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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Foolproof beer and food matching - come on, it's time to give it a go


Sorry the blogging has been a bit sporadic - very busy on work, finishing the book (almost there!) and an unprecedented amount of journalism.

Three of the pieces I've been asked to write in the last fortnight have been about beer and food matching, two of which were on the theme of if it's so great, why is it not more widespread?  It's a good question, and I think the biggest issue is confidence - it's a very new idea for most people and in my experience they need to be shown, not told, that it works.  I've converted many people to the delights of pairing beer with food, but I've not convinced a single person simply by talking to them.  Cooking a meal for friends words every time.

So it got me to thinking that anyone who is passionate about beer and is not an absolute disaster in the kitchen should, if they want to convert people to beer and food, or even drinking beer in general, host a meal for the friends they want to impress.  You have a fantastic evening - the fundamental truth is that most people don't really analyse flavour and think about pairings no matter what they're eating and drinking - people usually find it a fun change to do it for once. 

So why does this not happen more?  If everyone who loved beer put their money where their mouth is and actually demonstrated to their friends the delights of beer and food pairing, eventually we'd convert the entire country.  But there's that confidence thing again.  You may know what beers you like.  You may have been blown away at a tutored tasting event when an expert has put pairings together for you.  But it can be daunting to put your head on the line and try to create it yourself.  I know - I found it nerve-wracking when I first started doing it. 

So here is my foolproof beer and food menu for novices.  If you know a lot about beer and if you've ever leafed through Garrett Oliver's or Fiona Beckett's excellent books then stop reading now - you'll only disagree with me and think I'm being too simplistic.  If you are Garrett Oliver or Fiona Beckett, please forgive me.   

But if you think the idea is fine in principle but you don't know where to start, read on.  There's no better time to do this - there's a global recession and we can't afford to go out to restaurants any more, so this is a great way to entertain friends at home.

For each course I've given suggestions for ideal beers if you have access to them, as well as beers you should be able to find in any supermarket or corner shop if you're not near a good speciality beer shop.  Apologies to North American readers - the brands are different for you - but then you tend to have easier access to craft beers anyway.

The main principles are match light flavours with light, heavy with heavy.  And there's a progression from light to heavier as the meal goes on.  It keeps your palate fresh. 

STARTER
A couple of options here, but wheat beer or lager is a safe bet for a first course.  How about a few salad leaves with either smoked salmon or goat's cheese, all tossed together with a citrus dressing or just drizzled with a bit of lemon juice?  The wheat beer compliments the lemon, brings out the flavours of the fish or cheese, and cuts through the fattiness of the cheese.  If you can get a good German Weissbeer that's the best thing to use.  The surprise hit of the last few years has been Grolsch Weizen, which is kind of a cross between german and Belgian wheat beer and matches with pretty much anything.  But if you're dealing with a very basic beer selection, Hoegaarden is absolutely fine.

Alternatively, if you can get hold of a Kriek or Framboise - cherry or raspberry beer - a really surprising match is to simply put these with cured ham, such as Parma or Serrano.  There's a fruitiness in cured ham that really gets brought out by the beer.  And in southern Spain, Serrano ham (or its local equivalent) is often served with cherries.  Put the ham on the plate and open the beer - foolproof.

MAIN COURSE
A good malty dark ale will go with any cooked red meat, because the caramelisation in the meat matches the caramel notes in a malty beer - roasts or pies are a no-brainer, even with something as basic as Newcastle Brown.  But it's a bit obvious, and wouldn't really change the perceptions of anyone who's ever heard of steak and ale pie.

Something a little more refined and interesting is coq a la biere.  Cooking with beer is obviously one step on from matching with beer, but a great way of getting a match is to cook with a beer than serve the same beer with the meal.  It sounds like cheating, but it's not.  If you're a really crap cook, you can get a packet of coq au vin seasoning, follow the recipe on the back and use beer instead of wine.    

There's a recipe for coq a la biere in every beer and food cookbook I've ever read.  Chicken thighs work best, because they have more flavour.  I usually leave them whole in a casserole and slow cook them with onions, garlic, celery, carrots, mushrooms, a coating of flour on the chicken pieces if you want the stew to thicken, and season with salt and pepper and herbs such as parsley and sage - fresh sage is a belter with this. 

