“…asked me what I wanted. “Ballantine Ale,” I said…a very mystic long shot, unknown between Newark and San Francisco. He served it up, ice-cold. I relaxed. Suddenly everything was going right; I was finally getting the breaks.” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
It’s awfully hard to distill a culture down to one signature dish, or drink, and the attempt is bound to irritate someone. But if there’s any food more quintessentially Quebecois than poutine, I haven’t found it. Though it has its roots in rural Québec and is certainly a must-eat if you’re visiting Montréal, poutine is an entirely appropriate indulgence anywhere you can get flavorful, fresh potatoes, and cheese curds.
According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the dish—which is made by topping fresh-fried potatoes with cheese curds and velouté—is also popular in the U.S. (of course), U.K., Korea, and Russia. It might be worth noting that all of those places experience properly cold winters.
Inspired by the onset of real winter here in the Atlantic Northeast, and by the fact that the local Costco was carrying cheese curds, Ben and I decided it was time for another “Don’t pair beer with food” installment. The idea is that foods should be chosen to enhance the experience of beer, rather than vice versa.
Strong, malty beers tend to stand up well to heavier foods, and hops are often good for cutting through fatty textures, so we gathered a selection, made some poutine, and got to work.
Ballantine Burton Ale
After a long hiatus in which the brewery was essentially dead, Ballantine Ale made a return to the beer scene in 2014, thanks to Pabst Brewing Company. They re-released the strong, oak-barreled, almost-barleywine Burton Ale for the 2015 holiday season.
Ben: Burton Ale, after the poutine, really shows the oakiness that doesn’t necessarily pop out normally. You still get that rich, malty barleywine character, but you get more vanilla, a hint of cherry in the oak.
Meagan: I made the gravy with a fair amount of black pepper, and it brings out any peppery notes that are hiding in the
North Coast Old Rasputin
It’s not much of an imaginative stretch to make a pun on poutine and Rasputin. If The Canadian Encyclopedia is to be believed, in Russia, poutine is known as raspoutine—which just so happens to be the French spelling of Rasputin. True or not, it made me wonder if poutine and Russian Imperial Stout would be a good match.
Ben: The poutine almost washes out the rich flavors of Old Rasputin. But at the same time, instead of being a super big, intense brew, it makes it taste almost refreshing, kind of like a full-bodied black IPA…while Old Rasputin is a good pairing, the poutine doesn’t really help the beer, unless you’re trying to down a lot of Old Rasputin at once.
Meagan: It brings out the slightly astringent, roasty and hoppy notes in the Old Rasputin, as opposed to the more complex malt, plum, and raisin character.
I don’t recall trying anything from Lavery (pronounced lav-ry) before, but I’ve been seeing their brews at AJ’s for a while. They’re out of Erie, PA, and have apparently been around since 2009.
Ben: When you need to cut away a silky fatty feeling, or wash some salt out of your mouth, nothing really does better than an IPA. Which in this case, Dúlachán, available at AJ’s (and possibly Beers of the World) does pretty well. It tastes flowery, still kinda bitter, and nice and fresh.
Meagan: When tasted with poutine, this is a reasonable IPA. It definitely cuts through the salty fattiness of the gravy and cheese.
Unibroue La Fin Du Monde
This was our no-brainer selection. A couple of summers ago, Ben and I got to try several Unibroue ales on tap, accompanied by poutine, at the appropriately named restaurant, Montréal Poutine. That was where we discovered poutine’s deliciousness, especially the variation that includes smoked meat in the toppings. For this experiment, I layered pulled beer-can chicken, and Ben’s smoked bacon, on top of the fried potatoes.
A note about the velouté: this is very much like gravy, but with a base of chicken stock, rather than milk or cream. I stumbled on that distinction by accident, but it is, apparently, important if you want to make a more-or-less classic Quebec poutine.
Ben: The pepper from the Fin Du Monde still stands up, even against a good pepper gravy…It has some of the same effects with the Fin Du Monde as it did with the Old Rasputin, except in this case, the Fin Du Monde becomes a very friendly, very drinkable, malty, slightly citrus brew. It makes it taste almost like a rich saison, making this a really good summer pairing, actually. Sometimes the notes in a tripel can get kind of bitter and overwhelming, sometimes kind of syrupy, but it’s not happening right now.
Meagan: I was halfway surprised at how well the peppery notes in the tripel stood up to the pepper in the poutine. The bright effervescence of La Fin Du Monde is fairly refreshing after the poutine, but the beer has enough character that it doesn’t get overwhelmed. Quebec food goes well with Quebec beer; who knew?
Making it leaner
Most foods that go well with drinking aren’t exactly healthy; they tend to include quite a bit of salt, starch, fat, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, protein. There are good reasons for this, but I’m not going to launch into a lecture on how your liver wants to rebuild the glycogen that it loses when processing alcohol. Though I wouldn’t list poutine as a “light” or “diet” food, there are ways to enjoy all its fantastic flavor, while minimizing its impact on your middle. My favorite is to use oven fries rather than deep-fried potatoes. Instead of the full amount of oil usually contained in a serving of French fries, each of us only got around one tablespoon of oil, which is 120 calories.
Get it locally
I may have discovered poutine in Canada, but as previously mentioned, its popularity has spread quite a bit in the six or so decades since its inception. At the Rochester Real Beer Expo last summer, I got a taste of Le Petit Poutine, a local Rochester food truck that serves up several delicious versions, including a vegetarian poutine.
In this hop-happy country, you don’t have to go far to find a good IPA. The Rochester area has several popular breweries that turn out a decent IPA. For starters, local chatter has been giving Swiftwater Brewing Co.‘s IPA 9.0 rave reviews. I’ve sampled Belgian Tripels from a number of area breweries, but so far, none that I’d repeat. That doesn’t mean there are none; I just haven’t found them yet. I can tell you that when they have it available, Stoneyard Brewing Company makes one of the best barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stouts I’ve tasted. They also keep a good draft list, and serve poutine, so you can always play around with some pairings, yourself.
Still not quite the “one food”
Of the four beers we tried with poutine, La Fin Du Monde was the most obviously perfect pairing. The food didn’t enhance the Old rasputin, but it did have a good effect on the Dúlachán. We tried that one again later, without the poutine, and found it disappointing. Instead of fresh, floral hop flavor, it had that almost cat-pee character that I always think people are making up, until I taste it myself. Salt tends to enhance the perception of sweetness, so perhaps the poutine made up for what was lacking in that particular IPA’s recipe.
Poutine, while delicious, did not improve our enjoyment of every beer we paired it with, only one or two. Thus, it is an excellent drinking food, but not the one food that’s great with all beer. The search continues for that elusive dish. One takeaway from this experiment is that if you have an IPA that isn’t everything it could be, try it with poutine, or a similarly rich, salty, cheesy food. Maybe it will taste better.