For the fourth edition of Darker Days, beer writer Matthew Curtis teamed up with Sussex’s Burning Sky Brewery. Returning to The Duke’s Head in Highgate, four courses of food were served up alongside four exceptional examples of dark beers.
Dishes were prepared by the Duke’s pop-up resident kitchen, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and included a range of moreish options, including okra fries, jollof spiced popcorn chicken and spicy vegan bean stew with plantain. A spotlight on dark beers is troublesome when it comes to food pairing – while roasted malty notes, charred meats and rich desserts are natural bedfellows, it’s a challenge to find four courses of complementary dishes for the style. But there was little emphasis on strict matching technique here, leaving attendees at liberty to graze on the small dishes as they appeared.
Matthew introduced the beers as they were circulated, inviting one of Burning Sky’s brewers, Tom Dobson, to comment on each one, extrapolating on the ingredients used and the ageing process. The structure of the event was kept friendly and casual, giving everyone the time to appreciate their beer while indulging in conversation with their neighbours.
Burning Sky is a brewery that relishes time, refusing to rush their meticulously crafted beers and producing some very exciting examples of barrel aged styles right here in the UK. Operating out of a refurbished farmhouse in the South Downs, the brewery takes inspiration from Belgian brewing traditions.
They were the first craft brewery in the country to use oak foudres and earlier this year, they installed one of Britain’s only coolships – a shallow vessel that cools down wort while exposing it to wild yeast and local bacteria. Spontaneous fermentation adds a host of complexity to beers, imparting sourness and funkiness to the final product. This is the method used in lambic beers, notably by the venerated Cantillon, a brewery based in Brussels that we visited earlier this year.
The beer list alone was worth the £30 ticket price, seeing a line-up of some challenging styles brewed and aged right here on our doorstep, including a mouth-watering Flanders Red on keg that would make the Belgians blush. Reminiscent of – and inspired by – Rodenbach Brewery's Grand Cru, it presented lip-puckering tartness balanced with a sweet malt bill. When stripped back, it also presented layers of wood and red berries from the slow barrel aging process.
Despite being exceptional, the Flanders Red didn’t steal the show – the Cherry Monolith flowed from bottles and slipped down easily. Boozy dark chocolate mingled together with dark fruits and the subtle tang of cherries to be the epiphany of a liquid dessert. The finale was a Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout in bottle – this was a limited edition and these were the only bottles served in London – with intensely bitter roasted malt character and infused with rich flavours of bourbon.
Once again, The Duke’s Head proved the ideal venue for Darker Days, supplementing our menu of dark beers with some excellent palate cleansers on keg and cask. We were guided through our beers while enjoying the flavours of Ghana, but the casual nature of the event gave ticketholders the opportunity to discuss the beer and kick back. It was an warranted celebration of darker styles while highlighting some of the most complex and exciting beers coming out of the UK right now.