Judging the Bacon and Beer Classic 2016
You know things are about to get real fun when you see an enormous blown-up armadillo with boots.
As I posted before, I was invited to judge the Bacon and Beer Classic at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. We sold tons of tickets with our promo code (175 tickets!), much thanks to all of you guys sharing and buying!
As instructed, I got there by 12:30 with my crew and checked in.
It was still 30 minutes before the event would get started officially and only VIP tickets would be inside already, but there was an enormous line starting to form that was hundreds deep.
Levi’s Stadium, by the way, is quite stunning. Adorned in red signage everywhere, it was a striking presence in that area of Santa Clara and considering I had not been there since the 49ers abandoned San Francisco, I was excited to enter. As soon as you pull into the parking lot, you want to watch some football. I don’t even like football, but even I wanted to watch some football.
The weather was pretty spectacular at a nice 69 degrees, which is about the max temp I want when I have to be outside. It’s sunny as can be, but I scored some great parking in shade, basically as close as anyone could get to the stadium.
I had my judging materials– two sheets of paper stapled together, shown above as my visor (and I’ll have you know I brought my Bernie Sanders baseball cap, too), a pen and a small beer glass which was adorable.
Kudos to the event for not creating tons of waste with small plastic cups. These ceramic glasses were sturdy and cute, and an ideal size for the countless tastings that loomed before me.
Between Ian and myself, we had no less than 5 superb lenses there and two cameras, but we are who we are, and I never actually took out my camera and he shot about 2 photos of food because once I saw bacon and once he saw beer, all bets were off. That said, any photo you see is because Ian Lee took them, so a big shout-out to my handy dandy, talented photographer.
The Food and Beer at Bacon and Beer Classic
People were in good spirits and clearly, were there to have fun and lots of good food.
I knew I had until 3:15 PM when the judges would meet on the field. Given that it’s 12:30 right now, I’m figuring I have tons of time to kill. But first, by 1 PM, the general admission folks entered, and things were getting a little crazy. In the beginning, I was happy to stand in lines 2-3 people deep, but by 1:30, I realized that I don’t have time to wait in line and lines were getting 30 people deep for some sponsors.
Time to pull out the judge card.
I have no clue if I was meant to do that but had I not, I’d still be standing in line right now. This place was PACKED!
Every judge was charged with judging all of the food, and the beer categories were split among us. I was charged with lagers and ales, and two other judges would be in that category alongside me. Initially, I muttered, “Well, that’s not going to stop me from trying them all….” but within three brewery stands, getting buzzed in sunlight and heading into a food coma, I nearly got on my knees and thanked the good Lord that the categories were split, because as it turns out, there is only so much beer I can drink and eat in a given time frame.
My fellow judges for this beer category were Kristal from Eat and Escape, who was simply adorable and the other was Ben Zorn–who you all might recognize if you watch a reality show called “The Bachelorette,” as I understand he was one of the contestants on the show.
I actually did manage to hit up every single brewery I was assigned, though I will admit that by 2pm, I was so exhausted and so full that I may or may not have plopped down in one corner and sent my three awesome men to go get this or that beer, this or that food dish, and find this missing vendor. (Total diva time, but my legs were killing me, my back was basically defunct and I was so damn full!)
So while we didn’t get the photos of each dish, here are some notable things in my mind, four days post-event.
The Winner of Bacon and Beer Classic (Afternoon Session)
I had never heard of Centerplate, but everyone knows I almost never get to the South Bay, so that wasn’t surprising. This particular restaurant presented three dishes on this day, two of them were absolutely fantastic.
The winning plate for our afternoon session of Bacon and Beer was Centerplate’s pork belly dish. Their Tart Cherry & Cocoa Bacon with Humboldt Fog Polenta was presented on a little skewer. It was the third dish I tried on this upon entering, and all of us instantly agreed that this dish was mind-blowingly good. I compared every dish thereafter to this one until it would get tossed out of the running, but that never happened. The bacon was more of a big chunk of pork belly, and the polenta was ridiculously crispy on the outside and a comforting, soft goodness on the inside. Both were perfectly seasoned and expertly cooked.
