TIDES & TABLES: Artisan beers inspire cuisine at Fort George Brewery

Coast Weekend

A magical fusion happens when flavors of wine and food come together.

It's like music - with harmonic flavors, counterpoints, staccato notes, pauses, drum rolls ... all evolving on the palate. So, while I have experienced and written about many great food and wine pairings over the years, I confess to being a novice when it comes to matching beer with food.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a brewmaker's dinner at Fort George Brewery in Astoria, where I was excited to see if beer and food could create the chemistry that food and wine share. It's true. It is also true that beer can and does pair beautifully with the right foods.

In January, Fort George Brewery hosted a dinner featuring Indian cuisine paired with a selection of IPAs (India Pale Ales) from the West Coast. According to owners Chris Nemlowill and Jack Harris, IPA was created near the end of the 18th century, during the British occupation of India. Brewed with lots of hops (the fragrant vine vital to beer making) and high alcohol content, the Brits found that this beer would preserve well, enabling it to survive the month-long ship rides to India.

To contrast the bitterness and delicate fruit of India Pale Ales, Chef Dana McCauley chose the hot spices of Indian food. With Indian music playing in the background, a spicy eggplant dip served with charbroiled naan (flatbread made by the Blue Scorcher Bakery next door), paired with a Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic Brewing, got the evening started. Served in a brandy snifter, the molasses-colored beer was thick, rich and malty, with notes of coffee and spice - a "wine lover's" beer. It balanced out the heat and earthiness of the eggplant.

Vegetable samosas, spicy Indian pastries filled with green chilies, Yukon gold potatoes and roasted red bell peppers, are served with a tamarind raisin chutney.
Vegetable samosas, a sort of Indian turnover, were baked in a flaky crust and flavored with hot chilies and cardamom. Filled with green chilies, Yukon gold potatoes and roasted red bell peppers, accompanied by a fruity-hot tamarind raisin chutney, these were a favorite among guests. Bracing against the heat of the chilies, a rich, honey-colored Stone Ruination IPA with the bitterness of dandelion wine and hints of floral sweetness kept me wanting more.

For the main course, lamb saag, a slow-cooked lamb shoulder simmered with green chilies, spinach and fenugreek, with a side of fragrant cinnamon cardamom rice, was nicely matched with Green Flash Brewery's Imperial IPA.

Focusing on a different beer variety each month at Fort George Brewery, McCauley says he looks for foods that "balance out" the flavors of the beer. So far, his favorite pairing has been a slightly sweet panacotta with caramelized flavors that, he says, " flowed into a Belgian beer."

Coming up Wednesday, Feb. 13, Fort George Brewery hosts its "sexiest beer dinner," starring oysters and stout - "a recipe for love on the eve of Valentine's Day." The five-course meal includes a trio of oysters on the half shell, savory oyster flan, Champagne oyster Brie bisque, oyster and mushroom stuffed pork roast and Coffee Girl Stout sorbet. Each course will be paired with a stout beer from some of the most highly coveted and eclectic in the beer community. The current menu includes Beamish Dry Stout, Caldera Old Growth Imperial Stout and Fort George Brewery Coffee Girl Imperial Stout, among others.

According to Nemlowill, the bond between oysters and stout dates back to the 18th century, when the waters of England and Ireland teemed with oysters, which the working class widely consumed along with their stout. "Oysters and stout are both considered aphrodisiacs," he says, "so this event could whet your appetite in more ways than one!" Seating is limited to 30 people, so reserve your spot soon. The cost, $50 per person, includes food, beverages and gratuity.

Daily offerings at Fort George Brewery include a variety of freshly made soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches. House specialties include rockfish tacos, pan seared oysters and jambalaya. Don't miss the housemade sausages served with sauerkraut and German potato salad - perfect beer food. Fish 'n' chips, made with locally caught albacore and hand-cut fries, are the best I've ever had.

The Fort George story

Located in the Fort George Building, built in 1924, which originally housed a Ford service station and dealership that ran until the late 1990s, the brewery has been beautifully restored to expose massive old growth Doug fir beams. Wood is a theme throughout the space, with heavy wooden tables, hand-carved wooden benches, wooden mosaics on the bar and more. Light and open, with lime green painted brick walls, the original distressed cement floor and corrugated steel, the brewery exudes an urban touch.

The location of the building was the original settlement site of Astoria, founded in 1811. Then, under temporary British rule, it was called Fort George, after King George III. In 1814, when the Canadian Northwest Fur Company's ship Isaac Todd reached Fort George, the fort housed 65 people including Native Americans, whites and mixed breeds from Canada. Defended by bastions overlooking the river and armed with artillery, the fort was established in part to guard the Pacific fur trade's growing business. Located just behind the brewery at 15th and Exchange streets, Astoria Park, built in 1956, holds a recreation of the original block house of Fort George. Interestingly, in 1814, Oregon's first white female, an English barmaid named Jane Barnes, lived at Fort George. If she was still around, she might feel right at home at the brewery.

Visible through huge windows at the back of the building is the state-of-the-art brewery, where brewmasters Harris and Nemlowill, both from Astoria, work their magic. The two have worked as brewers for many years. Harris recently brewed at Bill's Tavern in Cannon Beach, where Nemlowill also came to work, before moving on to brew at the Wet Dog Café in Astoria. After a while, the two decided it was time to join together and start a brewery of their own.

After finding the historic building, which they are thrilled about, the next step was to locate a brewing system. They found one - a neglected but impressive 8.5-barrel capacity system, with all the equipment they needed. The only problem was that it was located on the East Coast. On their way back from Virginia, with a huge load of stainless steel tanks and more, the two encountered a tornado in Nebraska. You can see the fire in Harris's eyes when he recalls the event. "It was really frightening. It came out of nowhere and we almost lost all of our equipment," he recalls. But they made it. In honor of surviving the frightening event, they named the brewing system "Sweet Virginia," and named one of Fort George's first beers "Vortex IPA."

"Beer is made with just four ingredients - grain, water, hops and yeast," explained Harris on a tour of the brewery. "You don't really make beer," he said humbly, "You just feed it yeast." But, like a seasoned bread baker, each brewer has a special feel for when the mix is right. Here is what I learned on a five-minute tour:

To start, organic grains are fed into a mill located high in the rafters. The ground mix is shot through tubing into a specially made stainless steel hopper, where it is slowly mixed with hot water, using an overhead spray ball, to create an oatmeal-textured mash. "We call this the 'drip coffee' part," says Harris. After brewing, the "coffee" flows into a giant heated kettle, where it boils for an hour before being pumped into four stainless fermentation tanks. This is where the beer comes to life. As yeasts ferment, their cells transform sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, breathing new and distinctive aromas into the liquid. Next, the beer is siphoned into cooling tanks in the walk-in cooler, where it stabilizes before being bottled or stored in kegs. Author's note: This is my very simplified understanding of beer making. I take no responsibility for any errors, especially after drinking a beer.

Diners at Fort George's Indian Cuisine and West Coast IPA Pairing Dinner sat down to drink Vortex IPA and a candle-lit serving of Vegetable Jalfrezi, a dish with sautéed peppers, onions and eggplant served on a bed of spinach with spicy saffron yogurt sauce.
Jack Harris, right, who owns the Fort George Brewery and Public House with Chris Nemlowill, hosted a dinner Jan. 16 pairing India Pale Ales with Indian cuisine. The monthly themed dinners at the brewery include five different courses and five different beers.

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