Who says wine is the only complement to quality cuisine? Time to wake up and smell the hops – beer belongs on the menu too
Gone are the days when the only food associated with beer was a meat pie and a bag of pork scratchings. The country's top restaurateurs are now recognising something that countries like Belgium and Germany have known for years – that beer fully deserves its place on the dinner table, and is just as much a gourmet option as the finest of wines. Beer, they realise, is an incredibly versatile drink that adds a new dimension to high-end cuisine through its diversity of flavours and range of strengths.
Putting together a beer list is a relatively easy task. There are a few basic concepts to grasp, and some initial suggestions to take on board, and then it's all down to experimentation to refine the choice. Firstly, similar considerations to wine selection need to be taken on board. Just as you need reds, whites and rosés of all weights, so you also need a broad range of beers to blend perfectly with your menu. A fridge full of lager is unlikely to do justice to your chef's creativity. Beyond this, the science of beer and food matching is fairly simple. The beer has to either complement the food or spectacularly contrast with it. Let's chew over a few basic examples.
You have a seafood starter. You certainly don't want to swamp the subtle flavours, so you opt for a pale-coloured beer rather than something heavy and malty. A perfect match would be a beer with a twist of citrus and not too much bitterness, one that can tease out the sweet flavours of the prawns, scallops or salmon.
The ideal companion is a Belgian or Dutch witbier. This is a wheat beer delicately spiced with coriander and dried citrus peel.
The market leader is Hoegaarden, but you can also discover more interesting beers, such as Watou's Wit or Korenwolf, that do an equally fine job.
That's the complementary approach. For the contrasting approach, take a chocolate pudding. With this, serve one of the sweeter Belgian fruit beers, for example the luscious Kriek Boon, so that its juicy cherries wallow happily in the chocolate like a pig in mud. Opposites attract, they say, and the fruit and chocolate certainly do here.
The above examples provide an illustration of the different flavours that beer can bring to the table. Beer-making begins with barley that has been malted to make it suitable for brewing.
To unlock the vital starches and enzymes, each barleycorn has been partially germinated. It has then been baked in an oven to stop further growth. By roasting the grains at different temperatures for varying lengths of time, the malt that emerges can range in flavour from delicately pale to biscuity and nutty, or even chocolaty and coffee-like.
Balancing out the sweetness of the barley are the hops, but hops add more than bitterness to a beer. They can be herbal, peppery, spicy and even fruity. Some hops like Cascade from the USA deliver an incredibly zesty citrus note. Just imagine how you could employ that in your restaurant. And when the brewer also throws in fruits and spices, anything is possible.
So what would make up an elementary beer list? You certainly need a top-class pilsner, a beer that cuts the mustard with strong seafood, hams and even spicy cuisine. It's hard to look beyond the original pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, with its buttery maltiness and tangy, herbal hops, but it's worth considering something with an even hoppier, drier bite that can be employed as an aperitif as well, such as Bitburger Pils or Jever Pils from Germany.
You'll also require a robust ale to tie in with steaks and casseroles. A darker example with a caramel note from the malt, such as Fuller's 1845, beautifully picks up on the caramelised flavours of roasted meats. To balance the sweetness of lamb or game, on the other hand, you could choose a malty yet herbal bière de garde from northern France, such as Jenlain, or a dark and delicious dubbel from Belgium. Westmalle would be a fine option.
On the face of it, a beer brewed from smoked malts is a surprise choice, but there's simply no finer accompaniment to smoked foods, be they fish or ham, than a German rauchbier, such as Schlenkerla, so I'd always keep one on the menu. Also ensure that there's a German wheat beer on your list, as it's probably the most versatile of all beer styles.
Weissbier, as it's known, is famous for its remarkable banana, clove, vanilla and apple flavours – and with all that flavour going on, there's enough variety in one glass to complement and contrast at the same time.
It's just great with Oriental cooking, eggs, hams, fish and salads. Add in the fact that weissbier is also not particularly bitter and you start to see how handy it could be for desserts, too. Erdinger and Weihenstephaner are among the most accessible of these, while Schneider-Weisse is darker and a touch more sour. Also for puddings, you need to offer a sweet dark mild or a stout. A glass of stout or porter with a chocolate dessert is one of the greatest culinary combinations and balances the idea that the big, roasted beers can be good only for drinking with shellfish – which, of course, they are.
Finding the right combinations is, in the end, all about experimentation. Set up a few of your key dishes, line up a handful of bottles and see which work best together. Finally, don't be afraid to pass on your views on the menu; customers need to be encouraged and informed if the concept is really going to take off.
- Pilsner Jever Pils or Bitburger Pils (Germany)
- India pale ale Meantime IPA or Worthington's White Shield (UK)
- Malty ale Fuller's 1845 (UK) or Westmalle Dubbel (Belgium)
- Bavarian wheat beer Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier or Schneider- Weisse (Germany)
- Belgian/Dutch wheat beer Watou's Witbier (Belgium) or Gulpener Korenwolf (Netherlands)
- Smoked beer Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (Germany) or Alaskan Smoked Porter (US)
- Bière de garde Jenlain Ambrée or Ch'ti Ambrée (France)
- Barley wine JW Lees Harvest Ale or Fuller's Vintage Ale (UK)
- Stout or Porter Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (Ireland) or Ringwood Porter (UK)
- Fruit beer Kriek Boon or Liefmans Kriek (Belgium)
- Dark lager Meantime Union (UK) or Brooklyn Lager (US)
- Trappist/abbey ale Westmalle Tripel or Rochefort 10 (Belgium)
For a more modest list, stick to the basics: pilsner, India pale ale, Bavarian wheat beer, barley wine, stout and fruit beer. Most of these can be obtained from importers such as James Clay beersolutions.co.uk and Pierhead Purchasing pierheadwines.co.uk, or through specialist retailers such as Beers of Europe beersofeurope.co.uk and Beer Paradise beerparadise.co.uk