This is obviously a French dish, and in parts of France it's just as common to use beer as it is wine.  If you have access to speciality beer shops, try this with a French biere de garde or a Belgian saison - either gives a rich earthiness to the dish, and adds a little zing when you serve the beer with the food.  If you're dealing with a basic supermarket range, pretty much any bottled ale is going to work fine, though I prefer a pale or amber coloured beer such as Timothy Taylor Landlord or Young's Bitter - it just feels a little less heavy than dark brown beer for people worried about stodge - one of the main barriers you have to overcome.  If you fancy it a touch sweeter, Leffe is also fine.

DESSERT
If you've prepared the first two courses, unless you're a real dessert fan I'd just buy your pudding.  Nobody will mind.  And here we can go for a match that veterans will say is far too obvious but soddit - when it's this good, no-one's going to complain. Get a melted chocolate pudding - like the ones in the M&S ad or the ones from Gu, chocolate sponge on the outside and melted chocolate inside - and match with a porter or stout.  Obviously if there are chocolate notes in the stout it's going to go even better.  Meantime's chocolate porter is a no-brainer.  But although this will upset some readers, it's fantastic even with Guinness.  It may be mass market, there may be better porters and stouts out there, but if it's all you can get it is by no means a compromise.  This is one of those dishes where beer and pudding merge until you can't tell one from the other and the flavours just wrap around each other and merge, spiralling up to new heights neither is capable of on its own.    

CHEESE
If you don't have a kitchen you could just do a beer and cheese tasting - in my view this is where beer shines the brightest anyway.  In order: a good pilsner lager like Pilsner Urquell or Budvar with goat's cheese; pale ale (again Landlord would be good) with Brie or Camambert; a north American IPA such as Goose Island or an English beer like Worthington White Shield with a strong, mature cheddar (Mrs Keens if you can get it); and Stilton (preferably Colston Basset) with a strong barley wine style beer such as Thomas Hardys, JW Lees' Harvest Ale, or Fuller's Vintage Ale, or maybe a strong porter or stout.  Not everyone will like every match, but everyone will like at least one, including those friends who tell you they don't like beer.  Fiona Beckett has a little more helpful advice on doing this, with a few alternative suggestions, here.

If you're serving cheese at the end of a meal I'd keep it simple - mature cheddar and Worthington White Shield is the taste of the gods.

A tip for getting your guests on side - I always open a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine and place them in the middle of the table, and tell guests I'm just wanting to try this out, and if they really don't want to play, or if they decide they don't like a match, I won't be offended if they switch to wine.  All I ask is that they try just a tiny bit of the beer with the food, and listen to me while I explain very briefly why I've chosen to put them together.  When you do this it takes the pressure off, everyone relaxes, and nine times out of ten the wine remains untouched. 

And serve the beer in wine glasses - it's the easiest way to change someone's perception and gets rid of the volume issue - a huge psychological and physical barrier for most beer rejectors, especially women.

So there we go - the only excuse you now have for not doing this is that you don't have any friends.     

12 comments:

Mark said...

I think the pint glass is a huge barrier to food and beer pairing because it is so synonymous with beer drinking and therefore all the negative connotations - beer in a wine glass breaks that wall down straight away.

Confidence is a big thing too but practice makes perfect and what is more fun that experimenting with foods and drinks?! Especially if you can open a couple of bottles to share for each course - an IPA and a stout with seafood for instance - and then compare how well they work.

In my experience people like to try beer with food but they don't like to make the decisions themselves, that's the difficult bit.

Fiona Beckett said...

Hello, it's Fiona Beckett and I'm not at all offended (apart from the fact that all these magazines have come to you to write a food and beer article and not to me). Thanks for the plug anyway, mate.

I agree with all this especially about beer lovers putting their money where their mouth is and serving beer to their friends. Why do people come over all funny and fall back on wine? As if beer isn't good enough? Like you I've found that anyone I've introduced to a food and beer pairing is blown away. As you say, desserts and cheese are a great place to start.

