Beer & food pairing: keeping things simple

You’ve probably already noticed, but beer and food pairing events are very much on trend. As far as routine brewery events go, pairing nights are catching up with the abundance of tap takeovers held in pubs across London, which easily amount to several on any given week. Whether it’s a lavish five course meal with drinks curated by a Cicerone-qualified expert, or a more modest monthly beer and cheese night, beer drinkers are discovering how hops, malts and yeast can harmonise with the ingredients used in a dish. Both beer and food recipes can be dissected into a list of individual components, each imparting a distinct flavour. There’s a wide scope for these to play off each other – the trick is finding the perfect pairing.

Demonstrated at the Darker Days III event held at The Duke’s Head at the beginning of the month, Ghanaian food was matched with some surprising contrasts – from barley wine to imperial stouts – and British beer was married with a cuisine influenced by warm climate and some ingredients that aren't indigenous to these shores. Despite being a world apart, the drinks and dishes came together in unison. Warming spices in the barley wine were mirrored in plantain bites, chicken encased within a malt-based batter hummed with the chewy notes of a brown ale and a chocolate brownie was matched with a silky, rich imperial stout.

Some of these flavour combinations are elementary and classic - chocolate will always marry well with a rich, chocolatey stout, for instance. And spicy foods will always call for something clean, like the crispness or a pilsner or an easily downed lager. These innocuous pairing rules aren’t controversial or deemed acquired tastes; slowly people seem to be coming around to the notion that exemplary food can be safely complemented with beer. Despite this, It will undoubtedly be some time before we’re met with anything but a wine menu in an upmarket restaurant. But there are rumblings afoot.

Beer aficionados might curtail red and white wines with confidence and ease, flipping to the back of a hefty drinks menu to see what beers are featured. A recent trip to The Ginger Pig in Brighton saw us doing just that, opting for a balance of local beers from Dark Star Brewing and Gun Brewery in addition to a bottle of wine to accompany an extravagant three course meal. For our mains, we stuck with wine, but in retrospect, the ribeye steak with its creamed shallot and red wine sauce could have withstood a malty red or brown ale, given the depth of the jus. The roast skate wing, a fish dish that would traditionally call for a crisp white, could have equally paired with a pilsner, where there’s little risk of hops dominating the palate and detracting from the lightness of the dish.

Last week, International Izakaya, a food and beer pairing evening, was held in Shoreditch. It was aimed at those in the restaurant industry, foodies and writers. It promoted the beer/food matching concept, emphasising that it applies even with more refined cuisine. For the occasion, four London chefs, including Elizabeth Allen, former head chef at Michelin-starred Pidgin, served up a menu that comprised ‘beer bouches’ and several courses. Each dished was served alongside a selection from a Ciceron-qualified beer sommelier. The beers were rare, including the Halia and Bourbon County Stout from Goose Island’s vintage ales range and Birra del borgo’s L’Equilibrista, a wild sour with pronounced wine characteristics from an Italian brewery. The food was as extravagant as the beers. All was on point, but the simple enjoyment of the marriage between food and drink was lost in the grandiose offerings of the occasion.

A more bare-bones and achievable attempt can be replicated at home. We held a dinner party with friends on the weekend, with homemade tandoori chicken, potato saak with raita, poppadums and coconut rice on the menu. Although the temptation of going against the grain - and what was coherent to my palate - with something smouldering to match the tandoori flavours or perhaps something with an acerbic edge to cut through the spices, it was still a pilsner, the Five Points Brewing Co’s Pils, and the Lightbulb Extra Pale Ale from Verdant Brewing Co that were the clear frontrunners. But maybe that's the trick: not to over-egg things.

Like our meals, which don't need to be convoluted to be delicious, sometimes simplicity is best. But the quality of a beer still makes a difference - other macro brewery pilsners were sampled, but lacked flavour profiles that were pronounced enough to stand up against a fiery tandoori main. While open to the unexpected, there's no denying that a solid pilsner or lager can still enhance a meal, but, like experimenting with styles of beer, there's still room for defying our senses. Suddenly a rich porter with a steak might just make sense.

I was invited to Word of Mouth's International Izakaya beer and food pairing meal at the Hill & Szrok Public House as a guest.

