Sunday, 15 February 2015

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please

The tangential title of my blog is the 1980 hit single of Splodgenessabounds – a "song” which tracks the frustrations of a man not being served at his local bar. But I digress, the point is that lager and crisps, that most rudimentary of pub orders and the default beer and food combo, is a very distant relative of the current trend offered by sommeliers of beer and food pairing.

The push for beer and food matching has been around for several years now. Famously, the sommelier at Le Gavroche, Michel Roux Jr's two-starred Michelin restaurant, advises on the beer choice per course. Last year, Britain's Beer Alliance launched their “There's a Beer for That” campaign, which allows you to request beer matches for food on their twitter feed (just tweet @BeerForThat with #beermatch).  

Promoting drinking beer with food in restaurants (and elsewhere), rather than wine, is based on solid reasoning. Beer is our national drink; as a nation we were drinking beer way before the romans introduced wine. The range of ingredients in beer lends itself to a diverse range of types and flavour of beer, with over 5,000 to choose from. Also beer is less alcoholic and generally costs less than wine meaning that a different beer can be matched to each course during you meal.

So what are the rules (if any) when it comes to matching beer and food? I’ve just returned from the Beer Academy course, which I wholeheartedly recommend. First off the beer should naturally complement, and not detract from, the food. Furthermore, the beer should still taste good after eating the food.

When beer food pairing, the Beer Academy offer the 3 Cs of Cut, Complement and Contrast as a starting point:
 
  • Cut refers to beers that can lift and slice through rich, fatty or oily dishes. For example, a Bière de Garde or Trappist Ale will work with most rich meats.
  • Compliment refers to using a similar flavour or character. One of my favourite complimentary pairings is Rauchbier and smoked salmon (or Bavarian smoked cheese). Over Christmas I found that our own slightly sweet Conqueror’s Premium Bitter balances the richness of a mince pie. 
  • Contrast is the more difficult art – “placing the food and beer on opposite sides of the palate”. This could be used to neutralise flavours, such as balance a sour beer using a sweet dish. A great example is a Kriek followed by a chocolate based desert – it balances well and creates a Black Forest Gateau dancing on the palate. I’ve found that our hoppy and malty Totem American IPA nicely balances Indian curry and Thai dishes (far better than fake Indian lagers).

Another pairing principle offered by most beer sommeliers is weight or intensity. So opt for a light beer with lighter food and a stronger beer with heavier food. A Czech Pilsner or Belgian Wheat Beer goes well with fish, and manages to cut through the oil. In contrast, Barley Wine or a full-bodied strong ale compliments a mature cheddar or stilton cheese.

The Brewers Association produced one of the most detailed charts on beer and food pairing. But I find the stripped-down chart by Napa Point Brewing a lot easier to follow. Both are a great place for safe tips but also don’t be afraid to try different beer food combinations. Despite their 3 Cs guidance, the Beer Academy advises that in beer and food pairing it's really “Rules – none! Experiment!”. If you find an enjoyable beer food combination that works for you then don’t be afraid to ask for it when in a restaurant, and congratulate your individuality.

Another top tip when it comes to pairing is to consider what food would typically be eaten in the region where the beer is brewed.  I refer to this the fourth C of Context. A good German lager, such as Paulaner Original Münchner Hell, just goes down so well with spicy sausage. Similarly, an American malty lager or an amber ale kind of compliments pizza.

I think this latter point is not only about how beer and food have developed side by side over the years but is also related to how beer and food combinations affect our overall taste experience. It is quite often remarked that we "taste with our eyes"; we also know that certain aromas trigger deep-rooted memories. It is evident that how we perceive flavour and taste is affected by the wider Context such as environment, the weather, our mood and the occasion. As my local landlord, Nigel of the Rising Sun, pointed out “that cold cerveza and tapas on a terrace in Spain watching the sunset go down is the most wonderful of taste sensations, but the same beer loses its appeal on a wet Sunday afternoon in Blighty”.  

I tend to agree and as a consequence I have one niggling concern when it comes to the beer and food paring (r)evolution in the UK. Obviously I see the sense and benefit of encouraging beer to be consumed in high-end sophisticated restaurants with their extravagant and over-indulgent menus. But as an industry, I believe our primary focus should be on promoting British beers.

Beer was borne out of tradition and to me that means pub fayre. Our traditional ales are most suited to pub classics such as Shepherd’s Pie, Steak and Kidney Pie, Sausage and Mash, Roast Dinners, Ploughman’s Lunch and the Cheese Board. (And by the way why don’t seafood vendors visit pubs anymore and why can’t I buy cheese and biscuits over the bar – does it always have to be a packet of crisps?) Anyhow, the overall flavour experience is greatly enhanced by the pub atmosphere, an open-fire and a welcoming landlord/lady.

I will indeed choose beers from around the world, rather than wine, when I next visit a two-starred Michelin restaurant, but in the meantime I’m off for pie and a pint at my local.

If you want to learn more about beer and food pairing join us at oue evening event at Haresfoot Brewery in May 2015.

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