First, I must start this entry with a huge thank you to Rachel Forrest, columnist for the Portsmouth Herald (and all around foodie and awesome gal) for getting me tickets to the Passport Beer Dinner at Strawberry Banke – a fundraiser for both NH Public Television and the Strawberry Banke museum. If you love food (and wine, and beer), I recommend checking out her column, which is excellent.

passport_160x480I arrived at the event not really know what to expect. There was a long line to be “checked in” but it was a beautiful evening so I didn’t mind standing outside. People were well-dressed and seemed in good spirits. I chose to wear a little black dress and heeled shoes, for some reason thinking that this was a beer dinner type event. When I checked in I figured out that I was probably ill-advised on the heeled shoes. I was given a map of Strawberry Banke, a living history museum with buildings, lawns, courtyards, and gardens – that showed me where the beer tasting and pairing stations were – throughout the whole museum grounds! I was still in a good mood though as they handed me my tasting glass. I’d just have to deal with the heels. (Ahh, such sacrifices for fashion…)
The place was setup to have little tents or booths featuring both a beer to be sampled and a food item. We were given “passports” to wear around our necks and we received a stamp signifying that we’d sampled a particular brew. Most of the breweries were local (Smuttynose, Allagash, Moat Mountain, Tuckerman’s etc.) but there were a few conspicuous absences (Redhook? Pennichuck?). The food was prepared by local restaurants (Including the Common Man, Four, Portsmouth Brewery Resturant and The Dunaway) so it was very fresh. Probably my only criticism about the event was that the tasting glasses that we were provided were essentially champagne glasses, making it difficult for my less-than-delicate nose to accomodate – and I would have really liked to be able to smell the beer more – perhaps in a tasting glass that was shorter and wider (yet still accomidating the same volume).
Despite that, I went around and tried everything. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and thought of most of the pairings, and there were some that were just awesome.
Some of my favorites :

Moat Mountain brewed a martzen that was available two ways – the standard keg, or aged in a barrel made by the Strawberry Banke Cooper. I tried both and the aged one had a sweeter taste and nicer finish. I like beer with stories, and that was certainly one of them. It was paired with a buffalo and pork sausage accented with a blueberry mustard dip. While this might sound like an episode of “Chopped” (blueberries, buffalo and mustard – GO!) it was fantastic, and I can still taste the tang of the mustard playing off the sweetness of the blueberries.
One pairing that was to die for was the Smuttynose Baltic Porter paired with a Lindt Dark Chocolate with Chili. Divine. A really solid and thick beer, the Baltic Porter is a treat by itself. But accented with the dark chocolate and chili, both got to a new level of deliciousness. It made me wish I had discovered the pairing sooner, because it would certainly be a luscious thing to treat myself with after a long hard day.
Another fabulous dessert pairing was a orange creamsicile cheesecake paired with Allagash White. I think by itself, the cheesecake would have knocked me over with sweetness, but for some reason the White pulled the orange flavors and spices from the graham cracker crust out (probably because of some of the spices in the white) and both danced on my tongue gracefully. I would have never conceived of that pairing, and I almost want to see what else Allagash White goes awesome with (besides Turkey of course).
The end-all-be-all pairing for me, though, was the Allagash Dubbel paired with a Maple-Braised Pork Belly Confit made by the restaurant Four. A confit is when you slowly cook something in fat (as opposed to quickly frying it) so that it absorbs fabulous flavors. The pork belly was cooked in duck fat, and the taste was absolutely heavenly. It had so many layers of flavors that each chew brought an explosion of richness, crispness, savory saltiness and warmth. The Allagash Dubbel played off its richness and added a malty and yeasty partnership. I felt rich – even spoiled – to be sampling something so delicious.
All in all, I enjoyed the evening. There were a lot of people there, but proabbly not quite as many as organizers would have liked. I thought it was a great amount of people for being able to get in and out without waiting in line.The night turned misty and warm, and the candles and streetlights of Portsmouth glowed in the haze.  As night fell, candle lanterns were lit along the paths to the tastings. I got to try everything I had been drooling over – including a fabulous lavender infused piece of baklava, pumpkin ravioli, and a portabello red pepper slider (one of several hundred painstakingly prepared by Sara Lauter, prep cook at the Portsmouth brewery) and left full and content, with only a bit of mud on my heeled shoes and a few mosquito bites on my back and legs. What a night.