“Brewing and baking are actually very similar,” says Darren Riggs during the tour portion of the Cupcakes & Beer tasting ($20). After further explanation of their brewing process, the connection is clear: Grain, yeast, and passion are all essential ingredients in both beer and baked goods. That’s why they make such a perfect pair. We are spoiled in Champaign County with the plethora of high-quality breweries and bakeries just outside our front doors. When two of those local businesses team up, a creative and tasty event is born.
Pairing cupcakes and beer is not a new concept in the area. Champaign-Urbana Girls Pint Out has hosted a few of these fun events before. They have been few and far between however, despite the intense interest each of these events has caused on their Facebook event pages. Riggs hosted their own rendition of Cupcakes & Beer for two days back-to-back on one of Champaign-Urbana’s busiest weekends. U of I Graduation and Mother’s Day must be the perfect excuse to try something new, though, because our section on Saturday was sold out.
Riggs Beer Company was packed when my companion and I arrived Saturday, just a little before the event start time. On the weekends, Riggs is always a lively place. It’s kid-friendly with lots of games to play outside. There were families playing bags and giant Jenga, while kids were occupied climbing on the wooden tractor/playground or chasing one of the brewery cats around. Even though it was spitting rain, that didn’t seem to bother any of the patrons. Recently, Riggs has updated the patio with awnings made from solar panels they’ve installed. It looks great, and will provide much needed refuge from the elements this summer.
Our event was set up in the brewery, which was a smart move given the crowded bar area. Inside, we all gathered around Darren Riggs as he began the tour of the brewery. Even though I had been to Riggs many times before, this was my first official tour. If you haven’t been on a Riggs tour yet, you really should make it a priority. Brewing beer is a complicated chemical process that takes a chemist’s level of knowledge and a baker’s level of passion to get right. After listening to Darren talk, it’s clear that he and his brother Matt have plenty of both.
Of course, everyone was there for cupcakes, too, so after the tour we all sat down at a table inside the brewery and got started with the pairing. First up was the one I was most excited about: The hefeweizen with a banana cake and caramel cream cheese frosting cupcake. Their hefeweizen is in my top five favorite beers of all-time, and the cupcake pairing highlighted everything I love about it. Hefeweizens have an inherent banana and clove flavor, even though no bananas or cloves are added to the beer. A banana cake was a natural choice, and the caramel cream cheese added another dimension that also picked up on the sweetness of the beer.
Next up was the Legends Lager with an angel food cupcake topped with whipped cream and a raspberry. Their Legends Lager is made with Cascade hops that give it a nice floral and citrus flavor that paired really well with the light and airy angel food cake.
I’m a chocolate fiend, so I was excited to see what they would pair with the all-chocolate cupcake. They chose the Dopplebock, which is a darker beer that has a malty-sweet plum flavor. The Riggs brothers mentioned that this cupcake was originally meant to pair with their Schwarzbier, but they ran out of the Schwarzbier before the event. The smoky Schwarzbier might have been a more interesting pairing with the intense chocolate, but the plum flavor of the Dopplebock went just fine with the chocolate as well.
After the first three cupcakes, we were on to mini pies for the last three pairings. Of the mini pies, the first was a honey pecan pie that was paired with the Maibock. Just as its name suggests, Maibock was made for drinking in May when the weather turns warmer. A Maibock beer has a subtle honey character that was balanced nicely with the caramelly-nutty flavor of the pecan pie.
An event like this is naturally going to be a bit whimsical and shouldn’t take itself too seriously. Throughout the tasting, Darren was sharing more about the beer and cupcakes as well as answering a few questions and cracking some jokes. No pairing got more of a crowd response than the American Lager with the apple pie. Darren’s only comment was “You can’t get much more American than that.” Indeed, as this pairing tasted like the dessert round of a hot Fourth of July backyard BBQ.
The final pairing was the Red Lager and a cherry pie. My prior experience with the Red Lager was that it tasted malty and I didn't get much else out of it. Paired with the cherry pie, I was surprised I able to taste more of the piney notes from the hops in the beer. This reminded me that food and drink pairings can really unveil the more subtle characteristics of what I’m consuming that makes it special.
When two local businesses team up to showcase the creativity that abounds in this area, people get excited. The time and care that probably goes into planning and event like this might make it hard to do regularly, but people won’t get tired of eating and drinking well. Beer is seasonal, and my companion and I left talking about Riggs' upcoming beers and potential cupcake pairings for those.
Riggs will be releasing their Citraweizen soon; you can follow their Facebook page for updates on when that will be released. Get your cupcake fix at Cream & Flutter anytime.
Riggs Beer Company
1901 High Cross Rd
Th + F 3 to10 p.m.
Sa + Su noon to 10 p.m.
Cream & Flutter
114 N Walnut
M-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 1 to 8 p.m.
All photos by Katie Simpson