Brown's beer: You should drink beer with your food and not wine

Pete Brown has been helping head chef at the Cadogan Hotel, Oliver Lesnik, design a new menu. Guess what? Beer plays a major role

Cadogan Hotel

The new menu at the Cadogan Hotel is centred around beer

I’m afraid that this week my column is going to be little more than a thinly disguised sales pitch. But as you read LondonlovesBusiness.com, I’m hoping you’ll be fine with that. Surely you’ll admire a hapless columnist such as myself showing a bit of commercial flair?

To be honest, it’s not something I’ll be making any money from. And I wouldn’t foist it upon you if I didn’t think you’d be interested. But you’re in or near London, you probably have a bit of money to spend, and I’m guessing you’re quite into your food and drink – I can deduce all this, Sherlock Holmes-like, from that fact that you are reading a column about beer on a website called LondonlovesBusiness.com. 

So here goes. 

Having been a beer writer for quite a while, I’m now increasingly interested not just in writing about beer for its own sake, but trying to place beer on a wider platform where it can be considered and appreciated alongside other food and drink.

This year, I’ve had various chances to do just that. In May, I was invited to help judge the Great Taste Awards. These were set up some years ago by the Guild of Fine Food to provide an antidote to supermarket ‘Taste the Difference’ and ‘Finest’ ranges, with an independent and unbiased standard focusing primarily on food found more often in farm shops and delicatessens, where the truly finest often lurks. 

Any food that passes muster among the judges is awarded one, two, or three stars, which producers can then display on their packaging. The three star winners are whittled down to a list of the Top 50 Foods in Britain and an annual champion is chosen from these.

There are so many beers and ciders entered into the competition now that each one has a day of judging to itself. I joined for the first time this year. Two of our picks, Thornbridge Jaipur and Otley O-Garden, deservedly made that Top Fifty list. But now we’re taking this little relationship further.

The Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge is without doubt one of those places my mum would call “right posh.” The hotel restaurant has teamed up with Great Taste, while various luminaries of the foodie world have been creating menus to showcase Great Taste winning ingredients with Cadogan chef Oliver Lesnik.

You could have knocked me down with a hop leaf when they asked me to co-curate one such dinner with top food writer Charles Campion, focusing on beer.

Beer and food is an area that the beer world has been focusing on for years now, but this focus has produced frustratingly lean results. Despite the craft beer revolution happening all around us, few people even think of beer as an accompaniment to food, let alone an ingredient. This is a shame, because there are delights to be had.

When I pitch this idea I try to do so without coming across as being defensive about wine, but this is very difficult to do. 

We’ve simply been trained to believe that wine is the ultimate accompaniment to any cuisine. Even a third-rate curry house will have a wine list with twenty or so selections on it and a beer range that stretches to Cobra and Kingfisher, despite the fact that many wine aficionados struggle to find a great match for curry (though this is possible) and matching beer is much more straightforward and suitable.

Wine is made from grapes. There are different kinds of grapes, so there are many different characteristics across the wine spectrum. But that spectrum is limited compared to beer’s, because beer is made from more ingredients, has a greater number of different styles and therefore a much broader array of flavour, aroma and texture. 

Most people’s assumption that beer consists of lager, Guinness and ale is akin to suggesting that there are three types of wine – red, white and rosé. 

Once upon a time we did say that about wine, and in some situations that’s still good enough for us. But when we’re taking it seriously, we venture out into the murky waters of grape variety, and, beyond that, the brave may even go in search of provenance, vintage, terroir, chateau…

Beer offers at least as much complexity, and can do things wine cannot. A robust red, for example, goes with red meat as a fruity, acidic counterpoint, whereas beer can offer comparative flavours too – the caramel notes in a rich best bitter or dark ESB can pick up the caramelisation on grilled and roasted meats, offering a much more subtle and satisfying flavour harmony rather than a contrast that can be jarring if the wine is too big.

Where wine struggles – with spicy food, say, or with cheese – beer excels. Cheese in particular is a triumph, with beer’s carbonation breaking up the coating of fat and salt that cheese leaves on the tongue, refreshing the flavours and marrying them so you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.

There are some chefs who know this. Michel Roux Jr was named Beer Drinker of the Year a few years ago because of his beer list in Aubergine. And Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon has a superb list that turns matching rules on its head to create some stunning flavour pairings.

If I have one frustration when it comes to cooking with beer, as opposed to matching, it’s that most recipes are for hearty stews, pies and casseroles. Sure, beer works brilliantly here, providing bonus layers of flavour and drawing the main ingredients together quite beautifully, but while such dishes are always welcome, they lack grace and suggest that beer’s suitability with food only extends to garrulous, jolly, traditional cuisine.

So my challenge to Oliver Lesnik was to show that beer could also do refined, delicate flavours. Oliver didn’t know a great deal about beer when we started, but he sure as hell knew about flavour, and it was like giving him a new box of toys to play with. The learning process was steep, but fun, and occasionally less than sober.

The results are an absolute delight – without giving too much away, there are dishes featuring beer broths, beer jellies, glazes and marinades. Lager jelly in particular, as part of a fruity dessert, is a star in the making.

We’ve just had the press launch of our menu at the Cadogan. The menu then runs for a couple of months into the autumn at a very reasonable price. 

Every dish has beer lurking somewhere within it.  And then every dish comes with a recommended beer to drink as an accompaniment – usually a different beer to the one in the dish. 

Oh, and there’s a choice of wine too – red or white?

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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