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Belgian beers, a food lover’s best brew

This past weekend (Jan. 9-11, 2014), the nation’s best Belgian and barleywine makers came together to share their finest brews with one another and beer lovers at Big Beers Belgians & Barleywine. This is the 7th annual sold out event at Vail Cascade resort and the selection of Belgian beers keeps getting bigger and better.

Big Beer Fest Food And Beer Pairings: Brewmasters Dinner, Big Beer Fest. Lemon Poppyseed Cake, Lemon Glaze, Red Wine Chaud Fraud, Avery Rumpkin and Dogfish Head Sixty-One
Kimberly Lord Stewart
Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, Jack D'Or
Kimberly Lord Stewart

Founders of the Big Beers Fest, brother and sister team Bill and Laura Lodge, have collected a fan base that attracts the finest and most creative brewmasters for a category that is considered the wine of beers. Belgian beers are distinct, unique to its maker’s whims and dreams, which allowed for a lot of conversation, idea sharing and strong opinions at the festival and conference.

In Belgium the beers are as local as one can get – local beers stay local in Belgium, bordering France and the Netherlands. But in the US, these beers are gaining a broader following outside local areas. Companies like New Belgium in Colorado and Goose Island in Chicago are expanding the reach of Belgian-style beer. and while mass beer sales continue to lag, craft beer sales rose 13.9% last year, according to State of the Craft Beer Industry (Demeter, 2013). Based on this festival attendance and the standing room only turnout at seminars for professional and home brewers, the growth isn't likely to slow anytime soon.

Belgians are a beer connoisseur’s beer for their complexity and variety. It’s the variety and flavor complexity that makes Belgians so fun for chefs and home cooks to work with and pair with food. Nothing is off the table, there are no rules. But if you absolutely have to put boundaries around Belgians, beer lovers who know much more about it than this Belgian-beer newbie (you may argue), but just for clarity a Belgian beer includes (but is not limited to) these categories:

1. Belgian Golden Ales
2. Belgian Brown
3. Trappist and Abbey Ales
4. Lambic Group
5. Wit/Bière Blanche
6. Bière de Saison
7. Belgian Specialities

At a Big Beer Fest seminar featuring Saisons, a Belgian-farmhouse ale, Jason Yester of Trinity in Colorado Springs described this particular type of Belgian ale as the Van Gough or Monet of beer. They are elegantly intricate – some light, others dark, fruity, spicy, mild or tart – depending on the brewmaster’s muse. A favorite was Trinity's Electric Cucumber, brewed with 700 pounds of fresh cucs, which give the beer a fresh, but not sweet, honeydew essence. For a pairing, try it with a sweet, sour and hot Asian or Indian recipe.

The inspiration could be dried fruit or spices, fresh herbs, pumpkin, apples or fresh cucumber. At a brewmaster dinner at Vail Cascade’s Atwater restaurant, Adam Avery (Boulder Colo. Avery Brewing ) and Sam Calagione (Deleware’s Dogfish Head) walked beer lovers through a five-course tasting menu. Dogfish Head Positive Contact, cider beer hybrid made with fugi apples, was a food friendly pairing with a mountain sushi course of 7X beef, Colorado bass, yellowfin tuna with a tart yuzu gelee and tangerine ponzu. Avery Ross’s’s’s Melange (made with chardonnay grapes) held up well to a hearty venison osso buso in Tom Yum broth.

At a cooking seminar, Ginger Johnson, founder of Women Enjoying Beer, a market-consulting firm, demoed how to cook with beer. Johnson soaked and cooked dried beans in COLLAGE Conflux Series No. 1 (a collaboration beer of Deschutes and Hair of the Dog) for grown-up pork and beans. The beans absorbed slight hints of the vanilla and sherry aging. She also paired a Cypress Grove Midnight Moon aged-goat cheese with a Quadrupel Ale, from Boulevard. Both have a caramel and dried fruit flavor that would make a perfect after dinner cheese pairing. Her dessert pairing married a namesake ginger, beer soaked ladyfingers and ice cream with a a blood orange 2013 Fluxus Alagash. Though desserts and beer may not be in your recipe box, this is well worth trying. For Johnson's most requested recipe, Stout Chili Chocolate Cake, link here or see below.

After a weekend of tasting every imaginable kind of Belgian brew, it is indeed impossible to define this category. But if you are tired of the same ol’ ale, ask for a Belgian to wake up your palette and inspire your own food pairings. See the slideshow for this writer’s favorite beer and food pairings from Big Beers Fest.

Big Beers Festival
Vail Cascade Resort and Spa
1300 Westhaven Dr, Vail, CO

Ginger Johnson's Chili Chocolate Stout Cake

Recipe Courtesy of Women Enjoying Beer

Preheat oven to 350 degrees making sure the rack is centered in the oven. Line 2 circular 9 cake pans with parchment and butter the vertical sides. Dust the butter sides with flour (all purpose or rice flour is excellent); gently tap out the excess. A stand mixer works very well here, and you can use a hand held mixer as well as a sturdy whisk as you wish.


1. Mix the following dry ingredients together:

  • 2 1/8 cup of all purpose or cake flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar; turbinado sugar gives it a deeper flavor than white.
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa

2. Mix together well at slower speed

3. Cook at medium low heat on the stove:

  • 1 cup stout, at room temperature (flat works well too)
  • 2 TBS chili powder, adapting for heat tolerance (much of the heat bakes out)

Once its simmering, turn it off and remove the pan from heat.

3. Stir in:

  • 1 TBS vanilla extract

4. Mix into the dry ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
  • 1/2cup unsweetened apple sauce

The consistency should be granular.

5. Increasing speed to medium and add:

  • 1 cup stout, room temp (not the heated cup)
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (can sub yogurt if desired)

6. Add:

  • 2 eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each one.

7. Gradually add the warm hot beer chili liquid until just combined.

8. Pour half of the batter into each pans and bake for 35 45 minutes, being mindful of elevation.

9. Bake until the sides of the cake come away from the pans and a toothpick comes out clean.

10. Let the cakes cool entirely and separately.

11. If you like frosting, heres an easy recipe to spread on top and between the layers as desired.

Combine well:

  • 1/3 cup dry unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 cup powdered sugar


  • 1/8 c yogurt
  • 4 5 TBS unsalted melted butter

Stir till smooth and spreadable. Add small amounts to yogurt to thin, as desired.

Spread on cake once cooled. Chopped almonds make a very nice and healthy garnish as does unsweetened coconut flakes.

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