Every year during the holiday season the folks at Rock Bottom in Minneapolis unleash their chefs and let them do a beer-pairing dinner extravaganza. I have been to this dinner several times over the last few years and all have been a lot of fun. I was really interested in this year's event because I wanted a chance to test out the new head chef (Raphael) and the new brew master (Pio). Our Rock Bottom has had a lot of changes over the past couple years, being bought out by Craftworks being the largest of these. Partially due to changes in policy at that time, the old brew master Bryon Tonnis left for greener pastures (Duluth). Assistant brewer (and crazy vegan) Peter Mack stayed on and they brought in Sherlock's Home alumni Bob Mackenzie as head brewer. Just when the two of them seemed to be hitting their stride, Bob left for Cold Spring/Third Street Brewhouse, and Peter ended up at Town Hall. Like some kind of soap opera isn't it? The new brewer is Tim Piotrowski, or Pio, originally from Wisconsin, but living in Colorado most recently. I'm not sure who he angered to get sent out to the icy gulag of Minnesota, but he seems to be settling in nicely.
Back to Rock Bottom. After the Craftworks buy-out there have been some changes. All the Rock Bottoms have the same four flagship beers brewed to the same recipe but possibly different in taste due to the different water and equipment from brewery to brewery. Beyond that it seems like the brew master has some free reign to do seasonals and experimental beers. Recently the Mug Club card has been changed from on high as well. Previously it was based on visits and one could accumulate growler cozies, hats, shirts and my own personal goal of the barbecue tool set. Now all the progress one has made toward that goal is scraped clean and it will be based on how much you spend at the restaurant. I believe that the rewards are no longer items, but gift certificates to the restaurant. Probably makes more sense from a restaurant/corporate stand-point, but we beer folks like our swag. I'm also sad that they no longer will be counting pints drunk towards getting your name on a plaque mounted on a big keg on the bar side.
After the above mentioned changes I've seen some drop in interest for RB from the beer people I know, and have even had some such thoughts myself. As a beer geek and homebrewer, I want variation and ingenuity in the beers I drink. I want the brewer to make the beer he/she wants to make and not what a corporation thinks will be liked by more non-craft beer drinkers. I view Rock Bottom as a brewpub, not a restaurant that happens to make beer. On the other hand I realize that most brewpubs live or die by the food they sell, so that is a vital component of the business.
The beer dinner was a nice way to try some of the chef's new ideas and to taste a bunch of the new beers paired to contrast or compliment those foods. I was at RB not too long ago, but several of the beers on tap were left over from the previous brewers and I wasn't sure which were from Pio and which were older. By now, all the beers on tap are from Pio's hand and I got a good sampling of them over the night. Sj and I were slightly late due to our one hour commute, but they caught us up quickly with a large glass of Kolsch and a lamb crostini on arrival. We settled into a couple of open seats and met some very fun people over dinner. Lots of homebrewers in the house! We also got to sit next to Pio's girlfriend (dragged from the balmy land of California originally) who was very fun to talk to and hang out with. She filled us in a bit while Pio was spending time socializing with the other tables.
The appetizer course came out next, consisting of amazing green mussels steamed with the RB White Ale and spicy jalapeno butter. This was my favorite dish of the night and probably the best mussels I've ever had. This should go on the regular menu. The pairing was a good one since the beer was the base of the broth the mussels were served in. I don't tend to drink wheat beers since they often give me migraines, so I didn't drink much of this one.
Between each course Pio talked passionately about the beers and the thought behind the pairing. He is a young man who obviously loves what he does and takes pride in his beers. For me it makes all the difference getting to meet and discuss beer with a particular brewer.
A butternut squash bisque was next, made and paired with the Sunday Bloody Sunday Irish Red ale. A good soup, and the pairing was nice. The beer was quite dry but not in a bad way. I find that style is often overly sweet and carmel-like and the dry finish on this made you want to keep drinking it.
Salad course was an enormous grilled Belgian endive served over a Nut Brown balsamic reduction with gorgonzola cheese and pickled red onions. The endive was a bit too big and didn't really get soft enough from grilling, but the flavors were great. The version of Big Horn Brown was significantly different from the old one. It used to be sweetish with an English character, but now is dry and a bit roasty. If I didn't know better I'd be tempted to call it a light porter. Don't get me wrong here, I really liked it, but simply quite different from the old version.
The main course was a roasted duck breast and leg glazed with a Belgian IPA and orange glaze that really played well with the beer pairing. I am a professed hater of the Belgian IPA style, but this one was restrained and among the better examples of this heinous travesty of beer style. I did drink the whole glass which should tell you something.
The nemesis to my lactose intolerant gut came out next. Beemster 18 month aged Gouda cheese. Strong nutty flavor with crunchy crystals make this a wonderful and tasty cheese. Worth the risk. The pairing on this one was probably the best of the night. Served alongside a vanilla flavored Winter Tartan Scottish Ale. This one was a bit sweet, but not cloying.
To cap off the dinner we had a chai molten lava cake topped with a cardamom whipped cream and salted caramel. The pairing with the Coconut Chai Stout was very pleasant. This version of the famed MPLS RB beer was different, but I think Pio did a very good job of making this beer his own. Dryer than the sweet original, this one seems a bit more like an Irish stout. That may have been accentuated by putting it up against such a decadently sweet dessert though. I liked the mix of chai spice flavors in both the beer and the cake.
Overall this was a very nice way to spend a Tuesday night. I would make it a point to get to next year's dinner, and hopefully Pio is here to stay for a while! Here is looking for no more RB brewer upheavals over the next few years. If you haven't tried out Rock Bottom since Pio and Raphael took over, I would recommend a trip out there. I also hope that RB gets past its growing pains and the company will find a good balance between the beer/brewery aspect and the bar/restaurant portion. You can't find a much better place to hang out for a pint after a show at the Orpheum or State Theaters.