As the resident Cooking with Beer expert for the site, I can really appreciate someone who takes the beer and culinary experience to the next level. With that being said, Jensen Cummings is totally kicking my ass when it comes to creativity and delicious recipes. But of course he is, because this rock star is not only a professionally trained chef, he is also a sommelier and a cicerone. If titles have no importance to you then let his newest project, Brewed Food, do all of the talking.
Jensen is teaming up with breweries around Colorado every week until GABF to create a beer and food experience that is beyond compare. Instead of the tired food and beer dinner, Jensen is inspired by the brewery’s ingredients and techniques and uses that inspiration to craft small plates packed with flavor. Like the name of the project hints, there is an aspect of beer in the ingredients, but it’s not what you might think. Jensen breaks down the brewing process unique to each brewery and uses those methods as he prepares his meals.
If it’s not making sense yet, his latest plate with Crooked Stave may clear things up a bit: Char Siu Tender Belly Pork / saison fermented won bok, amarillo hop coulis, and barrel aged hoisin. This was paired with Hop Savant and Vielle Artisanal Saison. Since Crooked Stave is known for their mind-blowing barrel aged and funk-tastic brews, Jensen used the same techniques to create what I’m calling an Asian-meets-Southern BBQ inspired meal. The hoisin, served alongside the pork and also rubbed into the pork before cooking, was fermented with with Vielle saison yeast and then barrel aged on charred American white oak staves.
Let me just interject really quick and say that the rest of the world should be mandated to make hoisin the way Jensen does. The wom bok, kind of like a Chinese kimchi, was made with napa cabbage and secondarily fermented with that same Vielle saison yeast to give it a funky, bready character. The Chinese coriander herb coulis, also served alongside the pork, was dry hopped with the Amarillo hops that are also featured in CSA’s Hop Savant.
As for the actual taste of the meal, it was a spicy, summer delight. The hoisin, with its deep oak flavors, instantly became the Asian cousin to BBQ sauce and lets be real, who doesn’t love some pork and BBQ? In my head, the won bok served as the slaw for the meal, except that I don’t like coleslaw but I loved (yes, I loved) the won bok. It was bready and earthy at first and then slowly warmed up my mouth, generating the perfect amount of heat without overpowering the other flavors. Paired with the Vielle, the won bok really cut down on the sour notes but brought out the fruity character of the beer. The Vielle also worked to mellow the spice making the two a delicious combination. In the next bites, the Hop Savant and the herb coulis worked to give a big hop punch that was more apparent in the beer than it was prior to eating the dish. This bitterness helped round out the sweet and spicy notes present elsewhere on the plate. I started to realize the beer and food weren’t meant to be separate entities. Rather, I was a chef and the final step in creating the meal was to combine everything in my mouth. I’m sure the real chef had this in mind when he served the Crooked Stave inspired brewed food. In his words, “We are going back to brewing as our culinary inspiration.”
Before I stuffed my face with the so-called brewed food, I got the chance to ask Jensen a few questions about his life and challenge him with a few strange queries.
Chelsea (me): “First love – beer or wine?”
Jensen: “First love is actually wine. I worked on my sommelier before beer, but learning about wine made me realize beer is way better.”
C: “Being a sommelier first, was it easier to get your cicerone degree because you already had a great pallet?”
J: “Yeah, I think understanding how to taste by going through sommelier is pretty valuable and then being just a student of flavor and ingredients from being a chef – those two things made the process of [becoming a] cicerone a lot easier. The thing that was harder about cicerone than sommelier is that when you take sommelier you taste first and then do theory, so a lot of people that study for sommelier kind of complain that you have to taste at like 9 in the morning and who’s pallet’s ready…but whatever. But for cicerone, you do the 3 hour written test, essay questions, on camera times, disassembly, cleaning and reassembly of a beer faucet, then you do a blind tasting, so actually its more difficult because your brain is hemorrhaging so much beer information, that it actually crosses up your pallet a little bit. So when I train people to do their cicerone, I really teach them to trust their instincts because if you get in your head too much, you’re screwed. There’s so much information flying around – different styles, glassware, yeast, brewing process, and then to quiet that and just focus on what you’re tasting, it’s really important to just go with your gut.”
