Pairings: Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier and Roasted Vegetable-Quinoa Salad
When Surly Hell was released last week, I prepared myself for what would be my one opportunity to try it (it sold out very quickly) by reading up on the style. ‘Hell’ is German for ‘light’ or ‘pale’, and according to my sage for all things beer, Garrett Oliver, the Helles style was developed as the Bavarian answer to the popularity of Bohemian pilsner. Traditional Bavarian lager was dark and with deeper flavor, Hellesbier was pale, golden and crisp. I found Surly Hell to fit the bill for this style exactly. While it was not a particularly unique beer, it was an excellent one — refreshing and actually quite fun to drink. It’s a shame the production was so limited.
But even if I’ll never get to drink it again, Surly Hell got me interested in Helles beers. On my most recent trip to the Four Firkins, the Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier caught my eye. When I mentioned to the clerk that I was interested in this beer after trying Hell, he told me that this would be totally different. As it turns out, the Schlenkerla Brewery in Bamberg, the brewer of the Helles in question, is famous for a different beer: smokebeer. Smokebeer is made by smoking the barley malt before brewing. While the Helles I was in the process of buying is not smoked, it’s made with the same equipment as smokebeer, so it has a lot of residual smokiness. I’m not one to be dissuaded at the cash register: smoky Helles it was.
Trying the beer, I can’t say I agree with the clerk about it being totally different from Hell. The underlying beer was quite similar: crisp and sprightly, light-bodied and refreshing. But then there was the smoke. Even though the beer was not smoked, the smoke flavor was fairly strong; a bit like the flavor you got from smelling burning alder or cedar as you smoke a trout (for example). The flavor was not so strong as to drown out everything else that was going on with the beer, but the flavor of smoke was unmistakably there.
What to eat with this golden smoky beer? Barbecue, obviously. But what if you don’t have a grill? Well, then you need to get creative. I was looking for something that would match the smoke in the beer, but, lacking the capacity to actually make smoke, I thought a deep roasting might do the trick. I cut summer squash, zucchini and eggplant from the farmers’ market into large chunks, salted them and let them sit in the colander for an hour to exude some water. I then added a coarsely chopped onion and tossed everything in oil, salt and pepper. I placed everything on a half-sheet pan in the oven for about a half an hour until the vegetables were deeply browned and starting to burn. B
Once the roasted vegetables had cooled slightly, I tossed them with cooked quinoa, big chunks of heirloom tomatoes (these tomatoes were so good off the vine that it seemed a shame to roast them; that would be a good option for improving inferior tomatoes), minced parsley and a lemon vinaigrette (lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper). I thought the zippiness of the beer would be complimented by a lemony salad. And since Helles is so light and refreshing, I had some leeway to make the salad richer, which I accomplished with 4 oz of crumbled goat cheese that immediately became melted goat cheese.
For all the thought that went into constructing the salad around the beer, this pairing was a dud. I thought the Helles aspects of the beer worked well with the pockets of fresh tomato in the salad, the acid of the lemon juice, and as relief from the rich goat cheese. But there was nothing in the salad that could do anything with the beer’s smoke. Roasted vegetables, as much as I might want them to, do not taste smoky — they taste sweet. Perhaps grilling the vegetables over charcoal would fix this problem, but for me that is not an option. After trying the beer, the choice of barbecue seemed so obvious: drinking this beer would be like adding liquid smoke to the barbecue sauce; there would be total continuity between the food and the beer. In fact it’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing.
As for the salad, I don’t think the idea of pairing with a traditional Helles is a bad one; it was the smoke that was so off-putting. Perhaps if they make another batch of Surly Hell I’ll make this salad again to celebrate.
This was a good beer and a good salad, they just weren’t very good together. Such is the magic of pairings.