The holiday season means many things in San Francisco. Ice skating by the Ferry building, kittens on display in Macy’s windows, and – perhaps the most important tradition of all – gorging on local crab. So when The Whole Beast and Bernal Supper Club announced their Whole Dungeness Crab Feast, we grabbed our bibs and shell cracking implements right away. The menu, which highlighted the versatility of crab, was ripe for beer pairing. We packed up some brews and decided to make this into a teachable moment.
The 5-course menu, which was created by chefs John Fink of The Whole Beast, Jonathon Sutton, Miles Carnahan, and Tony Ferrari of Bernal Supper Club, made fast friends with our diverse selection of brews. For some insight into beer and crab pairing, and a likely dose of uncontrollable salivation, read on.
Amuse: crab butter on toast
Beer pairing: Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils (pilsner style)
Pairing rationale/notes: This introductory bite was as simple as it sounds. We chose a pilsner beer for its light body and crisp, clean flavor. The slightly grainy hint in the beer meshed well with the toast, and the beer took a backseat to the sweet piece of crab while refreshing the palate.
First Course: Dungeness crab bisque with cognac, fennel, and tarragon
Beer pairing: Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux (saison/farmhouse ale)
Pairing rationale/notes: The bisque was an early high point of the meal. The soup was rich with heavy cream without being cloying, while the sweet crab flavors in the broth and chunk meat contrasted with the earthly fennel and tarragon notes. We’d be hard pressed to recall a more enjoyable bisque. We chose a saison because the style tends to be on the drier side. Too much residual sugar could become overwhelming when pairing with a rich dish. This beer cut through the richness of the bisque while contributing a slightly lemony, spicy character that complimented the crab.
Second Course: crab salad with winter greens, market citrus, persimmons, champagne vinaigrette
Beer Pairing: Drake’s 1500 (pale ale)
Pairing rationale/notes: This salad was a well-composed study in balancing sweet and acidic elements. The crabmeat was as sweet as it gets, and the citrus fruit and vinaigrette added a slight pucker of acidity. Instead of choosing a beer that would contrast or act as a balancing agent (as in the previous course), we went the route of flavor augmentation with a dry hopped pale. The dry hopping in the beer provides a floral and citrusy nose that elevated the similar flavors in the salad. The salad was crisp and refreshing, and well placed between two rich courses.
Third Course: Dungeness crab raviolo, crab coral, chanterelles, leeks, and spinach
Beer Pairing: Green Flash Rayon Vert (Belgian pale with brettanomyces)
Pairing rationale/notes: Another highlight of the meal, perfectly cooked sheets of fresh pasta covered a bed of well-seasoned chanterelles. A generous heap of crabmeat tossed in a creamy sauce topped the dish. Once again, the Whole Beast and Bernal Supper Club folks shine at creating rich flavors and textures without overwhelming the palate. We chose a Belgian pale ale because the spicy, fruity yeast strain and bone dry finish help to cut through fats and rich dishes. Additionally, this beer is bottled with brettanomyces, a yeast known for imparting earthy flavors. This almost leathery element of the beer paired well with the deep, earthy flavors of the chanterelle mushrooms.
Fourth Course: Deep fried crab with a ginger black peppercorn sauce
Beer Pairing: Anchorage Whiteout Wit (Belgian witbier with lemon peel, black peppercorns and wild yeast aged in chardonnay barrels)
Pairing rationale/notes: This Asian-inspired preparation was a show-stopper. Rich notes of black and sweet soy played with spicy ginger and pepper while the crab meat remained succulent and sweet. This rendition was on par with deep fried crab from any of SF’s cult Chinese crab houses. We chose this witbier for many reasons. The style is traditionally brewed with coriander, which pairs nicely with ginger. The peppercorns in the beer are a no-brainer augmentation for the same spice in the crab’s sauce, and the lemon peel and white wine barrel aging should pair classically with the crabmeat. This proved to be an interesting and enjoyable match. The wild yeast and bacteria in the beer provide a tartness that played up the spiciness of the sauce. The oaky notes from the barrel aging provided a subtle coconut element that was perfect with the sweet crabmeat.
Fifth Course: While we didn’t pair a beer with dessert (thankfully nobody attempted to make a Dungeness crab ice cream), we’d be remiss to not mention the lovely dish of lime sorbet, gingersnap cookie, and pomegranate that ended the meal on a clean, refreshing note.
Many thanks to The Whole Beast and Bernal Supper Club folks for the decadent and well-executed meal. Special thanks to Tony Ferrari for facilitating this beer and crab pairing experience.