Only one thing I'd take you up on. When you're using beer in a recipe like coq a la biere you need to be careful that you don't treat it like wine. Don't use it to deglaze the pan and don't make it more than 50% of the total liquid content. (Both will make the dish taste bitter.)

Otherwise spot on. If any of you want to pursue the subject further do visit my website http://www.matchingfoodandwine.com which despite the name does cover beer and/or pick up a copy of An Appetite for Ale which is full of yummy beery recipes (though for some inexplicable reason CAMRA has decided to remainder it at the precise point at which the world is getting into beer and food matching . . .

BLTP said...

Fiona: that's a good tip I must admit that the bitterness in beer has tainted some cooked dishes i've made. the deglasing tip especialy good.
PB: you know I'm down with the food and beer tip. so this is all good maybe you could try some blind tasting in that you give people beer to taste and not mention the name . I think the chocolate and stout mix is good place to start but say guniness to people and they run a mile (having never probably tasted it).

Pete said...

Hi Fiona,

Thanks for stopping by!

Everyone I know who's had a book published by CAMRA says 'never again', even the ones who then do it again. Their remaindering decisions are mystifying...

Tim said...

Beer and food, Wine vs Beer it seems all the rage at the moment. On one hand we have fools like Malcolm Gluck - but noone soley sticking up for the beer corner. Anyhow I have blogged my opinions on the subject over at The Beer Diary.

Pete said...

Hmm...

I really wasn't trying to make any contribution at all to the 'wine versus beer' thing. I've said on here before that with a few exceptions (which are backed up by having given it a serious go) anyone who says they don't like beer - or wine - either doesn't know anything about flavour or is speaking with a closed mind.

I never slag off wine - I was drinking a nice Rioja last night instead of beer. I think it's as narrow-minded to say beer is better than wine than it is to say wine is better than beer. They're different. They do different things.

My only beef is that there are so many people out there in positions of influence who are so utterly dismissive of beer. The balance should be redressed. But I think we'd get more serious consideration if we could argue that beer is great, without claiming that wine is shit.

When Malcolm Gluck dissed beer he sounded like a spoilt fucking child. I grimace whenever I hear a beer evangelist sounding the same way.

Boak said...

We've got a New Year's resolution to do a beer and cheese evening, so this is very useful - thanks.

We often cook variants of coq a la biere, although we tend to call it chicken stew. Might even post up our recipe for it at some point.

Zak said...

I'd save the fruit beer (kriek for preference) for the chocolate pudding - it's the one combination that's guaranteed to change peoples' perceptions of beer and food.

Peter Brissenden said...

I'm a big fan of beer mached with food. I particularly agree with your opinion that cheese shines when matched with beer.

I work in delicatessen which sells over one hundred cheeses, my favorite combination has to be a creamy blue cheese such as Dolcelatte or Torta Mascarpone (a 3 month aged blue cream cheese) with a stout or porter.

Sounds a little odd but the fatty, creaminess of the cheese enhances the creaminess of the stout. Not being a chemist, (I am a biologist!) I am led to believe that the aromatic compounds in the malt used in the beer are more readily soluble in fat than in water. So the amazing taste is simply that you can taste 'more' of the beer!

Bowly said...

I agree that beer and cheese make a great combination, but I doubt the flavor is enhanced by increased solubility in fat. After all, the flavors in beer are extracted from the grain by water. I suppose it's possible that they're still more soluble in fat, but they're so soluble in water that I wouldn't expect the difference to be significantly noticeable.

Some fermentation by-products might fit the bill though...may be worth some research.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Beer and food is something Alan at Real Ale Reviews is particularly keen on (my cooking skills let me down a little).

I'm really keen to do more with beer in the kitchen, Michael Jackson's book is helping a bit, are there any others that are worth reading?

Boak, I have an aged/aging Orval in my cupboard which I'm saving for cheese. I just don't know which cheese yet!

Travis said...

Great article... matching beers to food flavours is the reason we started our brewery. If interested in some of our creations, please check out www.fusionbrewing.com.au. www.bluebottlebeer.com.au was made to match seafood, www.fireflybeer.com.au made to match spicy foods and www.primebeer.com.au to complement red meats. Love to hear if anyone has sampled our beers and their thoughts.