 

Brighton: cask culture and London's creeping influence

When it comes to drinking craft beer, Londoners are a captive audience. In the city, drinkers are open-minded and are accustomed to flocking to taprooms to drink from rotating selections. They’re content to spend more money to enjoy a tastier beer in smaller measures. They demand their beer as fresh as possible - ideally straight from a fermenter tank. The appetite for assertive IPAs is still rife and is perhaps a factor of why keg still reigns supreme in London bars. Their cooler serving temperatures and carbonation help showcase bitter hops and a blast of carbon dioxide rouses their herbal, earthy or citrus aromas, making them jump from the glass.

Following a visit to the much lauded Harp pub in Covent Garden to hear beer writer Pete Brown extol the virtues of malts and cask ale, it was apparent that there was one gaping absence in London’s drinking culture, a shameful oversight that has yet to be righted – the availability of good cask ale. Despite cask being at the helm of the UK’s traditional beer styles, the brown ales or bitters that have seemingly fallen out of favour with city drinkers, losing out to sours, DIPAs and creamy milk stouts or anything deemed more worthy and novel.

Anyone from outside the confines of the city would dismiss most cask served in London as undrinkable - an uninspiring selection of styles that aren’t properly served. The Harp is an exception as a pub that has fostered a staunch reputation for ensuring that cask is served in a faultless state. Cask necessitates much more care in storage than keg, which requires a meticulous eye and precision in the length of conditioning time, temperature and pristinely kept lines to avoid infecting the beer. Cask beers arrive from the brewery still alive, unfiltered and unpasteurised. The Harp is often cited as one of the few pubs in the city where punters are guaranteed a great cask ale served exactly as it should be.

Of course, that’s London. A quick trip to Brighton demonstrates a focus on cask ales that is astonishing – here, another young, modern city that lies only a 90 minutes’ journey away from the city, almost every pub has a selection of hand pumps in constant use. The beers on cask herald from an all-star list of local Sussex breweries and represent an astonishingly wide range of styles. IPAs, barrel aged beers and espresso stouts are offered, giving a taste of what inventive and audacious options that could be translated to cask.

The Evening Star is one of such pubs, but that shouldn’t surprise – it’s the home of Dark Star Brewing Company, who originated as a microbrewery in 1994. They have since left the premises for a larger brewery, first in Ansty, then in Partridge Green. Specialising in cask beers, they’ve experimented with everything from traditional to continental styles. Their beer has been internationally recognised with a number of decorations, including the Dark Star Original, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 1987 before brewer Rob Jones brought the recipe to the brewery. It was also awarded Supreme Champion of Champions at the Great British Beer Festival in 1996.

The Evening Star remains a popular destination in Brighton, only a short amble away from the train station. It boasts 7 hand pumps and 8 keg lines cramped across a curved bar counter, and locals don’t stop to ponder over the vast cask offerings- they’ve made their choice before approaching to order. It can be initially intimidating for the unversed cask drinker. On our visit, punters made a beeline made for Murder of Crows from Kissingate Brewery on cask, a 10% double mashed imperial stout. Perched against a pillar with both active CAMRA members and beer writers, the normalcy of drinking cask here was striking. At The Evening Star, the crowd was more varied in age, background and appearance than the intensely homogeneous drinking environments in London. It maintained the characteristics of a local pub, replete with the interior cosy stylings of a traditional boozer, but without any infiltration of macro beers. Most were focused on cask, but Tiny Rebel Brewing Co and 8Wired were also pouring on keg.

Other venues exemplifying commendable beer offerings without losing the charm of a local pub were within easy reach of each other, including The Prince Albert and The Great Eastern. A good showing from another Sussex brewery, Gun Brewery, on keg and cask was consistent across this bill. The Zamzama IPA is a good iteration that delivers requisite pine, grapefruit and astringency in a well-balanced, but not too brash, IPA. At home in both the familiar pubs and the trendy brewhouses and craft bars, Gun is obviously appealing to a wide demographic of drinkers.

Turning to the modern industrial décor of trendy craft bars, Brighton has a BrewDog that was heaving with drinkers still polishing off kegs of the annual Collabfest event held a couple weeks prior. Highly reminiscent of its London locations in ambiance and fittings, cask was limited their Dead Pony LIVE project, which is an attempt to modernise cask by dispensing it via key keg. The intended result is serving real ale, conditioned in the container, with the benefits of the consistency of keg.

The spacious North Laine Brewhouse celebrates all locally brewed beer alongside its own range from Laine Brewing, which can also be found in Hackney’s People’s Park Tavern. There were hand pumps at the bar and their take on a traditional bitter – Bestest Bitter - is modern, with a playfully designed cask badge and a silly moniker. It’s an easy-going session beer with nice malty notes rounded off with a dose of bitterness. Served in trendy, young environs, this is a gateway cask beer for a younger generation who have never veered from keg; alongside BrewDog’s LIVE beer, cask is still playing a visible role in the most modern spaces.

