Tastings School - A salt on the senses (Beer & Seafood)

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A salt on the senses (Beer & Seafood)

Beer can make a great accompaniment to salty seafood. Ben McFarland reports

Don your flip flops and Ray-Bans, squeeze into those skimpy Speedos and pack your bucket and spade because, this month, Beers Of The World’s voyage of beer and food discovery is taking your tastebuds down to the coast.

Yes, after a winter nibbling on cheese, chocolate and curry, BOTW sharpening its knife for a beer and seafood matching extravaganza. After all, where better to beer than beside the seaside?

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise but beer and seafood have a long relationship dating back to the 1500s.

In these times, as a sea-faring buccaneer about to set sail for the Far East in search of spice, vice and all things nice, barrels of freshly brewed beer were an essential companion to any ocean-bound voyage.

Grog, it turns out, was a necessity rather than a luxury. Jam-packed with hops to preserve it and brimming with protein, vitamins and, ahem, moraleboosting alcohol, beer was preferred to water which, apart from tasting pretty boring, was vulnerable to infection and contamination.

These eye-patch wearing, cutlass-waving swashbucklers would use the beer to wash down freshly caught fruits of the sea and the rapport between fish and seafood and beer was born.

Thankfully, beer and seafood’s relationship has developed beyond mere rancid, washed-up sea-skank spooned into a weary salt-rimmed mouth betwixt gulps of molten, musty beer.

Today, gastronomic adventurers are able to cast their net far and wide when looking for suitable beers to accompany the myriad of flavours offered by crustaceans, shellfish and other oceanic fodder.

OYSTERS

No other food divides opinion quite like oysters.

Loved by many for their decadent freshness, silky texture and aphrodisiacal powers yet loathed by others for tasting like seal’s snot with sand in, they are the Marmite of the seafood world.

Regardless of one’s standpoint, however, there seems to be little disagreement as to the best style of beer to accompany oysters. Chasing the slimy little blighters down with either a stout or a porter is a classic gastronomic ritual, dating back to Victorian times.

Back then, oysters were commonplace in the waters of England and Ireland and were consumed widely by the working classes. They’d be available on the bar tops of Victorian taverns, much as peanuts or pork scratchings are today, where they’d be washed down with a porter or a stout – the principal pints of the time.

Today, although oysters are a luxury (there’s not so many knocking about anymore) and porters and stouts are way down the priority list of the lagerdrinking masses, the combination of a fresh oyster and either a porter or a stout remains a glorious one.

Dry and bitter varieties of the beer are generally considered better options than sweeter oatmeal stouts as their bitterness fearlessly squares-up to the salty, metallic and briny character of the oysters.

What’s more, both the oyster and the beer, stout in particular, boast a similarly magnificent creamy texture is yet a further reason to bring the two together at the dinner table.

Or how about the mash tun? There’s been a revival in brewing so-called Oyster Stouts. Adorning a beer label with Oyster Stout can be potentially confusing for drinkers, however, as it can mean either that real oysters are used in the brewing process (Bushy’s Oyster Stout from the Isle of Man or Ventnor’s Oyster Stout from the Wye Valley Brewery); that oyster shells have been used as finings; or that, simply, the stout in your hand goes swimmingly well with oysters.

Away from stout and porters, are there any other beer styles that can stomach oysters?

As part of the Coors Beers Naturally campaign, an on-going initiative exploring and promoting the joys of beer and food, the renowned White Horse pub in West London recently held a beer and oyster evening.

The aim was to challenge the notion that white wine, Champagne and stout are the only preferred accompaniments for oysters. The tutored tasting, hosted by Dr Paul Hegarty of Coors Brewers and Mark Dorber of the White Horse, introduced guests to Cornish and Colchester oysters set against a wide range of beer styles. These included an Alsatian beer fermented with Champagne yeasts; a Scottish beer aged in bourbon casks; an English ale; Dutch and German lagers; as well as beers showcasing wheat, passion-fruit, raspberries and elderflower flavours.

“It proved yet again that high quality, characterful beers have a place on the drinks menus of top restaurants,” said Paul. “We asked for feedback from our guests and this showed a wide acceptance of the idea that oysters are great bedfellows with a wide variety of beer styles. However, there was a healthy disparity in views.” (For results see box)

MUSSELS

Forgive the typecasting but mussels are as Belgian as fries, chocolate and Tintin. It would be a serious faux pas to start one’s search for the ideal pairing anywhere other than Belgium.

