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Drinking Well

"all the beer that's fit to drink..."

Asparagus & Belgian Tripel

by Donavan Hall

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One of the beautiful things about belonging to a CSA or even just growing a few veggies in a suburban garden is reconnecting with the seasons.  One of my favorite vegetables is asparagus, so its a comforting pleasure when Winter gives way to Spring and I start to see those bundles of asparagus on the roadside stands out on the North Fork.  Those succulent green spears are the harbinger of the bounty to come.  As much as I like asparagus I couldn't possibly eat them at any other time of year and risk losing the magic.

Since I brew beer and have been reading and writing about beer for a number of years I understand the concept of brewing and drinking with the seasons.  With all the variety of beer styles available to today's American beer drinker, pairing the ideal beer with a seasonal dish is a little easier than it used to be when industrial-scale production enforced a beer monoculture of bland hay-colored lagers.

Brewing with the seasons has much to do with making use of the available raw materials, such as grain and hops, that ripen, flower, and fruit throughout the year.  Also, drinking with the season comes with our natural desire for stronger more contemplative beers in the cooler months, and lighter more thirst quenching beers in the warmer summer months.

Pairing choices also influence drinking with the seasons.   Certain food dishes are best complemented by a certain style of beer.  Thus, if you eat with the seasons, you'll begin (naturally) to drink with the seasons.

Back to asparagus.  For the beer enthusiast, asparagus is one of those exciting foods (along with cheese) that prove beer's worth as a meal companion.  The wine enthusiast will certainly try to tell you that asparagus and cheese are fine complements to a fine wine, but open a bottle of Westmalle Tripel to pair with a plate of sautéed asparagus some time this Spring.  You might be surprised just how versatile beer can be.

Since I'm a local beer advocate and I want to encourage people to drink beer from breweries as close to home as possible, I'll give you a recommendation for a local beer that with pair perfectly with Flemish Asparagus: Southampton Triple Abbey-style Ale.  You'll find those in 22 oz. bottles at the better beer stores.  (If you need some help finding those stores, check out my Long Island beer guide.)

One thing you should notice is that this dish, the Flemish Asparagus, and the Abbey-style or Belgian-style Tripel are geographically related as well.  Both the dish and the beer style trace their origins to Belgium.  Beers and food from the same geographical region will often make the best pairings.  This shouldn't be a surprising assertion since regional beer styles were developed using ingredients grown in the same area as the foods they pair best with.  Locally brewed craft beers will reflect better the terroir of their region.  Take the example of Flemish asparagus and Belgian Tripel.  The water used to irrigate the asparagus will have a similar mineral content as the water used to brew the beer.  The grain and hops might have even shared the same field with the asparagus.

While we can get Long Island grown asparagus, the only ingredient in the Southampton Triple Abbey-style Ale that would be local is the water.  In reality only the Southampton Triple you drink from the tap at the Publick House in Southampton will be using real Long Island water.  The 22 oz. bottles of Southampton Triple have all been brewed at a larger brewing facility upstate.  As for the barley malt and the hops, those ingredients are all industrially grown and shipped to the local brewery.  Maybe someday that will change, but presently barley is not malted on Long Island in any quantity that would be useful to even a microbrewery.  Hops, however, are becoming more common.  Chris of the Garden of Eve told me a couple of weeks ago that he planted hop rhizomes.  Within a year or two, hopefully, the Garden of Eve should have their own hop crop.

The only way to get the perfect Belgian-style Tripel that reflects the terroir of Long Island is to brew the beer yourself with barley you've malted yourself using locally grown hops -- a project that is probably beyond most people's practical interest.  However, it's the sort of project that really captures the imagination of a small-scale brewer like myself.

The Belgian Tripel is a great style of beer to drink at this time of year.  It's higher alcohol content (typically 7 to 8% ABV) will provide a little warmth during our still cool spring evenings.  But this alcohol warmth is balanced by a crispness of flavor and a satisfying (almost champagne-like) effervescence.  Opening a bottle of Tripel on a spring evening is a celebration of the coming of the season, and when paired with asparagus, it's a delight.

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