Wine or beer?
One of those choices clearly has always had a more prominent place at the dinner table. Let's just say long has the cork reigned.
Lately, however, brews, particularly in this era of the highly coveted craft variety, have been making big moves, muscling their way into place settings and ready to push the always-popular vino around a bit.
The result? Call it a battle of the bottles, and it's playing out at popular restaurants and entertainment spots near you.
Been to a matchmaking night lately? No, we're not talking about love, unless maybe you're looking for a perfect marriage of wine and food or beer and food, which is basically what the plethora of drink-centric events are all about.
This weekend and next week alone, you can pick your pleasure and pair good taste with good education at Cooper's Seafood House in Pittston, where a Weyerbacher Brewing Company Beer Dinner is planned for Sunday, or at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Plains Township, where the next wine-pairing dinner in an ongoing series is set for Tuesday.
And next weekend, wine and food pairing will take on a street-festival atmosphere at the annual Cork & The Fork event at the Mount Airy Casino Resort. Beer and spirits will be in plentiful supply there, too.
Put simply, fall is the perfect time to drink up – wine, beer or both.
To Cooper's, the Weyerbacher Brewing Company, based in Easton, will bring six craft beers, all carefully chosen to pair with particular foods. It might sound simple, but there truly is an art to such tag-teaming.
First, it's all about balance.
"When it comes to beer you need to look at how complex the beer is and go from there," said Carl Achhammer, bar manager at Bart and Urby's in downtown Wilkes-Barre, which was among the first area restaurants to try out the concept of the beer dinner. Lucky's Sporthouse in Wilkes-Barre Township soon followed suit.
"You need to strike a balance between the taste of the beer and the food," Achhammer said. "A wheat beer is something that goes well with light food, like salads, so it's a good starter at the beginning of a dinner. If you're looking for a beer that goes well with almost any type of food you want to go for a lager or a very pale ale."
Mary Hudak, catering manager at Cooper's, said the menu for Sunday's Weyerbacher dinner was actually prepared first, then the beers were chosen to accompany. She's excited about what her team has come up with.
Fruit will match fruit for the salad course, a meal of wild greens with pear, Gorgonzola cheese, sweet walnuts and cider. This will be paired with Weyerbacher's Merry Monks, a creamy brew with a hint of banana.
A soup and appetizer course will be paired with Last Chance IPA and Blithering Idiot, respectively, and the main course will be a mustard-crusted pork prime rib with wild cherry and apricot chutney, Vermont cheddar spatzle and braised butternut acorn squash. This will be paired with Old Heathen, a dark Imperial Stout.
Then will come the fabulous finish.
"We really get into the season for dessert," Hudak said. "Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin will be matched with an autumn panna cotta that consists of roasted fig, Granny Smith apples and applejack liqueur, topped with whipped cream."
The order in which everything is served also is key.
"You generally start with light and go to dark for a beer dinner, which also means the food tends to go lighter to heavier," Achhammer said. "Sometimes we use a spicy chili as an appetizer to get the palate warmed up and the taste buds open, and then we build from there."
What's to thank for all this newfound interest in beer?
"The microbrewery phase has really increased," Achhammer said. "People want something new; they want something better, both in terms of beer and food."
Meanwhile, wine, of course, won't just roll over and crawl off the table, no matter how big beer gets.
In fact, wine-pairing dinners are still going strong and becoming popular at the high-end Ruth's Chris, for one example.
Other restaurants have found success with weekly wine-tasting nights, and Tuesday seems to be a key night.
At Cork Bar & Restaurant on Madison Street in Wilkes-Barre, Tuesdays are all about wine education. At 7 p.m. Oct. 9, as part of the Fall Wine Tastings series, "Easy Does It" will invite guests to taste wines that pair easily with many foods for $15.
Those who attend this Tuesday's wine dinner at Ruth's Chris can educate themselves even earlier, however. There, the focus will fall on five courses paired with Cakebread Cellar wines, a family-run business out of California's Napa Valley. The methods used for pairing wine and food will mimic those used for pairing beer and food.
"There are certainly things that will overpower each other," Dominic Marianacci, sommelier at Ruth's Chris, said. "I wouldn't suggest someone drink a sauvignon blanc, something with white citrus notes and a crisp acidity, with a full-flavored steak with hot peppers, the reason being the wine is going to be completely drowned out by the peppers, and you won't be able to enjoy it."
"That being said, a sauvignon blanc will pair very nicely with a piece of sea bass or fish that might be just broiled with a little bit of lemon or some kind of white sauce. The two will stand up in your mouth together, not drown each other out."
The order of wines also is important when serving a multicourse meal.
"We almost always start with the whites and climb the flavor profile, up to almost always ending with a Cabernet or Shiraz," Marianacci said.
This method is employed so the tastebuds aren't worn out by the time dessert rolls around.
"Your palate will get exhausted if you drink anything too heavy in the beginning," Marianacci said. "The mouth gets overpowered, tired, by the time you hit that fourth course. We want you to taste that last pairing just as much as you tasted the first."
While wine and beer dinners are largely about various trips for the tastebuds, Marianacci sees another aspect to them.
"It's a great social thing. As an orator for many of the dinners I like to invite people to share their own experiences with wine. It really gets people talking and getting to know one another."
The combinations can seem endless when it comes to pairing beer with food, but certain guidelines can be followed. Craftbeer.com suggests:
Beer type: India Pale Ale
Best with: spicy dinner meals or bold, sweet desserts
More specifically: curry, ginger spice cake, Gorgonzola cheese
Beer type: Porter
Best with: roasted or smoked foods.
More specifically: barbecue, blackened fish, sausages
Beer type: Hefeweizen
Best with: lighter fare
More specifically: salads, sushi, seafood, strawberry shortcake
Beer type: Oktoberfest
Best with: Mexican or any hearty food
More specifically: jalapeno-laden dishes
Beer type: Pale ale
Best with: Pretty much anything
More specifically: Meat pie, burgers, bread pudding
Some people think of wine only in terms of white and red, but, of course, things can get more complicated than that. Winepairingchart.com has simplified the process of choosing within those two main categories.
Type of wine: Chardonnay (white)
Best with: light dishes
More specifically: lobster, white pizza, veal
Type of wine: Riesling/Pino Gris/Grigio (white)
Best with: dishes with a bit of kick
More specifically: spicy sausage, Gouda cheese, chili peppers
Type of wine: Merlot (red)
Best with: hearty food
More specifically: grilled meats, burgers, black-forest cake
Type of wine: Cabernet Sauvignon (red)
Best with: dishes with deep flavor
More specifically: venison, tomato sauces, Gorgonzola cheese
Type of wine: Pinot Noir (red)
Best with: light dishes with a stronger flavor
More specifically: filet mignon, mushrooms, white chocolate
What: Weyerbacher Beer Dinner
Where: Cooper's Seafood House, 304 Kennedy Blvd., Pittston
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Price: $44.95 per person
What: Cakebread Cellars
Wine Pairing Dinner
Where: Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Mohegan Sun Casino, 1280 Highway 315, Plains Township.
: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Price: $115 per person
What: Cork & the Fork, a wine-and-food tasting event with a street-fair type festival offering gourmet foods, wine, beer and spirits
Where: Mount Airy Casino Resort, 312 Woodland Road, Mount Pocono
When: Sept. 29 with tasting session from 2 to 6 p.m. and hot-air balloon rides from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Cost: $55 admission, $15 per balloon ride
What: "Easy Does It," a wine-and-food pairing session.
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 9
Where: Cork Bar & Restaurant, 463 Madison St., Wilkes-Barre