Brewing. The goat cheese tart was good, with the apricots poached in Sai-Shan-Tea reduced down to a thickened puree atop the tart. The revelation was the short rib. The peppercorns in the beer provided a nice spice and Paxton added a serious umami with onions, leeks, carrots and shitake mushrooms.

Both beer pairings worked perfectly, but both Rod Markus and I admitted later to each other over dinner the thrill of seeing the attendees who packed the presentation nodding and approving of our beer, presented in a manner with food we felt was ideal.