Let me be frank. I know I can get good craft beer almost anywhere in this town, especially during Cool Brews. Hot Eats. I’m not at Amore Trattoria Italiana for the beer. I’m here, at this curiously out-of-the-way Italian restaurant in Comstock Park, because I keep hearing about its food. Beer is secondary for me tonight.

But beer isn’t secondary for Chef Jenna Arcidiacono, who co-owns the place with her husband and gives it its magic.

Before I can even ask her, she tells me that yes, of course beer goes with Italian food. “It’s not like America is the only country that drinks beer,” she says.

In Italy, Arcidiacono explains, the people eat and drink local, which means local beer from local breweries. She’s just being, well, Italian with her five-course beer pairing dinner, each portion of which is matched with a craft beer brewed within an hour and a half drive and hand picked by Jenna herself.

Some of the pairings are carefully calculated; a few “just came to her.” Most of the beers are fairly hoppy, which reflects Arcidiacono’s personal preferences as a self-described hop head, but equally reflects her impeccable sense of taste. 

The combined bitterness and mild, floral sweetness in various IPAs complement the first several courses, defined by the robust flavors of strong cheeses and strong meats (homemade sausage, lamb bacon). Especially delightful is the first course, where the floral notes of Founder’s Centennial IPA harmonize with the sweetness of the sausage and then clean up the fungal tones from the mushroom. The Michigan Paradigm Pale Ale from Rockford Brewing Co. has a similar effect on the soup course, which has an incredibly rich taste. (This is where the lamb bacon comes in.)

The only pairing that breaks the trend in the first four courses is the Fragole salad, which Jenna boldly pairs with Founder’s Curmudgeon Old Ale. As the name suggests, this beer usually doesn’t play well with others because of its aggressive and slightly sour body. But Arcidiacono makes it behave, and even brings out its sweet side, by setting it with this arugula and goat cheese salad that has its own bitter-sweet combination. 

After the two rounds of entrees — where the spicy-sweet combination of the Diavola’s vodka sauce and Founders Red’s Rye stands out — Arcidiacono finishes the feast by pairing like with like. She matches the sweetness of her chocolate truffles with the sweetness of Perrin’s Malted Milk Porter, and then matches the coffee core of her tiramisu with Founders Breakfast Stout. Both are perfect.

The whole thing was perfect, really. You can purchase the entire dinner in chef’s plates for $25, or you can select full portions of any course a la carte. My recommendation: try it all so you don’t miss anything, and then come back for your favorites the following night.

Learn more about Amore Trattoria Italiana and join the restaurant for its Cool Brews. Hot Eats. menu until March 1.

Cool Brews. Hot Eats. is taking over Grand Rapids.

You’ll find Michigan craft beers and on point food pairings at the most unlikely of places — like the top of the Amway Grand, for instance. Chef Werner Absenger and his dedicated kitchen crew have developed a unique beer themed menu that captures the globally influenced American cuisine of Cygnus 27, the flagship restaurant of the Amway on the 27th floor.

Sample three courses complete with 5 oz. beer pairings for only $40.00 and enjoy the view. 

The menu takes inspiration from the European heritage of Chef Absenger, throwing a bit of Michigan into the mix. Starting with descriptions of the beer, the Chef and his team narrowed down options for meal pairings from there.

“We have Scotty Karate [from Dark Horse Brewing], right? So we read the description and then tried it. The shortbread and hint of sweetness was key for a beer batter- for frog legs. Frog legs make sense for a karate chop, right?” Chef Werner laughs. Served with a slaw and remoulade sauce on the side, this was our starter.

The next course, Saguatuck Brewing Company’s Bonfire Brown Cheese Soup was designed to invoke the memories of summer (much needed with all this snow) as well as providing something to warm you up on these cold nights.

The entrée, and my favorite menu item of the evening, was Brewery Vivant’s Farm Hand Choucroute Garnie. Inspired by the brewers at Vivant’s trip to France, this spin on a traditional Alsace regional recipe braises the sauerkraut and locally sourced knockwurst, kielbasa and smoked pork loin in the French style farmhouse ale instead of the traditional Riesling. The funk of the Vivant house yeast paired perfectly with the sourness of the kraut.

Dessert featured product from New Holland Brewery. An oatmeal stout based chocolate cake featuring The Poet as well as some spirits thrown into the mix, New Holland’s Beer Barrel Bourbon. Sandwiched between two cake layers was The Bukowski Ice Cream, also made with the brew.

The ice cream people are perhaps a very healthy and satisfied people, but luckily you don’t have to be off the bottle to enjoy this treat.

Becky Casto, Cygnus general manager shares her opinion on the Beer City vibe. “It’s hugely exciting. There’s so much pride in Grand Rapids [with the BeerCity  USA win]. My background is wine, so it’s been very exciting for me to be educated on the beer culture and to see how beer can pair with food. It’s a win for the city all around.”

The kitchen at Cygnus shares the ‘we are all in this together’ spirit of the beer community. Absenger brought out his team — Tim Moreno, Rick Medcalf and Phil Laviolette — after our meal. These gentlemen, all at different stages in their culinary career, clearly are soaking up knowledge from Absenger as well as exploring their own food passions and creativity.

