It was raining, but actually fairly cool for a Friday in early May in Delray Beach. Just north of the Pineapple Grove, a low lying seafoam green building inconspicuously houses a spot where people gather to get away from the nights of pretentiousness of the Avenue, the recently opened 3rd and 3rd (301 NE 3rd Ave Delray Beach).
Inside this unassuming establishment is a bar and lounge that's clean and modern. Like that famous blue police box, the interior seems larger than should fit inside. At 7 p.m., the clientele is still heavily local; folks in their 30s and 40s finishing off a long working week. No tourists here, except a dozen or so beer enthusiasts, seeking out a dining opportunity. Four courses with four beers.
Hosted by Mike Arra and Ruth Berman of the Bon Beer Voyage company, a tour outfit that specializes in trips to Belgium to sample monastic and local beers, the dinner featured food spanning the 'New American' palate and complementing beer from Cigar City, that famous of Floridan breweries.
Sitting on couches in a generous niche of the restaurant, the diners felt more like guests in a home, huddled around coffee tables and art, away from the bustle of the main floor. It was informal, and that's exactly how everyone wanted it.
John Paul Kline, chef and proprietor of 3rd and 3rd, is an affable fellow. He made sure the group knew what was being served, (first, a watermelon and feta cheese salad over cucumber carpaccio with a Florida Cracker White Ale) detailing the food and what it was being paired with. Mike then took over, describing the beer, its style, and the special reasons why the pairing would work. For this salad, the pairing was a match made in 'refreshing', and a perfect start to the evening.
"We wanted it to be Florida oriented," Ruth said. "I wanted to bring Tampa over here, and what better brewer than Cigar City. [3rd and 3rd] only has beers on draft or cans, no bottles. So with Cigar City having a lot of beers in cans, it seemed like a perfect fit."
But it wasn't just the fact that the establishment could logistically handle the dinner, oh no. It takes a team across the board to pull something off that's special, and John Paul brought that energetic passion to the food. Ruth gushed, "He gets it, about what we're trying to do with the dinners. He takes care of the menu."
Throughout the evening, guests at the dinner would converse like close friends and family, because, let's be honest here, they were. 17 of the 18 at the dinner had previously gone on a 'beercation' to Belgium and the Netherlands, touring and sampling the beer culture that abounds in the Low Countries, and many meet for beer tasting once a month at World of Beer in Coconut Creek. The bonds formed over beer are inseparable.
"This is not a 'get hammered club'," Ruth told me as we sampled dunk confit over a glass of Jai Alai IPA. The citrus hops of the beer drove home the tenderness and succulence of the meat, in a way being the yin to the duck's yang. "These are people who appreciate the taste of a good beer."
One of my table mates was Heather, a young woman who energetically checks in on Untappd (social media for beer lovers) for each beer that comes our way, now a Maduro Brown to accompany the braised short ribs with wild mushrooms. Her actions spur me to do the same. It is a gamified world, after all. Think of it as Foursquare for beer.
Conversation dies down as each course is served, everyone taking in the academic explanations and then processing the flavors and the results laid bare before them. As the final course is being served, an apple tart with fresh whipped cream, Mike presents the final beer. It turns out to be a surprise. "Here's something special," he says. "A great sour beer called Stiftongue." This Berliner weiss is the perfect companion to the sweet and creamy tart, with the effervescence and lightly lip-puckering sourness balancing the experience like a see-saw. First one, then the other with each bite, then sip.
As the dinner winds down, and conversations continue beyond the plates, bottles of barleywine and Belgian-style tripels emerge from seemingly thin air. One of the revelers, Bill, pours me a glass of tripel after I profess my love for malty beers. "I'm the same way," he says. "A big malt-head."
There will be more of these dinners in the future. Ruth and Mike were certain of that. As for those, if you are lucky enough to secure a place (mind you, these are intimate gatherings), you'll find a community of beer lovers who desire nothing more than to drink a good glass of beer, and make sure you've tried some of it.
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