Milwaukee, The Lower East Side

For the past few decades, wine, tannic, slightly acidic, and generally more alcoholic than beer,  has been seen as pairing better with food than does beer.

Meanwhile, craft beer evolved to include countless examples of beers — in styles ranging from malty lagers, to roasty stouts, to barrel-aged sours — which pair perfectly with food. Yet craft beer’s proliferation has tended to consist of a relatively small cadre of aficionados and cognoscenti, sometimes alienating a majority that still tends to think of beer in general as equivalent to a light American lager.

Enter Tess, the superb, wonderfully intimate restaurant on Barlett, just around the corner from the intersection of North Ave. and Oakland. With his monthly series of beer diners, Tess’ owner and manager, Mitchell Wakefield, has shown beer to rival wine as a partner for food, and he has introduced craft beer to an entirely new audience.

Since 2011 Tess has been hosting regular dinners pairing specially designed food with beers from the likes of Goose Island, Surly, New Holland, Oskar Blues, and Perennial Artisan Ales.

But last Tuesday, Tess’ served their first beer dinner featuring a local brewery, Milwaukee’s own Third Space Brewing.

As with all of Tess’ beer dinners, the menu featured five dishes, each of which was expertly designed around different a beer by Tess’ Executive Chef, Martin Magana.

I was first struck by how perfect an environment Tess is for such a dinner: the intimacy of the space meant that the diners could easily hear as Kevin, Third Space’s Head Brewer, explained how the flavors of his beers paired with those of Martin’s dishes, and it created a sense of community, which was heightened by the experience of eating the same dishes as the couples dining nearby. I for one loved hearing other couples talking through the flavors on display, and often found myself picking up on notes someone else mentioned.

Each course managed a feat rarely done at beer dinners: pairing the beer and food so well that they not only complimented each other, but opened each other up and revealed flavors in each other that were not always obvious at the first bite.

For example, the first course was Beer Braised Beef Shoulder Molotes, avocado tomatillo salsa, cilantro crema, cotija cheese, and shredded green cabbage paired with Third Spaces That’s Gold Kolsch. In this dish, the clean, malty flavors of the Kolsch worked with the bright tomatillo salsa to balance out the braised beef shoulder.

Similarly, the Butter Confit Chicken Thigh served with dirty with dirty farro, roasted baby carrots, and black garlic sauce put flavors from food and beer into a wonderful interplay. Paired with Third Space’s Unite The Clans Scottish Rye Ale, the nutty, rich farro paired with the complex malt of the Scotch Ale. Then there was black garlic sauce, surely one of the most wonderful flavors I have encountered recently; somewhere between balsamic vinegar and garlic, this viscous, rich sauce brought out the beer’s subtle roastiness and matched well with the earthy hops.

Perhaps the standout course of the night was dessert. A tart made with Carr Valley blue cheese and black Mission figs, candied walnuts, pastry crust, honey gastrique, and balsamic reduction, this dessert was savory, jam packed with flavor and texture. There was so much going on that every bite was slightly different, depending on which elements of the tart ended up on your fork.

Third Space’s Liquid Layers Barleywine brought out the walnuts, but then also highlighted that almost nutty sweetness of the figs. The beer’s complex caramel notes rounded out the edge from the bleu cheese and melded with the pastry crust. Usually dessert is simple, sweet — something to fulfill all your cravings — yet this was interesting, layering flavors together to create something I didn’t know I wanted: a savory dessert.

This dessert was the perfect capstone to an artful dinner: interesting yet fun, delicious yet elaborate.

Tess’s will host a Mardi Gras Beer Dinner on Wednesday, February 22 and Thursday, February 23, featuring Abita Brewing. Tickets are currently on sale.

Third Space Brewing will also be hosting Shully’s for a Mardi Gras beer dinner on February 28th. Get your tickets here.

Buy them now. You won’t be disappointed.

Cheers

— Nathan