Tastings School - The final course

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The final course

Ben Mcfarland
British beer writer and regular BOTW columnist Ben McFarland has written extensively about beer’s culinary kinship with food.

Six things you shouldn’t do at the dinner table: 1) Pick your teeth; 2) Pick someone else’s teeth; 3) Stab someone with a fork; 4) Rest on your elbows; 5) Pass the port to your right; 6) Drink port with dessert and cheese.

The last, of course, is precisely what happens at most dinner parties. It’s not right. A pairing borne out of laziness and tradition rather than learned tastebuds. When the meal is in its last throes of extravagance, the refined richesse, full-bodied fruit flavours and indulgent fug-inducing alcohol of barley wines is what should be called for. But not before, because unless you’re eating raw chillies or a vindaloo, barley wines tend to blow the doors off a dinner.

Let’s start with cheese. When it comes to the ponky French gear, blue veined and creamy, or English cheeses harder than Double Maths with Jean-Claude Van Damme, barley wines don’t just step up to the plate, they pick it up and smash it joyously over the heads of puzzled ports and bemused bin-ends.

De Stille Nacht from De Dolle Brewers in Belgium, for example, has enough feisty fruit and malt character to render biscuits and chutney obsolete.

Dark orange, outrageously complex barley wine brewed for Christmas that’s stewed in pale malt, Nugget hops and candy sugar. Stone’s Old Guardian, down in San Diego, has the heightened hop character to peel the fat from the top of your mouth and, unlike wine, won’t invoice you with gout for doing so; while JW Lees Harvest Ale is simply sublime with Stilton.

And for desserts? Think deep, rich and artery-clogging. Sticky toffee pudding, lathered in cream, is delicious with Old Tom from Robinsons. A luxurious, oxbloodcoloured ale that’s swirled in chocolate, dark cherry and liquorice with a touch of spicy after-dinner mint on the finish. Fruit desserts, often erroneously matched with fruit beers, are best paired with barley wines with a plumy, prune and fig centre. Jacobite Ale from Traquair House brewery in Scotland is one such example. A sensational, strong ale seasoned with coriander to enhance the heavy hop character. Voluptuous, rich and vinous with a touch of spicy chocolate.

Will Beckett
Will Beckett, director of Underdog consultancy, is one of the UK’s most successful pub and bar entrepreneurs and, alongside his mother Fiona Beckett, is the co-author of An Appetite for Ale.

I’m not sure what it’s like outside where you are.

Perhaps you’re lying around on Bondi Beach wondering where the next barbeque shrimp is coming from, or perhaps doing a gentle backstroke in the waters of the Caribbean.

Personally, I am holed up in South London in the middle of winter, with only the speed of my typing keeping my fingers warm enough to prevent frostbite.

All of which seems appropriate for this month’s topic of barley wine, because for me no beer is more perfect for a bitingly cold day, and the food which goes best with it is exactly the kind of thing I find myself craving in those English winter months (early September though to late May).

Barley wine is memorable for three things – the level of alcohol (typically 8-12%), its density and its sweetness (especially the English ones – American ‘barley wine-style ales’ (catchy title) are more heavily hopped).

So, when thinking of a food matching I have two words for you – dessert and cheese – and, as I am feeling especially patriotic today, I’ll deal with them in that order rather than the possibly more sensible order that almost everyone else seems to enjoy them in.

For desserts you ought to be thinking along the lines of rich, fruit based desserts. Personal favourites include fruit cakes, baked apples with cinnamon and Christmas pudding, and given a choice of brew I’d pick J W Lees Harvest Ale or Thomas Hardy Ale. If you’re feeling a touch more American perhaps a pecan pie and a bottle of Old Foghorn from the brilliant Anchor Steam brewery in San Francisco.

And finally the cheese. I regularly serve barley wines with a varied cheese board, as it can pretty much hold up to anything and you need a match that can cope with the strongest cheese on the board, which leads nicely to the best match in the world for barley wine – Stilton. If it’s cold where you are then try it – you’ll feel as English as Winston Churchill walking a bulldog in the rain.

Garrett Oliver
Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York. His book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, is the ultimate tome on the topic of beer and food.

When winter sets in and the days grow short, dim and cold, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Once an exclusive house-made provision of the English aristocracy, barley wine is now a favourite diversion of breweries from Derbyshire to Colorado. These days, we tend to think of barley wine as a digestif, but it was originally brewed specifically to replace wine at the dinner table. Given the opportunity, barley wines can make admirable pairings with a wide variety of dishes.

Barley wines come in several distinct varieties and each has its particular talents. The modern British variant is usually a pale honey-coloured beer showing strength and malty smoothness, but little complexity. These can pair nicely with chicken, partridge or quail served with mushrooms or rich sauces. Malt is a team player here, using its sweetness and warmth to row in with the other flavours in the dish. You can even pair them with heavier salads, particularly the classic “chef’s salad” with the greens groaning under a profusion of ham, roast beef and blue cheese.

The modern American barley wine is another animal entirely. Here a massive wall of sweet malt is opposed by explosive hop bitterness and piney, tropical aromatics. When that lamb vindaloo leaves gewürztraminer in the dust and wan Indian lagers panting for breath, American barley wines can step up and take the heat.

Caramel malts work nicely with the meats, sweetness helps cool the fire, and bitterness slices through butter and works wonders with chillies. For similar reasons these beers can work with all sorts of spicy dishes, from Szechuan Chinese to Mexican.

Of course, traditional barley wine looks at all of this with a faint air of disapproval, but then the ability to age for decades will give a beer ideas.

These beers are still brewed as they were 200 years ago, and they have retained their abilities at the dinner table. With a few years of age, they can be an excellent choice for foie gras, whether served seared or in a terrine.

The caramelised malts harmonise beautifully with the gaminess of the foie gras, while the sweetness opposes the salt and the bitterness cuts through the fat. These beers also work nicely with rack of lamb, venison, duck, wild boar, and game sausages.

Of course, great cheese is the crowning glory of traditional barley wine, and these beers will defeat the grape at every turn. Classic old cheddars work nicely, nutty gruyeres are a revelation, and with Stilton we arrive at the pinnacle. The earthiness of the malt combines with the barnyard funk of the Stilton, and the pairing achieves a perfect unity.

Perhaps it is only then that we remember that barley wine was always paired with Stilton in the first place. And we can almost hear the coach and horses outside, waiting to take us home through the snow.