Tastings School - Beer vs wine

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Beer vs wine

Beer and wine go head to head at the Ra!n Bar in Manchester, at an event organised by JW Lees brewery. Sally Toms was there.

It’s fight night and inside the Ra!n Bar, an elegant yet traditional pub in Manchester, a crowd begins to gather.

Invited by regional brewer JW Lees, a small group of brewers and wine merchants glance furtively at one another, wondering who is for the grape and who for the grain?

Two contenders step into the ring, each one ultimately qualified to partner up the dishes cooked up by Ra!n Bar chef Brian Regan. In the blue corner: George Bergier, chairman of Manchester Guild of Sommeliers and three times Sommelier of Year; in the red corner: Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, author of The Brewmaster’s Table and driving force behind beer and food matching.

The rest of the group would participate in Ready- Steady-Cook fashion, holding up a card to indicate or vote for which drink went better with each course, the beer or the wine.

The bell rings and the fight begins…

ROUND ONE
Rare beef salad with a herb and cheese tortellini, sautéed new potatoes, spinach and horseradish mayonnaise.

The beer: Schneider Weisse A delicate wheat beer with notes of banana, cloves and smoke. It has that distinctive wheat beer tang, but with a healthy dose of residual sweetness. Like all wheat beers, it has a cleansing character that with this dish cuts through the creamy sauce and very iron taste of the beef.

The wine: Chianti DOCG – La Pieve 2005 Red fruits of the forest, not black fruits as the wine is young. George admits that horseradish is a killer of wine, and spinach doesn’t like it much either, and these flavours jarred against the oaky, fruity, err... wineyness.

The winner: Beer Although neither really did this dish any justice.

Apparently both experts believed they were getting a salad (with leaves) but the dish was more of a beef and cheese affair. Very tasty, but unfortunately the wine jarred with one or two elements.

ROUND TWO
Ra!n Sole Food: poached lemon sole stuffed with a salmon mousse served with whole prawn, mussels and a truffle froth.

The beer: Brooklyn Local 1 A very special beer from Brooklyn Brewery. Served in a Champagne-style bottle. 100 per cent bottle refermentation, an old technique but one that is becoming increasingly rare. Has a wonderful depth of flavour: there is sweetness here, but not as much as Schneider Weisse – Brooklyn Local contain less than half of residual sugars. It is dry, refreshing and delicate, especially with the mussels (add some chips and this would be amazing).

The wine: Mersault les Bouches Chéres 1er cru – Laboure Roi 2002 A very peachy Chardonnay, known as the ‘queen of grape varieties’. This is an absolutely stunning white wine.

The acidity is a triumph with the buttery, fishy sauce.

The winner: Wine Unfortunately for Brooklyn Local, which is a sublime beer, this Mersault is a truly stunning wine which was made for fishy dishes such as this one.

ROUND THREE
Pan seared cannon of lamb with a white onion mousseline, olive mash, asparagus and minted hollandaise The beer: Corsendonk Pater Noster A dark brown, Belgian abbey ale.

Complex flavours of malt and sweet dried fruit, particularly raisins. Would go excellently with game meat, I think.

The wine: Les Secrets de Lafon Rochet St. Estephe AC 1996 Like figs, leather and black pepper in a glass.

This is the second or third time George has introduced his a disclaimer: “disregard the mint, disregard the asparagus. Just push it to the side of your plate.” The brewers are finding it all very funny.

The winner: Beer (by one vote) Everyone expected the wine to win – the traditional accompaniment to lamb is a bordeaux. Both drinks have a surprisingly similar flavour and mouthfeel, so it comes down to the carbonation and temperature. The sweet caramelised onions and meaty, lamby flavour marries well with both, but ever so slightly improved the flavour of the beer.

ROUND FOUR
Chocolate fondant and truffles The beer: Kriek Boon Traditional krieks like this one are dry and sour as opposed to modern, overly sweet varieties. Has flavours of marzipan and cherry, the stones more than the fruit.

The wine: De Bortoli Show Liquer Muscat George admits he doesn’t get the sweet + sweet combo in food, saying “it’s a form of pain.” This Muscat has flavours of stewed prunes and raisins, delicious on its own, but the powerful flavours compete with the chocolate rather than complement.

Verdict: Beer Cherry beer and chocolate is a classic – it becomes a black forest gateaux on your tongue. Unlike George, I think the sweet + sweet combo works well, effectively cancelling out the sweetness of each other.

Above: The Ra!n Bar at 80 Great Bridgewater Street, Manchester, England ROUND FIVE Cropwell Bishop Stilton The beer: JW Lees Harvest Ale 2006 There’s not much seperating barley wine from grape wine. This has a rich, powerful flavour much like a port, all figs and raisins. The high alcohol (11.6%) means it ages well.

The wine: Graham 10yo Tawny Port and stilton is a absolute classic.

The strong flavour neutralises the rather footy aroma of the cheese.

Verdict: Wine The beer just needed a tad more oomph – the 2005 Harvest Ale would undoubtedly have fared better.

THE CHAMPION
Readers of this magazine have always known it, but this fight proves that beer is officially better than wine.

Admittedly, the brewers outnumbered the grape-lovers at this tasting, but here’s the essential difference between grape people and grain people: most beer drinkers drink wine as well, but not all wine drinkers will even touch beer. There is a snobbery with wine that doesn’t exist with beer (you could say that beer has the opposite problem).

It is not unheard of for wine snobs to choose a wine they particularly want to drink in a restaurant, then ask the sommelier for a recommendation from the menu.

Our eating habits have definitely changed. We are no longer a nation of meat and potatoes, therefore the traditional bottle of house red is not always the best accompaniment for your meal.

Once upon a time, a sommelier would have been the drinks steward for a restaurant, with no favourites.

This was Michael Jackson’s law of the “properly polygamous palette”: wine, beer, whisky, sake, sherry, water, whatever – it is only about the flavour.