To find out how beer fits into the plans of those at the very top of the UK restaurant industry we speak with The Michelin Guide, Michel Roux Junior, Tate Modern, No 1 Balmoral, The Beer Academy and Dr Debbie Parker.
Wine and beer have forever been favoured accompaniments to our meals, though historically this was more to do with the insanitary water supply. It wasn’t until around the 1970s and 1980s that an expanding wine industry pervaded the idea that wine was part of the gastronomic experience, rather than a simple beverage to wash down your beef wellington. Profound importance was attached to vineyards and terroir, diners dwelled on vintages and grape variant, and beer was cast out into the cold.
But the world of eating out is changing. Increasingly, sommeliers and restaurateurs are embracing the new dawn of craft beer. Chefs are using craft beers as an ingredient in their menus (lambics in dressings; stouts in marinades), and restaurants are recognising the importance of a curated beer list that caters to those enlightened customers who have an understanding of the culinary pleasures of beer and food pairing. Even Michelin, distributor of the coveted stars, has said some top-end restaurants need to lose the attitude when it comes to beer and better serve their customers.
In a recent interview with Thirst, Belgian brewer Alexander Dumont, of the Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille in Belgium, declared that for the craft beer sector to continue growing it had to take on wine’s stranglehold of restaurants, and the beer industry had to challenge the belief that wine is the best accompaniment for food.
His argument will find a sympathetic audience among many beer experts and connoisseurs. Beer writers such as Stephen Beaumont and Mark Dredge have both published glossy, top-end books on the subject, their publishers clearly aware of the growing appreciation of food and beer pairing. Part coffee table decoration and part cookery book, these books retell the history of beer, reveal recipes and highlight the restaurants and chefs spearheading this trend.
For Dr Debbie Parker, sommelier and sensory expert at Marketing Sciences in Hampshire, it’s a no-brainer that beer and food go beautifully together.
“Just look at the beer tasting wheel,” she says of a graphic designed to help brewers and beer connoisseurs describe the characteristics of beer. There are several variants but at it’s most basic it broken up into about 100 segments with each one a term to describe a beer’s character. Almost all of the adjectives are food types, from candy to chewy, herbal to fruity.
Dr Parker adds: “If you can describe a beer using food terms then it’s common sense that beer will go well with those foods.”
But beer and food pairing isn’t just about flavour. Dr Parker explains that there are a number of different factors that come into play when tasting a beer: bitterness, carbonation, roasted flavours, sweetness, body, smokiness, strength and wheat all affect a beer’s character.
Stouts and smoked salmon work remarkably well, she says, but most people wouldn’t think to try, perhaps preferring a citrusy saison. A fragrant, hoppy IPA sits well with a dish of sundried tomatoes mozzarella, the herbs complementing the hop character. Likewise a brown malty beer will go well with apple spoked cheese. Beers with a high bitterness can overwhelm a delicate dish, but are great with rich, creamy foods or sweet deserts.
Beer, Dr Parker explains, can be used to complement or contrast a dish, but it can also be used to “cut through” a food. The malty sweet flavours of a Scotch ale can help ease the heat of spicy Indian food, while beers with a high acidity (wild beers, for example) are exceptional at cutting through buttery or fatty foods. High levels of carbon dioxide in a lively beer can help to reset the tongue and palate – perfect for intense, rich foods.
There is no fixed set of rules of course, just a few guidelines (strong-flavoured beers with strong-flavoured foods) and pairings that work that people can follow or break as they venture along their food and beer journey.
As well as complementary, cutting or contrasting pairings, chefs can also use beer to deconstruct foods, something that’s becoming increasingly common on tasting menus at beer-friendly restaurants. A Belgian cherry kriek lambic, for example, with a chocolate brownie gives you a Black superb Forest gateaux, reveals Dr Parker.
As chefs and sommeliers understand beer better, it’s no surprise that brewery-owned restaurants make a virtue out of their own beer lists. Wild Beer in Cheltenham, Musa in Aberdeen (with links to BrewDog) and Mikkeller’s Øl & Brød in Copenhagen, to name but three, all offer beer-focused menus. And it isn’t stopping there. In London, for example, Michelin-starred restaurants such as Quillion and Michel Roux Junior’s Le Gavroche have carefully curated beer lists, with the former even offering a choice of beer tasting menus. In Edinburgh, Michelin chef Tom Kitchin has brewed his own beer.
