November: the brutal reality check that winter is lurking just around the corner. Clocks fall back, evenings linger. We seek comfort in our pint glasses and huddle together in cosy pubs – the salad days of beer gardens are officially gone – but it’s not so bad. In fact, our tastes seem to be intrinsically linked to the seasons, so it’s an excellent opportunity to recalibrate the palate. Revisiting inky stouts and spicy ales makes this time of year more bearable.
This year, Total Ale's Matt Curtis hosted Darker Days, the third annual celebration of darker styles and winter warmers. Held at The Duke’s Head in Highgate, it comprised of a five course beer and food pairing menu meticulously curated with help from Chris Hall from Brew by Numbers and Doreen Joy Barber from The Five Points Brewing Co. The food was dished out by Chalé! Let's Eat, a Ghanaian street food pop-up vendor currently enjoying a residency at Duke’s. Greeted by Matt, groups clustered around several wooden tables in the rear of the pub. The event was advertised in full as ‘Darker Days III: Darker Things’, referring to the popular (and already cult classic status) Netflix series Stranger Things. Some decorative touches alluded to this reference.
The Duke's is esteemed for its commendable range on keg and cask – on this evening, the plethora of options included an exclusive keg of Brew by Numbers 08|02 Imperial Stout, Bristol’s Lost & Grounded Brewers' Running with Sceptres and Magic Rock Brewing Co’s Hypnotist, which was launched at Indy Man Beer Con this year. Despite the formidable line-up of beers promised alongside our meal, many attendees happily indulged in another glass on the side. For some, it was the first time they had come across these beers on keg in London.
We were introduced to the 'beer dinner' concept of Darker Days by Matt, who had coordinated the pairings based on characteristics imparted by ingredients and textures. Many were unacquainted with the nuances of Ghanaian cuisine, but Matt was confident that his choices would do the food justice and marry with the West African flavours, spices and sauces. He explained that ‘chalé’ means friend in Ghanaian, used colloquially as an equivalent to ‘mate’ in the United Kingdom. This was an apt theme for our gathering, where we were breaking bread – or eating jollof rice - among friends. In the background, a soundtrack of Ghanaian and West African tracks filled the air.
We began by grazing on kelewele, deep fried plantains spiced with cloves and ginger, as measures of Five Points Old Greg’s Barley Wine were poured. Doreen introduced the beer and clarified the basis of the pairing: a barley wine, with caramel notes and hints of spices, plays off the natural sugars in the plantain. A slight bitterness from the Challenger, Target and EKG hops creeps in, balancing the sweetness of the dish while marrying well with the cloves and ginger.
The vegetarians were then treated to bowls of fried okra with a spicy tomato dip, while meat-eaters were given spicy Supermalt chicken wings with chili sauce. The unique characteristics of each offering called for a different beer; the former was paired with Five Points Hook Island Red to complement the kick of the tomato dip. The rye used in the beer’s malt bill, its mild hop bitterness and bone-dry finish tempered the piquant sauce and harmonised with the okra’s stewed texture.
The chicken wings were battered with Supermalt, so it paired naturally with Five Points Brick Field Brown, another malty tipple with chewy toffee notes that mirrored the sticky coating of the sauce slathered on the wings.
For the heartiest course, vegetarians were served kontomire, spinach and kale in a coconut base with garden peas and butternut squash. The tender chunks of squash and wilted spinach were richly coated coconut and elevated by Brew by Numbers 01|24 Saison Rye, another beer where rye makes an appearance. Rich, slick and sweet, the beer mingled with the strong coconut flavours and mirrored its milky notes.
The meat alternative pairing was beef azi desi, a spicy peanut stew with tender beef steak and okra. It was matched with the decadent, velvety Brew by Numbers 08|02 Imperial Stout. Chris talked us through the profiles of both beers, which were diametrically opposed but equally as delicious.
Desert comprised of a chocolate brownie with beer ice cream, accompanied by Five Points Railway Porter. The chocolate notes from the roasted malts and chewy brownie are obvious bedfellows. They melted together in the mouth, amplifying the richness of the brownie, while the ice cream helped cleanse the palate between bites. A relative no-brainer, but a flavour combination that never fails to satisfy.
Finally, two cheeses were circulated to be enjoyed alongside Brew by Numbers 14|03 Tripel Ella, a glorious Belgian style ale bursting with intensely juicy Australian hops. The yeast esters meld well with cheese, especially the softer and less pungent varieties, where fruity profiles aren’t overwhelmed and lost. Instead, they mingled triumphantly.
The evening drew to a close as the chatter flowed, some people clearly content with lingering until last call. The staff made everyone feel so welcome that it was difficult to leave our dimly lit and snug to face the chill of the November evening. But that’s exactly what we did, moving from Darker Days to a darkened night, already eagerly anticipating next year’s edition.