Beer and fine dining? You're 'aving a giraffe mate! Although the Daily Telegraph would not use such language that's what they meant in a recent editorial comment of which I was the subject. They were referring to my claim that beer is the best libation to match with food. The writer of the comment piece disagreed opining that beer should stay in the pub with scotch eggs and never find its way to the dining table. I can't resist the urge to peel away blinkers when someone is close-minded so I wrote a letter to the editor and invited the commentator to join me in a Battle of the Bottle where I would demonstrate over dinner just why beer deserves respect and should be served at every dining table. He has yet to accept the challenge. In the meantime, here is why beer is the champ when it comes to matching with every occasion and every dish of every course of every cuisine on the menu.
Let's start with the aperitif. Why do people have a G & T or a Campari before a meal? Because they are bitter flavoured and bitterness prompts the production of saliva, gastric juices, and bile thereby stimulating the appetite and starting the digestive process. Efficient digestion is essential to good health. Most beer is bitter so start a meal with a robust India Pale Ale and serve it in a flute because there is no law that beer must be served in a cumbersome pint glass.
We drink when we eat in order to clear the mouth for the next forkful. Beer is up to 95% water and contains carbon dioxide which is very efficient at scrubbing the palate. CO2 also bestows an invigorating acidity and lightens the richness of food. The brain registers most flavour through the nose as aromas travel from the mouth into the nasal chamber where millions of olfactory cells send a message about the flavours in the food and drink. If the palate is coated with food then the aromas have a harder time reaching the nose. This is where beer has no peer - all that water, all that carbon dioxide, and the fact that hops, one of the ingredients of beer, are champs at cutting through the texture of food creating a pathway for those crucial aromas to connect with the smell cells.
No other libation has the versatility of beer. There is a beer in every taste - sweet, bitter, sour, umami and there are even salty beers (a German style called Gose). And where do I begin with the flavours and aromas in beer? There are hundreds. Chocolate, coffee, vanilla, caramel, fruit, smoke, nuts, molasses, spice, herbs, pine, floral, licorice, biscuits, honey are just a few. Then there is the drinking experience and the mouthfeel - smooth, dry, astringent, light, clean, full-bodied, acidic, warming, mineral, tannins. Wine drinkers - do any of those terms sound familiar?
Several societies in antiquity believed that drinking wine engendered exceptionalism and the fermented fruit of the vine was reserved for those of high status. For ancient Greeks and Romans wine was the civilised libation whereas beer drinkers were uncouth. Even today wine is seen as the 'smart' option for dining, with beer relegated to being worthy only for pork scratchings. I'm sure Elizabeth I and her Dad, both enthusiastic ale drinkers would have something to say to anyone with that opinion. Such as 'The Tower of London is that way.'
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And have you ever tried beer with dessert? Joy. Try an oak aged beer with crème brûlée. Phwoar! Wine rarely succeeds with dessert. I had dinner recently in an upmarket restaurant with a spectacular wine list. The treacle pudding was served with dessert wine. On its own the wine was delicious but matched with the pudding it was too sweet and turned the food into a cloying mess. The manager happened to have a bottle of rye India pale ale which he kindly opened. Bingo! The bitterness from the beer was a magnificent contrast to the pudding and together they made flavour fireworks as the caramel from the malted rye in the beer smooched with the treacle. This was not a sweet nothing it was a major something.
To me wine struggles with myriad dishes on the menu. Have you ever had a wine that truly harmonises with anything spicy or smoked? And holy of holies - wine and cheese? Beer with cheese is by far the superior option. Just try an imperial Russian stout with Stilton. Alchemy. As Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery (USA) and one of the world's leading advocates for beer and food has said on the subject of wine with cheese 'Have you ever seen a cow in vineyard?'
If you are still not convinced, then try the following menu with my suggestions for beer (all brewed in Britain). It was served to guests at the state dinner for President Obama at Buckingham Palace in 2011. Decant the beer into glassware such as flutes, wine glasses, and snifters because not only will it look good but with the appropriate glass the character of the beer will be enhanced.
Starter: Paupiette de Sole et Gresson, sauce Nantua (sole with crayfish sauce). The Palace served Chablis (white) wine. My beer suggestion is Coolship by Elgood's. This is a sour beer of immense complexity with a firm acidity that works perfectly with white fish and creamy sauce.
Main course: Agneau de la Nouvelle Saison de Windsor au Basilic (new Windsor lamb). The Palace served Burgundy (red) wine. My beer suggestion is Brown Ale by Barrel & Sellers. The caramel in the beer harmonises with the sweetness educed by roasting the meat.
Dessert:: Charlotte a la vanille et cerises griottes, fruits de dessert. The Palace served Champagne. My beer suggestion is Raspberry Wheat beer by Meantime. The beer has a refreshing fruity tang to contrast with the creamy texture of this dish.
So say goodbye to wine and hello to beer next time you dine because to paraphrase William Shakespeare in The Winter's Tale, 'a quart of ale is a dish for a king and a queen'.