Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Leap of Faith

February 29th comes rarely, and Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery intends to celebrate it this time around with the release of a beer created specially for the occasion. But you don't have to wait anything like four years for a special event at one of Iron Hill's nine regional locations.

"We're kind of event crazy around here," said Brian Finn, head brewer at Iron Hill in Wilmington, and a 16-year veteran of the local restaurant industry. In addition to two regular events a month aimed at the restaurant's Mug Club members, Finn said, there is a steady stream of beer dinners, release parties, and special pairings like the February event that matched Iron Hill brews with chocolates custom designed by chocolatier Ryan Flynn of Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa.

Keeping customers engaged through a lively social calendar is crucial for the Wilmington restaurant. "We're here at the waterfront," said Finn. "Let's face it: people aren't just going to drop in because they happened to be passing by. We have to be a destination."

The strategy seems to be working, judging from the success of the brewpub's recent gatherings. The aforementioned chocolate pairing sold out 50 seats, and last Friday's event dubbed "The Dark Side" (a celebration of stouts, porters, and various other light-defying pours from Iron Hill and six guest breweries) filled the venue's upper floor with beer fans jockeying for their chance to be photographed with Darth Vader.

However, bringing in a crowd is not strictly about commerce for Finn. The best part of his job, he says, is exposing people to new styles and changing their perception of beer. "I love it when people say 'I'm a beer geek because of you'," he told me with a laugh. He gets the same fulfillment from conducting the training sessions that are mandatory for Iron Hill's waitstaff. The training touches on the brewing process, how to taste beer, and the do's and don'ts of tableside manner.

For tonight's Leap Day release, Finn would like to expose you to a newly conconcted Belgian strong ale he calls Leap of Faith. The beer is fermented with a Chimay yeast, one of the two Belgian strains the brewery uses in its diverse line of dubbels, trippels, and quads. I tasted Leap of Faith recently in the upstairs dining room of the brewpub, which overlooks a scenic meander of the Christina river.

This beer is a mellow apricot color and is densely cloudy with unfiltered yeast goodness. It has aromas of pineapple, pear, and Juicy Fruit gum. The body is full and mouthfeel is absolutely sumptuous -- maybe my favorite part of the experience. Pineapple and pear impressions carry over into the flavor as well, along with some yeast character and a beautifully integrated alcohol warmth. Despite its 10% alcohol by volume, this ale has a mellowness and drinkability that are pretty remarkable. I was actually recalling the flavor of Leap of Faith for several days afterward and craving another sip.

Beyond tonight's release party, take note of a few other Iron Hill events on the horizon. On Wednesday, July 18, during Wilmington Beer Week, the waterfront brewpub is slated to host an event pairing its food with the beers of other Delaware breweries, then later in the year it will be releasing a beer brewed in collaboration with Georgetown's 16 Mile Brewing Company (probably a maple porter).

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