Tastings School - Beer has a future with food

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Beer has a future with food

Increasingly people are experimenting with flavours and serving food with beer. Ben McFarland introduces our food column

It wasn’t too long ago that merely uttering the words “beer” and “gastronomy” in the same sentence would have men in white coats knocking on your door – and we’re not talking about curious chefs either.

Beer was about as welcome at the nation’s collective dinner table and kitchen as a severe dose of E-coli.

Notwithstanding the classic city centre kinship between a dozen pints of lager and a kebab or knuckle sandwich, its relationship with food has, up until recently, been a frosty one.

But times have changed and in the last few years so too have perceptions of beer.

In the fast flowing ‘slow-food’ revolution that proudly flies the flag of epicurean enlightenment and storms the gates of mass-produced mediocrity, artisan brews can be found vigorously shaking their fists somewhere near the front.

It has ditched its pipe, polyester cardigan and sandals and slipped into something a lot more slinky, sophisticated and suitable for supper.

Matching beer and food has become quite the hot topic of brewers’ conversation. In fact, nothing melts their butter more effectively than titillating talk of how the two make such a charming couple.

It’s the king prawn on the public relations barbecue, with journalists of the gastronomic persuasion attending more beer and food pairing dinners than they’ve had hot ones.

Consequently, articles espousing the multi-layered harmonies of the humble hop and haute cuisine are picking away at the collective consciousness. So much so that several top-class restaurants, the Michelin-star Aubergine in London and Anthony’s in Leeds to name but two, now offer beer recommendations alongside the wine list.

There is, for once, genuine method to this marketing madness though. The beer and food concept is significantly more than blue sky thinking conjured up in a boardroom. Beer has history firmly on its side.

For centuries in Britain it was beer not wine that poured supreme in the homes of both the posh and the pauper.

In a nation where barley fields vastly outnumber vineyards, this is no surprise. A nation’s cuisine, after all, is instinctively betrothed to its national drink. Yet, unlike other grain producing countries such as Belgium and the Czech Republic, beer’s marriage with food in the United Kingdom is only just clambering off the rocks, its Anglo-Saxon relationship wrecked by the European eroticism and allure of the grape. Wine’s charm offensive has managed to turn the heads of bon vivants with its smooth candlelit talk and air of sophistication, assuring us all that making friends and influencing people is easy if you’re a cork-sniffing, glass-swirling viniculture vulture.

Don’t believe the hype, though.

Beneath wine’s fur coat of refinement, there’s a distinct lack of underwear and like an adulterous husband who’s seen the folly of his ways, food is realising as much and rekindling its relationship with the cuckolded beer.

Wine may have won the phony war, but the true battle for food’s affections takes place on the palate and in the realms of one’s senses and it is here where beer is really turning the dining tables.

Beer boasts more than 100 different flavours and styles, thousands of natural aroma compounds and a better finish than anything Wayne Rooney could muster.

We’re not talking about mass-produced bottled yellow fizz here, good for rolling across your forehead on a summer’s day but little else. And we’re not talking about pint glasses which, like elbows and pets, are simply unacceptable at the dinner table.

We’re talking artisan brews, lovingly crafted ales and long and lingering lagers with genuine balance and complexity of flavour that tweak the nipples of Chardonnay, flick the ears of Shiraz and laugh in the face of the finest Burgundies when it comes to showing food a good time.

Any naysayers who find the whole beer and food concept a bit hard to swallow need only savour oysters with a rich and creamy stout – a combination which sings hymns going down; sample a sweet Belgian framboise with chocolate torte or foie gras; sip on a full-bodied and herbal rich Biére de Garde with pork or rabbit or wash down a snappy Weissbier, all coriander and citrus, with grilled fish and Caesar salad.

Or pick up of a copy of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, written by Garrett Oliver and widely regarded as the ultimate food and beer bible.

Garrett is America’s leading proponent of beer with food, a role he combines with his head brewer position at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York. In his inspirational book he writes: “If you love food, but you know only wine, then you’re trying to write a symphony using only half the notes and half the orchestra.” Wine may be a wonderful drink in many ways but it doesn’t go with everything.

Cheese, is a case in point. Wine gets on with cheese only marginally better than chalk. It’s a marriage of convenience; when the cheese arrives on the table the red wine is, more often than not, being finished off. Same place, wrong time according to Garret Oliver.

“The dirty little secret of the wine world is that most wine, especially red wine, is a very poor match for cheese,” he writes.

“The liaison between the two is often accidental and awkward.” The bitter nuttiness of a Harvest Ale gets on swimmingly well with a rich and creamy stilton; Dopplebock sidles up to Swiss cheese with a glint in its eye while India Pale Ale mingles magnificently with traditionally aged cheddars. Just ask a ploughman what he’d prefer with his lunch.

From the most traditional of British dishes, we move to the most contemporary and, officially, Britain’s most popular: Chicken Tikka Massala.

Spicy food may flirt with wine, but it dares to dance with beer. Beer’s flavours stand up strong to the sweetness and spice of ethnic cuisine. Beer not only boasts the bitterness to cut through robust flavours and oily textures but also the carbonation to cleanse the palate and make every bite that follows a sip just like the first.

“Spices distort wine flavours, turning white wines hot and red wines bitter,” explains Garrett. “Wine doesn’t refresh the palate the way beer does because wine has no caramelised or roasted flavours to match those in our favourite dishes.”

Alas, there is neither the space nor the time here to provide an exhaustive list of irresistible beer and food unions. Fear not, however, for over the next few months Beers of the World will endeavour to whet the appetite with some salivating beer and food suggestions. Thankfully, the men in white coats have taken off the special jacket with the arms at the back…