And why not dive in at the deep end? Gueuze may not immediately sound ideal as an accompaniment to moules and frites but, in his fantastic Brewmaster’s Table book, Garrett Oliver waxes lyrical about the duo.

“Mussels are often steamed in gueuze,” he writes. “The same beer provides an excellent accompaniment, as the sweetness of the sea meets the sourness of the beer.” Further down the bitterness scale, wheat beers also work well. Those hailing from Germany may overpower the mussels so better opt for the citric and coriander notes found in delicate examples such as Korenwolf (from nearby Holland) or Blanche de Namur.

PRAWNS

Right, listen up. There must be a lot of beers that mingle gloriously with prawns. The crisp and raspy pilsners from Germany or even the cool, dry and minimalist lagers from the Far East, for example.

But following a recent epiphany at the aforementioned White Horse, I’ve only got tastebuds for Duvel when it comes to prawns with beer. Paired with garlic butter-soaked prawns, this golden Abbey beer – with its stunning clove and ripe pear flavours – is a taste sensation with few rivals.

Packing a punch of 8.5 per cent, Duvel boasts the strength to cut through the butter yet the subtlety to helps release the fresh flavours of the prawns. Critically, it leaves us to blow the heads off our little orange companions.

SCALLOPS

Seared scallops with pancetta When seared and rich with the roe attached, scallops are just shouting out for a beer with a bit of body and attitude.

Pilsners or weissbiers will simply be knocked off their feet. Instead, drinkers are best advised to reach for a beer that’s amber or darker in colour.

Fruity and full bodied British ales such as Old Hooky from Oxfordshire, Broadside from Adnams or Triple XB from Batemans have the sweetness of malt and the wealth of aromatics to produce a remarkable match.

Although reluctant to mention Innis & Gunn, as it’s all too regular a visitor to these beer and food pages, it would be an error not to include it amid talk of scallops. The sweet caramel of the seared scallop is a revelation with the restful woody vanilla notes of the whisky and orangetinged beer.

CRAB OR LOBSTER

A sharp pilsner or the slightly more delicate Helles beers are ideal with crab and lobster not only as a balanced and flavoursome foil but also as an easydrinking, thirst-slaking partner to all the heavy work that goes on with nut crackers, small hammers and demolition balls!

With the same spicy hop character of a pilsner but with a stronger malt character, Helles beers are well-equipped to match yet not overpower the sweetness of the white meat yet withstand the overtures of any spices or sauces that may accompany it. I’d recommend Paulaner Original Munchener, a buttery, clean and dry beer from land-locked Munich and one that straddles the gap between pilsner and helles.

OYSTER TEMPURA
Grolsch 5%: Crisp, biscuity malt with sweet and sour notes made an easy partner for oyster tempura Brakspear Bitter 3.4%: This cask ale has a salty tang to it and is complex with flavours of sweet barley and dry spice; so it is an obvious accompaniment for oyster tempura. Beers which display floral hop fruit may find oysters more of a challenge

FRESH OYSTERS
Kasteel Cru 5.2%: This Champagne-yeast fermented beer from Alsace received many of the higher marks with both types of oyster Jever Pils 4.9%: This massively hoppy and rapier-dry north German lager was thought by some to be too dry for oysters Gulpener Korenwolf 5%: Wheat beer from Holland, with elderflower and coriander added, received high marks. Good also with mussels Floris Passionfruit 3.6%: Very high marks for its sweet, clean fruit flavours, but dismissed as being too fruity a partner for oysters Duvel 8.5%: This iconic Abbey-style Belgium ale scored highly Wrasslers Stout 5%: Served on draught, this beer’s dark coffee flavours split opinion as to it oyster potential. Some thought a breadier, drier stout or porter with less coffee flavours would be preferred

OYSTERS IN VINEGAR OR HOT WITH BACON AND DEVILLED WHELKS
Rosé de Gambrinus 5%: This super-sour wild yeast fermented Belgian beer with raspberries was thought a step too far by most Rodenbach Grand Cru 6%: This Belgian brown/sour ale used to show oysters in its advertising. Maybe oysters with bacon and devilled whelks should also feature. This edgy brew was in general rated highly

SCALLOPS
Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer 6.6%: This was rated highly, though some would have preferred the scallops to be seared so as to bind them with the sweet caramel flavours of the beer