It seems to me that the binge drinker has replaced the lager lout, writes Richard Fox, food & beer expert, writer and broadcaster: yet more negative imagery for the beleaguered alcoholic drinks trade. Whatever next – prohibition? Yet there is hope. There is a sea change in one particular category of bottled booze that is sweeping the nation – and it’s all about the most unlikely candidate to stage a cultural and taste-based revival: beer. While the Aussies are chuckling over their ice-cold amber nectar at the thought of us poms whinging into our warm beer, those very ales have been creeping their way into Michelin star restaurants. Retail style icons such as Harvey Nichols have been staging gourmet food and beer events, while the bastion of classic French cuisine in London – Le Gavroche has dared to offer a beer list alongside its revered wines. In the words of Dylan: ‘The times they are a changin’.
In the face of such overwhelming top-end endorsement, one could be forgiven for thinking beer is becoming the new wine. But that’s silly – beer has been enjoyed as a beverage of gastronomic importance when wine was just a twinkle in the great vine’s eye. Indeed, the oldest recipe ever discovered was found carved into a stone tablet from ancient Mesopotamia. Dating back several thousand years BC - it is a recipe for beer. The Pharaoh Kings held this royal beverage in such esteem they were laid to rest with pitchers and grains of barley to sustain them in the after-life.
The fact is, there has always been an artisan approach to the crafting of this great recipe. The finest quality natural ingredients have been cultivated, mixed and blended, while herbs, spices and other adjuncts such as honey have traditionally been employed in the revered art of brewing. These beers, with all their variety of colour, flavour, texture, balance – and suitability for different cuisines - never really disappeared; they just got lost amidst the overwhelming volume of cheap, tasteless keg big brewer lagers of the 80’s. And when wine, after a marketing assault in the same decade that made the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ look like a playground fracas, beer in the gastronomic sense, appeared to have got its final marching orders. Fortunately, you can’t keep a good thing down forever. The farm shop and deli industry is burgeoning and represents the perfect platform to showcase the remarkable variety of craft brews now available.
The speciality and craft beers we’re talking about are artisan products, with recipes perfected over centuries. We’re returning to seasonality, traditional recipes, and the craft of the farmer. Our artisan ales share these values and consequently have credentials to elicit and enhance the food flavours they can be matched with. Now we know flavour when we meet it and we’ve got the confidence to embrace it. So, when the soft citrus character of a coriander and orange infused wheat beer acts to refresh and stimulate the palate for the next mouthful of plump Scottish rope-grown mussels, we know we’re onto a good thing.
But it’s not just the cutting power of beer that makes it such a natural food partner. Belgian inspired Tripel style ales for example - originating from a recipe developed by fourteenth century Trappist monks, and with all the fruity complexity of a fine Bordeaux are ultimate gourmet beverages for food. These big, fruity notes make it an ideal partner for rich chocolate desserts, while its hoppy bitterness offers the perfect contrast to slow cooked sweet pork dishes. When a fine Yorkshire bitter such as Timothy Taylor’s Landlord meets a char-grilled rib-eye steak, magic happens as the caramelised flavours of the meat meld with the juicy maltiness of the beer. Its dry, clean bitterness contrasts with the sweetness of the meat, while the natural effervescence lifts residual fat, leaving the palate refreshed and ready to enjoy the next mouthful as though it was the first.
In a world where there are as many different beer flavours as food flavours, it’s possible to enjoy a different food and beer combination every day for life, without ever repeating the same pairing. Having unburdened ourselves of the restrictions of ignorance regarding wine, when we couldn’t see past the lone bottle of ambient Liebfraumilch on the back of the bar, it’s time to don the gastronaught hat once again. As lovers of taste, it would be nothing short of self-deprivation not to embark on this great flavour-driven journey.
Richard will be hosting the Farm Shop & Deli Show’s live events programme taking place at the NEC Birmingham, 24 – 26 April 2017.
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Take a look at our other FEAST articles here.