Pairings: Victory Golden Monkey and Carbonara
The primary audience for Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table may be beer enthusiasts who are looking to find new flavors in their beers through the magic of pairings. I, on the other hand, approached the book as a food enthusiast and cheap wine drinker who had always been curious about beer but never bothered to “get into it”. So where most of Oliver’s readers might look up a beer they love in search of a food will heighten the experience of drinking it, I usually run into a food that I want to make and then seek out beer that will go with it. All credit to Oliver that this book can serve both approaches very well.
I have enough culinary curiosity to consider most of Oliver’s pairing suggestions, but it was as I was reading the chapter on Belgian-style ales that one dish in particular jumped off the page: pasta carbonara. This dish did not stand out to me because it is exotic or technically difficult; no, it appealed because of my long history with carbonara, going back to my youngest memories. There are certain dishes that, when I was younger, my mom would make with regularity and carbonara was one of them (at least until my dad rebelled). Although I don’t like to repeat dishes for the most part, in carbonara I take after my mom and make this at least every two months. I think it’s a great pasta sauce in its own right, but I am sure my childhood memories play some role in my regular enjoyment of it.
And what’s better than nostalgia for youth? Nostalgia for youth with beer! Really strong beer. The beer that Oliver recommends specifically with pasta carbonara is one Golden Monkey, as brewed by Victory Brewing Company of Downington, PA:
…a bottle conditioned pale orange beer with an eager carbonation. The nose is rich and distinctly Belgian—oranges, spices and hops in a nicely meshed interplay. The American influences shows up front—a thin whack of hops wakes up the palate. Then Belgium takes over and drives this beer through a dry, full-bodied fruity center and a graceful dry finish.
I don’t know why but almost every beer I’ve been drinking lately has been pretty orange and this was actually not so crazy orange, but certainly somewhat orange:
I am still having trouble remembering to take a big pretentious whiff of my beer before tasting it, so I can’t comment on the nose. Otherwise, though, my own tasting notes agree completely with Oliver, although not expressed so precisely. This tasted first and foremost like an ale (surprise!), by which I mean it was fruity and floral and just a little hoppy, not very bitter and even with a light sweetness. There is definitely something citrusy in there too, but all the flavors were nicely balanced and subtle. Nothing overwhelming about this beer, and that is a good thing.
Since carbonara is so fundamental to my life experience it seems a little odd to describe its flavors, but for the sake of the uninitiated and the logical structure of this post I will try. The first thing you should know about carbonara is that it is bacony. Probably the original recipe called for guanciale, which isn’t smoked, but since this is America, damnit, I use smokey bacon that contributes its hazy, sweet porkiness to the dish. Beyond the bacon, the other flavors are perhaps more subtle; a slight sweetness from the bacon and the milk and a little bit of sour dryness from grated Parmigiano Reggiano (ok, Grana Padano). This is also a very rich dish thanks to: bacon fat, butter, whole milk and eggs. If this sounds like breakfast pasta that’s more or less correct; I would in fact happily take this over most breakfasts.
After my shrimp salad experience I was a little skeptical of Oliver’s pairing genius, but this combination redeemed him a thousandfold (maybe even a millionfold). It was PERFECT. The slight sweetness of the pasta was balanced by the very subtle bitter hoppiness of the beer just as the beer’s own sweet-fruitiness helped to enliven some of the musky flavors of the cheese in the pasta. All that fat in the sauce has a way of coating your mouth and a spritzy beer is great for cutting through that fat, refreshing your palate and getting you ready for more. The beer’s relative lightness was also a huge asset; carbonara’s sweet, light flavors would be overwhelmed by an intensely malty beer (or, God forbid, red wine) but this beer had just the right weight to stand up to the flavors in the pasta without overwhelming them. Each bite and the swallow of beer that followed it created a perfect balance such that one could hardly imagine one without the other.
I have not yet felt so strongly after trying a beer with a food that I would say everybody needs to try it, but that’s how I feel now. Golden Monkey seems to be widely distributed, so you should be able to find it. Pasta carbonara could not be much easier to make and you probably have everything for it in the fridge. The recipe I use comes from Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet (in fact this is the only recipe I use from this book). I’m providing it here so you have no excuse not to try this. You’ll need:
- 1/4# Bacon, chopped or sliced thin
- 1/4# Butter (can use less if you are planning to see old age)
- 1 c whole milk (whole milk curdles less than skim when you add acid to it, which you are about to, so whole results in a smoother sauce. Skim can be used, however)
- 2 T Wine vinegar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and Pepper
- 1# pasta (spaghetti is best but almost anything works)
Bring a lot of seawater (or your closest imitation of it using salt and tap water) to a boil. While it’s heating, fry the bacon until it just starts to get crispy and heat the milk to just below a simmer in a small saucepan. At this point, determine your risk for heart disease and drain or do not drain most of that sweet, sweet bacon fat. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the butter and bacon to the milk. Add the vinegar, which will curdle the milk, and stir. Simmer the sauce for about 20 minutes; hopefully it will become a little more smooth. When the water is boiling add the pasta and cook until al dente. Lightly beat the eggs together. When the pasta is ready, drain it, then toss it in a bowl with the sauce, the eggs, the cheese and salt and plenty of pepper. Serve it, passing the pepper grinder and additional cheese at the table.