Considering the amount of time, expertise and passion that goes in to making a pint of beer, it is a wonder it has taken so long for chefs, sommeliers and the restaurant and bar world to fully embrace what a good beer can do for food that a glass of wine can’t. Rupert Ponsonby looks at the characters that have helped beer find its rightful place in the premium on-trade and gives his suggestions for what beer goes with what dish.
It is a long time since beer was only drunk in the likes of the Rovers Return. With styles of beer from all over the world there is no reason, says Rupert Ponsonby, that they can’t be embraced, loved and important to a restaurant than a fine claret or Chablis.
“You don’t mean ale!” said the smartly suited sommelier of a Michelin star restaurant, recoiling in horror as if he had just stepped into a big dog’s poo. It was a hot afternoon in the nineties in central London. I had only asked him for the ‘Beer List’. But he was horrified; I had demeaned his restaurant. Had any other diners heard? If I had asked him for Prosecco, or rosé or Mezcal his reply might have been the same, the narrow-minded git.
Did I really expect to drink beer alongside his exalted foods? The answer was ‘I did’. But choosing beer to match to foods was but a glimmer in most restaurateurs’ minds. But all’s now changed.
Here we look at the characters and the individuals that have helped welcome and make beer such an important part of our restaurant and eating and drinking experience.
CAVE MAN: He got there first, the hairy old man, realising that chargrilled mammoth needed a hefty beer. So he gathered cereals and herbs, and maybe the occasional fruit, and there it was, a dark mess of potage which suited the mammoth admirably.
BEER MAN: Michael Jackson, the esteemed writer on whisky and beer, came from Yorkshire, perhaps its greatest ever export. His knowledge on beer was awesome, and he was holding beer dinners in New York matched with his chosen foods way back in the 1980’s. It took about 20 years for his ideas to be given air by the manager of the White Horse pub on Parson’s Green.
PUB MAN: Mark Dorber was that manager, dragging a startled and disbelieving world towards beer and food. His oyster tempura, infused with Harvey’s bitter, is my Last Supper canapé of choice. And Mark led sessions on matching beers to sushi, oysters, smoked foods; game, pies, puddings, cured meats, chocolate and cheese well. Now patron of The Anchor at Walberswick, by the sea in Suffolk.
BREWER MAN: Garrett Oliver is the voluble brew master of Brooklyn Brewery. His ‘The Brewmasters Table is a great read and gives lists as to how to pair beer to foods. He knows his wine too, challenging sommeliers in contests to match wine and beer with foods.
RESTAURANT MAN: Michel Roux’s Le Gavroche has had good beers for years. A mixture of British and others, he occasionally holds dinners matching a wine and a beer with each course. This gave Queen of wine writing, Jancis Robinson MW, the chance for an FT article on beer and food; and beer came out quite well!
CURRY MAN: Goanese Michelin starred Quilon in Victoria has 30 beers on his list. Though lager plays a big part, chef Sriram Aylur says it is often the wheat beers, pale ales, Trappist beers and fruit beers (with puddings) which often steal the show. Five and eight course beer menus draw in the cognoscenti.
FISHIEMAN: Rick Stein developed one of my favourite beers, Chalky’s Bite, named after his eponymous doggie. It has wild Cornish fennel in it and has the texture of turbot. Yum. He also, with Sharp’s brewery in Cornwall, makes Chalky’s Bark, a ginger beer without the other’s style.
BLANCMANGE: Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has a wonderful beer list. I sat with Raymond Blanc in his restaurant, ordering any foods I thought which would pair well with the beers. Dreamsville! Sautéed scallops; devilled kidneys; cheese soufflé; steak tartare; crepe suzette and figgie tart! His beer list matches his foods seamlessly.
TOP TIPS FOR BEER MATCHING
Condiment: Think what condiment, sauce or spicing would hit the spot with your food; then find a beer to match – though I haven’t yet found a mint beer in the market for my lamb?. So if lemon is needed for your fish, choose a citrus-hopped lager or lemony pale ale. Or if mango chutney is good for your cheese, choose a beer with a similarly floral nature.
Flavour intensity: Choose a similar flavour intensity of food and beer.
Complementing: is safe and gentle, like a dusty old aunt.
Contrasting: is more exciting but dangerous, like a feisty young niece
TOP BEER/FOOD COMBOS
OYSTERS: Stout and oysters are great, especially with sodabread, and a squeeze of lemon or shallot-in-vinegar. Avoid stouts tasting of coffee or chocolate. Vinous Porters are even better, as are Belgian sour brown beers. Belgian-style white wheat beers with lemon or orange peel + coriander in the recipe, can also be fab. So for me, it’s black or white. Oysters cooked in beer tempura are a marvel. Better than sex, but different.
TUNA TARTARE: Le Gavroche makes a tuna tartare coated in black pepper, with ginger, chilli and sesame oil. It is my favourite match. Brown-based cherry beers from Belgium are the perfect combo – Liefman’s, Cantillon or Boon’s.
CHICKEN SATAY/ROAST GROUSE AND GAME CHIPS: Perfect with oak aged beers like Innis & Gunn. American brews a lot of these as well.
CHAR-GRILLED STEAKS: Lager is great for those not wishing to think. But high hopped pale ales and IPAs are a better lover. Some say stouts, but I find them discordant and a step too far.
BOEUF BOURGIGNON/ CASSOULET/ CREAMY STEWS: Stouts come into their own here, providing a gently creamy embrace. The sources link to the beers admirably.
TOMATO’EY STEWS: Pale ales have the floral spicing and body to make this float. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord onwards.
ROAST PORK or PORK n LEEKS: Wheat beers are a gem, low hopped and with soft sweet flavours of vanilla, banana and clove.
TARTE TATIN/ FIG TART: Those Sauternes’like barley wines are magic here, and serve them lightly cold.
CHOCOLATE PUDDING: Cherry or raspberry beers provide the acidity, ideally on a brown beer base. Some sour fruit beers also work well, like a sharp coulis.
CHALKY CAMEMBERT: This is great with sweet gently hopped lagers, like Sol from Mexico, or helles lagers such as Camden from London or Paolozzi from Edinburgh – ie lagers with less pronounced hops than Pilsners. It adds body to both the beer and the cheese
GOUDA/COMTÉ: Creamier nutty cheeses like oak aged beers, or balanced barley-sweet beers like Black Sheep’s Rigwelter or Adnams Broadside in bottle.
RIPE CAMEMBERT: Needs stronger beers, like Trappist Tripels – Westmalle, or Chimay White. Or would be a worthy host for a big IPA.
MATURE CHEDDAR: Vintage ales like Fullers Vintage 8.5%; or barley wines or big wonderful IPAs.
RIPE BLUE CHEESE: Try big flavoured beers like IPAs, or ‘Old ales’ tasting of plums and figs, often 6-8% abv; or try barley wines, the colour and flavour of old Sauternes.