Minutes before I was to head down to deliberate with the other judges, I ran back to Centerplate to make sure I didn’t think it was the best on account of my having been hungry when I entered. Even on my second try, I was relieved to taste that yes, it was still the best thing at Bacon and Beer Classic, though many, many dishes came close.
I should also note that their scallop dish was in the running during deliberation also. And I’d agree, it was quite delicious; it’d have been included in the top ten as far as I’m concerned, but not the top five.
I was a little bummed to see that there would be no runner-ups so I’ll do a little “honorable mention” here as some dishes were really notable and each, one of us at least brought up during deliberations.
There was one dish at Bacon and Beer Classic that, in my mind, would have won first place without a second thought except they didn’t put any pork belly or bacon in the dish. It was a kimchi ball served up by Kokio Republic, and I’d have fought tooth and nail for that dish to win had it been one of the contenders. Instead of putting slices of pork belly in that fantastic dish, Kokio Republic served up a bacon-wrapped Oreo.
Yes, an Oreo cookie.
When I was first brought this dish and was told what it was, I flat out turned it down and assigned my friend to taste it instead. I love my bacon, but this stretched my definition of “bacon-wrapped anything is better than not.”
When he did hesitantly take a bite and said it was actually good, I finally found the guts to take a bite–and yea, it’s actually quite interesting. I might even say it was tasty, and for sure, it was unusual, but compared to their kimchi rice balls — it couldn’t hold a candle.
In fact, I’m not sure that anything at Bacon and Beer Classic would have held a candle to those kimchi rice balls had it just included pork belly! If the balls had just been wrapped by a thin slice of pork belly, they’d have been first because very little in the world beats the taste of kimchi and pork belly.
Having said that, the bacon-wrapped oreo won the evening’s “Best Sweet Dish” category.
So, it is what it is but I promise you–that kimchi ball wrapped in pork belly would have been the best thing in any category.
As things stood, there was really only two contenders for first place in my mind: Centerplate, which eventually won, or Bourbon Steak (a Michael Mina restaurant) headed up by Chef Bennett, which could not be beat in terms of presentation (look at that dish!).
I really mulled this one over and over again because I was torn and ultimately, Centerplate beat this one only because the pork belly was inadequately heated through.
Now I’m not certain it was meant to be heated through, or just seared on the outside and cold on the inside, but the main issue was that because it’s pork belly, the impressive amount of fat in the middle was overwhelming when cold, and combined with the parsnip puree, as my friend Sang noted, it was an overwhelming amount of richness.
But, the chunk of meat they served was pristine and breathtaking, if it’s possible for a piece of pork to take your breath away. Braised for 14 hours straight, they were tender and ready to melt in your mouth. Watching them sear all of the pieces with a blow torch prior to serving was exciting and as you approached the general idea, all you could smell was what Bourbon Steak was offering.
In comparison, Centerplate’s offering was not much to look at–but where they reigned was pure flavor. And you give me a chunk of nicely seasoned polenta, and I’m basically open to being your best friend. Combine it with a chunk of pork belly, and come on…I’m open to whatever you want.
Devil’s Canyon Brewing Company
One beer I really liked–and I tend to love my darker, stronger beers–was the Full Boar Scotch Ale by Devil’s Canyon Brewery. Rating-wise, I rated it on my list equal to the winning beer, but one of the judges didn’t like it, and it was important to stick to something we all really liked, which came down to the Bay Area Blonde and the Mango Wheat Beer.
I could live on just this beer as my drink of choice for the rest of my day without serious complaints. But I like my smoky scotches and malty beers, so your mileage may vary. In any case, this was a great beer in my mind.
The best piece of bacon we ate at Bacon and Beer Classic was from Nom Burger–a slice of jalapeno bacon that was hot off the grill. It was thinly sliced, packed with flavor and crispy on the edges with the perfect amount of seasoning. It’s exactly the kind of bacon that I love–and I’m really picky about bacon. (Enough so that Mr. K actually tells people I don’t like bacon…but that’s not true–I do. I just don’t like bad bacon.)