Even a trip to The Seven Stars, one of Brighton’s oldest pubs that was recently acquired and revamped into a craft beer pub by Indigo, was noteworthy – Dalston’s 40ft Brewery were on tap next to Beavertown Brewery, Gun Brewery, Siren Craft Brew and Wild Beer Co. Londoners would be at home here, tucking into tasty street food menus against the soundtrack of live jazz. But perhaps this was London outside of London- familiar, current and easy.

Brighton’s drinking culture represents some fascinating juxtapositions. Traditional and modern, cask and keg - all seemed to exist in harmony. Much more ubiquitous than London, cask is more varied and venerated here. However, the more recent additions to Brighton’s drinking scene obviously prioritise keg.

It would be devastating to see the popularity of cask wane because of trends creeping in from London, where the emergence of tank bars and taprooms has seen cask put on the backburner. It seems that cask still needs further revitalisation with stronger and more modern choices to appeal to today’s drinkers.

We can start by treating cask the way it deserves – moving away from the dusty image that unfortunately still persists in London – and discovering what modern styles or reinventions taste like from a hand pump. While not everyone will take to it, some styles of beer have the nuanced complexity that really shines without intense carbonation or served at frigid temperatures. Cask isn’t dead, but it does need a facelift – hopefully more local breweries will begin to expand their range to challenge drinkers who are fully (and often unapologetically) committed to keg.

London Beer City 2016: a round-up of ceremonies

As quickly as it arrived, bringing elation into the hearts of London’s beer drinkers, London Beer City 2016 came to a thunderous conclusion. It concluded with the fourth London Craft Beer Festival, but there was a succession of events that unfolded across ten days in August- and each one was varied and unmissable in its own right.

While it was physically impossible to attend everything billed in the schedule, I participated in a good cross-section of this year’s offerings. Almost a week later- and after a well-earned repose from the amount of beer consumed and socialising - I’m ready to recapitulate some of my personal highlights.

From 5 – 14 August- The London Beer Hunt: Undertaken alongside friends at Honest Brew, I set out on a wild goose chase around East London, ricocheting from pub to pub equipped with only a map and some cryptic clues. We collected a series of words from five stops to reveal a password, entitling us to a free 2/3 pint of the London Beer City pale at the final venue. Apps and smartphones were permitted, so we were never left in the lurch, but the real fun came from the expedition itself- I discovered some unfamiliar spots with killer selections of beer flowing, including The King’s Arms , where we worked our way through their Sierra Nevada Brewing Company tap takeover and tactfully secured their last can of Mikkeller's Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Sour Cherries. We also managed to swill examples from Siren Craft Brew and Forest Road Brewing Co along the way, making the Beer Hunt a very fruitful endeavour.

Saturday the 6 August- The London Beer City Opening Party: held at The Five Points Brewing Co’swarehouse yard, I penned an in-depth overview of this event here. This was the perfect harbinger of things to come- I caught up with some old friends, met some new ones and tried a range of impressive beer. Each of the tasting sessions were first-rate and gave the opportunity to sample some exciting and rare examples from Beavertown Brewery’s Phantom Series and the Tempus Project, revisit some favourites from Five Points and further appreciate the excellent range at Fourpure Brewing Co. The weather was tremendous and the rotating beers- over 40 throughout the afternoon- kept the atmosphere buzzing as kegs were switched over.

Sunday the 7 August- The Hangover Club with Northern Monk at The Duke’s Head: Emceed by beer writer Matt Curtis, this was the ideal event following the opening party, allowing us to nurse our hangovers in a very congenial setting. In the presence of Brain Dickson, brewer from Northern Monk Brew Co, a group of us were treated to a smoked porter brewed especially for the event, a punchy Bloody Mary, the new Smallbanger shandy from Square Root Soda and a journey through some of Northern Monk’s range. A mini-podcast interview was recorded onsite and there was free-flowing banter in the environs of The Duke’s Head, a pub that purveys a commendable section of local beer.