C: “What got you into food and beer pairing?”
J: “Well, the genesis story of how I ended up a cicerone and a chef working on beer and food is as un-rock star as it comes in the beer world. So I was going to culinary school in Iowa. I graduated high school, barely (I tried to get kicked out a couple of times) in San Diego. I went to work for my uncle’s restaurants for a summer job, in Iowa of all places…talk about culture shock…and I was going to culinary school. The teacher of the beverage class I was taking was the general manager of Rock Bottom Brewery in Iowa – So literally and figuratively, my story started from the very rock bottom. And, I remember going on a tour there and going into the brew house and some of the kids were kind of poking fun at the brewer because he was wearing knee-high rubber slick boots, overalls, and a dirty trucker hat with like a lop-sided beard.
C: “Oh, a typical brewer.”
J: “Yeah, the typical brewer, right? For a lot of us, it was the first time we had seen a brewer but I remember how eloquently and respectfully our teacher spoke about him and the job that he did. I was like look, the guy who looks like a homeless person is the most important person in the building, he must be really good at a really important job. So I was like the kid who stuck around afterwards and talked to the brewer for a while and was really interested and inspired by what they did from a culinary perspective. From there, being in Iowa, where the hell are you going to drink beer? So, [I went to] Old Chicago. I drank ‘Around the World’ tours at Old Chicago and drank every single beer I could get my hands on. That was really where it all started. Now neither one of those places are necessarily party of my craft beer experience anymore, but I tell that story because now sometimes, us beer geeks take for granted that we started somewhere as well and we want to keep that pretense out of it and be excited that somebody doesn’t know how to pronounce a ‘saison’ but is willing to drink it.”
C: “That’s why we at PorchDrinking never rate beers because everyone has their own taste so we aren’t going to say what’s good or not.”
J: “Yeah and beer is so situational too. There’s certain beers I want to drink with food and there’s certain beers I want to pound a bunch of when I’m tailgating or camping. So, it’s very situational which isn’t taken into perspective a lot and taste is so tied to your experience.”
C: “Situational – I only drink Busch camo cans when the Cardinals are in the playoffs”
Jensen: (laughing) Yes!
Once I got past the typical chef-interview questions, I decided to stop boring Jensen and ask the hard-hitting kind of material that really matters.
C: “So I saw you said, “Keep It Simple Stupid” in your interview with Eater.com, are a fan of The Office?”
J: “The Office? Yes! “
C: ‘Me too! What would Dwight’s beer be?”
J: “Wow….. what would Dwight’s beer be….”
He stood there and pondered this for a few minutes. We chatted about how it must be German and really manly. We toyed with the idea of Turnip the Beets from Bull and Bush, but it wasn’t quite right. Jensen couldn’t come up with a perfect answer on the spot but promised he would email me a response.
C: “So since [the Brewed Food events are] leading up to GABF, after you go to [the festival] and you’re drunk and starving, what’s the easiest, greasiest, best meal you’re going to make when you get home?”
J: “Oh, when I get home? The super secret, stoner, ‘not on the menu’ menu, late night, 3am, wear no pants eating? Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s some of my favorite. So generally, they are centered around bacon. At all times I have tender belly bacon that’s ready to go. The only thing I am adamant about is that I don’t burn the bacon, which happens 1 out of 3 times. Then basically its like an episode of ‘Chopped’ where literally its like, “What’s in my fridge?” and it’ll end up with like some roasted grapes with the not-burned bacon...”
C: “This sounds really fancy, like way better than my drunk food!”
J: “No, then there’s like the Vermont white cheddar cheese spread that I’ll try and fancily smear on the plate and then the bottom of the bag of tortilla chips that are all crunched up. I’ll smear them on the cheese and that’s pretty much what I do. That’s what I would be eating.”
I shouldn’t have expected anything less of the drunken creations from this culinary genius. As for the Dwight question, Jensen got back to me the next day.
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