Kitchen camaraderie makes for the best meals — otherwise you can taste the tension. And that doesn’t sit well with your beer.

Learn more about Cygnus 27 and join the restaurant for its Cool Brews. Hot Eats. menu until March 1.

FERNDALE — The “terrible twos” are typically a hectic and dreadful time for most parents. Unless, of course, your child is a craft beer bar. 

One Eyed Betty’s celebrated its two-year anniversary this week by hosting a Barrel-Aged Beer Week.

With nightly tapping’s Monday through Thursday at 6 p.m., the week was chalked full of huge brews and high ABVs.

The idea is credited to Bar Manager and resident “Beer Genius” Michael Fredenburg.

“In the summertime, I was conjuring up ideas on something to do. I wanted to do a barrel-aged night, which was my original plan,” Fredenburg said. “That kind of turned into me hoarding beer enough to do a full week. So it became our birthday celebration.”

While the high-octane beers reigned supreme and some customers jokingly labeled the list “dangerous,” Owner and Operator Beth Hussey wasn’t worried.

“The people who know about these beers and appreciate them, know how to drink them,” she said.

Hussey said of the 17 beers tapped this week, many have been cellared for over a year.

“I don’t know if everyone quite understands how special some of these beers are, but we do,” Hussey said. “There are some big beauties on that list.”

The biggest beauty of them all was tapped on Thursday evening to a ravenous crowd awaiting their pours of the magical liquid known as Bell’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Batch 9,000.

Hussey described it as “the last of its kind.” Fredenburg proclaimed it as “the star of the show.”

The keg lasted all of 21 minutes and 16 seconds.

“You don’t come across that every day. It was very, very special and we have to thank Bell’s for that,” Fredenburg said.

Other highlighted Michigan beers included Odd Side Ales Barrel Aged Citra Pale Ale and Griffin Claw Brewing Bourbon Imperial Stout. Offerings from Mt. Pleasant Brewing Company, Tri-City Brewing Company and Northville Winery also rounded out the list.

Hussey said the last two years have been “awesome” and can’t believe how much Betty’s has learned in that time.

“Now, the pressure’s on,” she said. “How do we continue to be cool and great? And be the place beer drinkers think of going for good beer?”

Although the pressure is mounting in her eyes, Hussey doesn’t want to veer too far from what’s made them successful.

“We have really high standards,” she said. “Right now, I really believe that we’re right in the sweet spot.”

GRAND RAPIDS — A line was forming outside on the morning of HopCat’s sixth anniversary, but owner Mark Sellers was concerned first of all with the crowd inside.

“When we opened,” he told the congregation of about 25 employees, “I didn’t even know if we’d make it to one year. Now we’ve made it six years, and we’re setting records every year, and that’s thanks to all of you.

“Now get to work!” he added wryly, and opened the doors for the anniversary celebration. The all-day event featured limited release stouts, free “crack fries,” and a crack fry eating contest so intense that an impromptu halftime was needed to help the kitchen keep up.

It was clearly a successful day for one of the most celebrated beer bars in the country. But while success has become the standard outcome for everything HopCat does, it wasn’t exactly what Sellers planned for at the beginning.

Sellers just wanted the place to stay afloat at first. He didn’t anticipate the craft beer craze. He wasn’t thinking that far ahead. “I told my manager,” he recalled, “that my goal [for the first year] was to break even so I could have a bar to hang out in.” 

The vision was a place for “the true beer geeks,” a place that emphasized craft and kept out corporatized macrobrews. People told Sellers it would never work. “I got lucky, I guess,” he said.

Whatever caused it — luck, intuition or maybe just good taste — Sellers isn’t too concerned about his personal success with HopCat. He’s most gratified by the prosperity it has brought to others. Between HopCat and the other bars he owns (under the umbrella of Barfly Ventures), Sellers employs more than 430 people who have made over $7 million in wages since he opened HopCat in 2008. “It really gives me a sense of pride that I’ve given that many people a way to make a living,” he said.

Two of the staff making their living at HopCat are Ernest Richards and Bobby Edgcomb, the brewers behind the spectrum of stouts released for the anniversary. Both enjoy the challenge of brewing for a place where the in-house beers aren’t the only option or even the main attraction. Edgcomb said that, because their beers face more competition, the brewers “have to bring their best” in order to get any attention. 

Their best on this occasion was the Oil Rigger, a rich but smooth Russian imperial stout, plus six flavor-infused variations on it: Chocolate raspberry, coffee marshmallow, crème brûlée, molé, orange brandy and vanilla bourbon.

The stout’s full body offered a nice backdrop to each of these flavors, the most popular of which seemed to be the molé, a beer that smells a little like French Toast but finishes with heat from ancho and chipotle chili peppers. Special edition bottles of the standard Oil Rigger were sold to a limited number of customers, but all the flavors (plus 2012 and 2013 brews of the Oil Rigger) were available on draft.

You can expect more crack fries, more brews, and more people to be on hand this time next year for the seventh anniversary. If you can’t wait that long for a HopCat party, though, you’re in luck. Sellers plans to announce the opening of a third HopCat restaurant soon. He wouldn’t say where, exactly, but he would say this: “If you keep going east past East Lansing, you eventually hit another city.”