Wednesday the 10 August- New Zealand Embassy and Hellzapoppin Launch with Yeastie Boys and Signature Brew at The Commercial Tavern: In advance of undertaking the London Beer Hunt, our team convened at the Commercial Tavern on a very special night- it perhaps wasn’t that serendipitous, as it transpired that a large contingency of our team were Kiwis. Irrespective of this, we showed up with plenty of time to sample the excellent range of beers showcasing New Zealand breweries, including Hellzapoppin from The Yeastie Boys, a hot smoked IPA that packed a wallop of heat and barbecue char. We also had a sneaky sip of Gunnamatta- a Yeastie Boys classic- and tried the Anticipation, a Japanese rice beer on cask and collaboration with Signature Brew. The apex of the evening was meeting Stu McKinlay, one half of the transoceanic Yeastie Boys duo, who is one of the friendliest and sprightly brewers in the business.

From 12 – 14 August- The London Craft Beer Festival: East London’s Oval Space hosted the climax of London Beer City 2016, welcoming over thirty breweries to proffer their most exciting and faithful core beers to a teeming group of enthusiasts. Across three days (and six sessions), drinkers had the opportunity to sample some rare and small-batch beers in addition to some more innovative iterations. Again, I wrote extensively about the beers that I tried across two afternoons here, but there were some perceptible trends, including: barrel aging, fruit-infused sours and some seriously moreish stouts. The cask yard, sponsored by Fuller’s Brewery, was a nice addition and held a plethora of treasures, including Dark Star Brewing Co’s Espresso Stout. As far as a closing ceremony goes, it was a befitting one that brought industry and non-industry types together in celebration of the evolution and growth of London’s beer culture.

This is only the briefest of round-ups of the incredible events that took place from the 5 - 14 August 2016 for London Beer City, but hopefully it pays an adequate homage to another successful festival. If nothing else, let this whet appetites for next year’s edition, which will undeniably be more expansive with even more events crammed into ten days.

London Craft Beer Festival 2016: a review

Last week, I recounted my experience at the London Beer City 2016 opening party. This set a convivial tone for the ten day event and it was only befitting that it concluded on equal terms.

Enter the London Craft Beer Festival, spanning across three days over six sessions from the 12-14 August in East London’s Oval Space. Over thirty breweries were represented, ranging from local familiars to lesser known International brewers. Both keg and cask were featured- Fuller’s Brewery sponsored an entire Cask Yard- and a pop-up bottle shop from Beer Merchants was on site, brimming with rarities to take home. Attendees were beer lovers of every ilk, migrating from stand to stand, sampling and deliberating as they went.

The LCBF, now in its fourth year, has nearly outgrown its britches. Most sessions sold out in advance and the size of the crowds has perceptively grown from previous years. Even the Friday afternoon trade session- habitually a smaller, more casual affair- was teeming with passionate aficionados unconnected to the beer industry. 

Glorious summer weather persisted throughout the weekend with temperatures lingering in the low-to-mid twenties well into the evenings. Industrial fans brought some relief as the main space began to feel like a greenhouse, but there was also ample outdoor space. This included a terrace where Fourpure Brewing Co was set up, perfectly positioned for drinkers who had escaped the stifling heat. The Cask Yard also afforded refuge from the crowds, hosting live music on a small stage and boasting a more low-key ambiance.

Each brewery present at the LCBF alternated their kegs for each session. Magic Rock Brewing Co proffered The Rule of Thirds IPA on Friday and Saturday saw Rhubarbella, a rhubarb braggot. Brew by Numbers dispensed their 14|03 tripel, Ella, late Saturday night, but Friday afternoon drinkers eagerly flocked to taste π|07 from their Pilot Series, a mixed fermentation saison hopped with Enigma, Nelson and Motueka. These examples only scratch the surface of the shuffling, but every session brought another extensive checklist of fresh beers to sample.

I had the privilege to attend three sessions across the weekend and was in a perpetual circuit, tasting everything that caught my eye or was brought to my attention, especially during the trade session. Friday heralded some exemplary beer from a powerhouse bill of breweries. My personal highlights were counterbalanced with some disappointments and, admittedly, my preferences were influenced by the clinging humidity. I generally favoured saisons, pale ales and sours.

I particularly enjoyed the Framboise BA Syrah from Bermondsey’s Anspach & Hobday, a sour/wild ale with qualities of a sublime thirst-quencher: it boasted a juicy, pleasant tartness and finished with bone-dry crispness. Denmark’s wunderkind brewery, To Øl, also had a raspberry beer on: the Roses are Brett saison. It was a deep ruby colour with more sourness on the nose than the Framboise, but revealed the same soft tartness from the fruit and a sharp, refreshing finish.