But, in judging whether that was the best dish there, I could not, for the life of me, classify that as a “dish.” They deserve props for cooking it perfectly and they deserve a thank you for bringing it, but it’s not a “dish.” Unfortunately, what Nom Burger offered at Bacon and Beer were both strips bacon–the other being a candied bacon of sorts that I didn’t like very much.
If this were a “who makes the finest bacon in the world” competition, I don’t think anyone could have won against this slice of bacon (though I am unclear if they process this bacon and make it themselves). Hormel’s brown sugar bacon was also delicious, but Nom Burger’s bacon was king. I’m not sure why they didn’t bring sliders or something more akin to their name, but it was one fantastic bacon.
That said, I noticed it won the evening session’s savory dish. What can I say? I’m picky about bacon and judging. That’s not a dish.
Golden State Brewery
Of our lager and ale beer category, Golden State Brewery’s Bay Area Blonde won. It’s a solid and flavorful beer, and for a moment, it borders on strong before it calms down. Classic in style and smooth, with many milder flavors intertwined together– the Bay Area Blonde is just light enough to pair with food (would be to die for with my burger recipe), but perfectly refreshing and delicious to chug on its own. I had my top three beers on my list and this was my #2, but it was important to have all three judges agree on the choice, and this one was the one we all happily agreed upon.
Anchor Brewing Mango Wheat Beer
The other beer we could all agree upon was the Mango Wheat Beer by Anchor Brewing. Now I’m a fan of a couple of their beers–like their flagship Anchor Steam is always good and their porter is quite delicious. But I didn’t know they had a Mango Wheat beer, and they showed up with that one instead of the planned Spring Saison.
It was served extremely cold and the mango aromas were front and center before you could even get a taste of wheat. It’s undoubtedly a delicious beer, much in the fashion 21st Amendment’s Watermelon Wheat Beer but with possibly stronger in the fruity flavor and aromas than 21st Amendments, which I can drink by the gallon. It was a real toss-up between Bay Area Blonde and this beer, but in the end, the Bay Area Blonde edged it out just ever so slightly.
I’d love to get my hands on a case of the Mango Wheat beer, though I can’t seem to find it in stores locally.
Hey Hey Gourmet
Another exhibitor worth mentioning was Hey Hey Gourmet. If I weren’t there to judge, I’d have grabbed a beer, pulled up a chair and sat there all day eating their dips.
One of their dips had fresh bacon in it, and while I definitely could taste it–I also couldn’t give it best savory dish.
But — I’ll have you know, this is the only vendor where we bought something. Ian walked up toward the end and secured for us 5 bags–and I am addicted to their “scary” ghost pepper mix shown above.
IT. IS. SPICY.
Like, if you’re not careful, your head will blow off kind of spicy. If that entices you like it does me, it’s available right here.
Many, many years ago (in a galaxy far, far away?), I went up to Portland and happened to meet up with Jamie one evening, one of the owners of Ninkasi Brewing Company. He wasn’t at this event, unfortunately, but one of his beers was was and I was happy to see it on my list of beers to judge.
One of my favorite beers to this day is Tricerahops, and when I see it, I’ll usually order it. Dawn of the Red was almost as complex as Tricerahops is, with a significant hoppy note that hits you upon drinking it. Right after the hit, though, it softened up and became slightly citrusy before it ends with a whiff of a bitter IPA-like taste. But the bitterness fades really quickly unlike other IPAs–a really enjoyable beer much like Tricerahops.
And that’s just a tiny glimpse into the many, many vendors who were there–a total of about 30 food vendors in all, though a couple were only going to be available in the evening session.
While I won’t mention names, I will say this: there was one vendor who would have had the savory dish win in the bag according to the other judges, but I was adamantly against it because over the course of three hours–at first, they weren’t there, then they were present but not opened, and finally, I was irritated but went back once more and one guy was cooking up something but ignoring everyone outside his window waiting. It seems to me I put in a fair amount of effort to try it, walking back and forth trying to taste it–and if they could neither get there on time nor open up and serve within a reasonable time frame, there was no way they could win–not with every other vendor there working their butts off to serve hundreds of people in their lines.
Overall, a solid event with great food and beer–and one I had the great privilege of judging.
Hope that you guys who attended had a great time!
Still craving bacon? Check out my Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf and make it tonight.