In a league of its own would be New York’s Luksus, by chef David Burns and Evil Twin’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. Luksus is a Nordic style restaurant and is the the first to receive a Michelin-star which features a beer only drinks list. They’ve recently release the book Food & Beer which tells the story of the two, as well as reveling some of the masterpiece dishes served at Luksus.
Mr Roux agrees craft beer is increasingly being appreciated by the world’s top chefs and restaurants. He says: “A lot of chefs have now got a beer selection to offer their customers. It makes a good alternative to wine, especially if a beer or the brewery has a rich history to tell.”
Beer expert Rupert Ponsonby, who helped set up the Beer Academy institution, identifies three key reasons for the growth of beer on the menus of restaurants. “Celebrity chefs such as Michel Roux Junior and Reynard Bland have certainly helped to encourage restaurants to get behind the craft beer revolution, and their beer options have vastly improved in recent years,” he says.
The second reason, he argues, is the explosion of craft breweries: “We had about 300 breweries [in the UK] ten years ago; now there are about 1900. And these are seeking to differentiate themselves. They’re looking at ingredients, they’re learning about hop oils, they’re learning about flavours, they’re learning about what flavour works with what.”
With that, Mr Ponsonby explains, is a greater appreciation of bar basics like glassware and serving temperatures.
Mr Ponsonby also credits organisations, such as the Beer Academy, which trains beer sommeliers and promotes a richer understanding of craft beer. “We’ve about 140 beer sommeliers from the Beer Academy, out in the community, explaining about beer, helping people to understand it.”
These craft beer evangelists are also helping to break down a perceived eliteness among oenophiles towards beer. And they’re not alone. English winery Chapel Down has just smashed a £1 million crowd-funder to build a brewery, ensuring the continued success and production of their Curious beer. In the end, the Kent-based business raised £1.75m.
Alex Stevenson, beer sommelier and beverage manager at the Tate, said food and beer pairing was done on a dish by dish basis. He added: “We tend to do food tastings and then match to the best pair, so we see which beers of which wine would work best with a certain food.”
Mr Stevenson also revealed that the Tate had brewed a series of collaborations with the likes of Harbour in Cornwall and Madhatter in Liverpool, and that he was keen to promote the burgeoning craft industry as well as support stalwart British breweries such as Fullers.
Unsurprisingly, breweries themselves are also getting in on the food and drink act. Fyne Ales in Argyll in Scotland, for example, has just released a saison it made in collaboration with the neighbouring Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. Rather than oysters however, Fyne Ales’ This Gose beer was brewed to complement the nearby restaurant’s smoked salmon.
Rebecca Burr, editor of The Michelin Guide, suggested misplaced snobbery was one reason some top restaurants failed to offer strong beer lists.
She said: “The trend for artisanal beer is fantastic, it opens up so much dialogue, but some of the more prestigious restaurants simply need to get over the image. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a beer.”
For the coveted Michelin star, Ms Burr said, the “focus was certainly on food, though there is an expectation of a strong drinks offering”.
She said that although more and more pubs and restaurants were proudly offering strong beer and food lists, they were still relatively few in number and that she expected this to grow as the trend continued.
“At Michelin we do our best to support these places but ultimately it’s up to professionals and the industry to promote beer, and to work together to make it happen.”
Glen Montgomery, head sommelier at No 1 Balmoral in Edinburgh, also approves of the rise of craft beer, especially in restaurants. He believes that rather than encroach on wine’s turf, beer and food pairing will aid his own profession as it will improve people’s understanding and appreciation of wine.
“I think it’s a really positive thing,” he says, adding: “And it’s something we’re looking at doing here at No 1, developing our beer offering. There’s definitely room for both.
“People these days are talking much more about qualities of a drink; they’re understanding character, body, acidity; they’re appreciating flavours more, and that’s a really good thing. And the whole thing is easier with beer because it’s more approachable; both in terms of sensory experience but also cost.
“So I think people’s interests in beer will enable a greater interest in wine. But I don’t think it will replace it,” says the self-confessed oenophile. “Wine has more character, is more complex certainly … But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?”