The aforementioned Brew by Numbers π|07 mixed fermentation saison was a beautifully balanced summer libation that favoured honey-like sweetness from the tropical hops over lip-puckering tanginess. Perhaps the most surprising saison iteration of the day was a spontaneous collaboration between Wiper and True and Partizan Brewing Ltd- I was keen to sample the former’s Barley Wine Keeper Beer, but held some reservations about a sweet drink boasting an ABV of 10%. I was offered a sample blended with Partizan’s Raspberry Lemon saison with the assurance that it married well. The result was crisp raspberry lemonade, the sweetness of the barley wine tempered by the tartness and soft carbonation of the saison. A future collaboration, perhaps?

One of the stars of LCBF was irrefutably Omnipollo, the terrifically imaginative brewers from Sweden, and their Bianca Mango Lassi Gose soft serve. Their Mango Lassi gose, an explosively juicy beer with mango pulp and a hint of sea salt, was topped with a swirl of soft serve ice cream. It was idiosyncratic and popular- given the Sahara-like conditions inside the venue, this hybrid beer/soft serve drew an perpetual queue throughout both the Friday and Saturday sessions.

Cloudwater Brew Co generated a frenzy of anticipation as the Saturday afternoon session kicked off; the new versions 6 and 7 of their ever-transforming DIPA, both relying on a different strain of yeast in fermentation, were available. Although drinkers made a beeline to their stall, the kegs lasted for two hours. The version 6 seemed to sway most palates, demonstrating explosive fruity notes that were sweet, tropical and dangerously palatable, its ABV masked entirely. My preference was the version 7- albeit somewhat controversially. The huge fruit characteristics were dialed down and there was a pleasantly bitter finish that achieved a perfect balance. Both were intensely drinkable, however.

During the Saturday session, Weird Beard Brew Co were dispensing some notable beers, most notably the Hops Maiden England, an English pale ale showcasing UK hop varietals- this version featured Olicana, UK Cascade and UK Chinook hops. It was a shift away from the earthy and malty profiles of traditional English ales; instead, it exerted more character with citrus and resinous qualities associated with US varieties. We later tried their newly launched imperial IPA, Defacer- an assault of Sorachi Ace lightly tempered with toffee and malty notes. But the hops prevailed- I’m a fan of Sorachi Ace and this was serious rocket fuel.

The Beavertown Brewery stall was also a hub of activity, serving some rare examples from their Phantom series, which focuses on infused Berliner Weisse and gose styles. I spotted the Dame Melba Phantom (peach and raspberry), Pearvert Phantom (pear and gooseberry), Yuzilla Phantom (yuzu and dried lime), St Clements (Blood Orange and Lemon) and Earl Phantom (dry-hopped with Earl Grey tea). From the recent Tempus Project, the brewery's experimentation with wild yeast and bacteria and barrel aging, both collaborations with Founders Brewing Co briefly appeared- the Brux and Claussenii Brettanomyces IPAs- and also the Deimos, a sherry barrel aged Weizendoppelbock. Those that I was fortunate enough to catch were equally impressive- all of the Phantoms were deliciously sour and intensely flavoursome.

Turning to darker beers and harking back to Beavertown, their 'Spresso scotch barrel aged imperial espresso stout was a potent hit of rich espresso, proving highly aromatic and intensely smooth on the palate. The devilish Nao Pecan Mudcake stout from Omnipollo is more of a liquified dessert than a beer- and perilously drinkable. Yellow Belly, a peanut butter biscuit stout collaboration between Buxton Brewery and Omnipollo, was just as moreish with a harmonious blend of sticky sweet and savoury flavours.

The Cask Yard made its maiden appearance at LCBF this year- located only a short jaunt from Oval Space, it was still overlooked by many attendees. We were free to work our way through a vast range, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co’s Torpedo IPA , Double Summer from the Yeastie Boys Brewery and Fuller's and the Espresso Stout from Dark Star Brew Co, which retained a complex spectrum of characteristics from the expresso beans. It was reminiscent of a cold brew coffee- mellow sweetness without lingering acidity.

As each session unfolded, I found myself revisiting the same beers in succession. Despite feeling that I’d undertaken a drinking odyssey of epic proportions, I missed some laudable beers and overlooked some breweries entirely. But as my stamina waned, I was drawn towards the dance floor and the real spirit of LCBF resonated with me: I was drinking great beer in the company of great people.

So there you have it: London Beer City 2016 came to a close at the London Craft Beer Festival with a group of us belting out Together in Electric Dreams, hugging glasses of Brew by Numbers’ 14|03 Tripel. It's not difficult to see why it drew such large crowds this year and leaves me wondering how it will evolve to meet the increased interest in 2017.