Whether you’re a standalone, high-end restaurant, a mid-market chain, or a food-led pub operator, there is now a huge variety of beer available at different prices, offering a good margin in return. And operators can increase those margins even further by pairing beers up with food.
So says Belgian beer ambassador and master beer sommelier Mark Stroobandt, who works with the F&B partnership – the UK’s first food and beer consultancy.
“For a lot of restaurants, beer is paying the bills but it is being taken for granted,” Stroobandt says. “Beer stimulates the appetite and this is where potential lies for everyone. It can drive your food sales and even your wine sales.
“There are no rules when it comes to beer and food matching - anything goes. The key thing is to enhance your customers’ experience – don’t overpower the food with beer or vice versa. One thing beer has above wine is refreshment. It can cleanse your pallet, which wine struggles to achieve. So beer must add to your dish in that sense.
“Think of it as a condiment, that little dressing on the side. Generally, Indian food works with Indian beer and English food works with English beer. But English beers can also work with exotic food and vice versa. It’s also about the ingredients - beer that has coriander in generally goes well with Indian or Thai food.”
Food-led pub company Geronimo Inns is a standout example of a business seizing on the opportunity of stocking beers that have an affinity with food. Having been voted Best Pub Company of 2011 at Restaurant magazine’s R200 Awards, the operator often hosts beer and food matching events for customers and staff at its 31 venues in and around London.
“There’s always more you can do when it comes to beer and food matching, “explains Ed Turner, commercial director at Geronimo Inns. “Without ramming it down people’s throats, you want to try and highlight the taste profile of different beers. It’s always about the range – you have to think about the price, the ABV and the taste range.
“If you’re running a restaurant and you have a specific range of beers, then matching those beers with the food is really good. Similarly with pubs, people go there because they want a choice. It’s important that the staff understand that as well, so that they can point customers towards the right beers for each food.”
Variety and customer experience
Effectively pairing beer with food goes beyond serving curry with a pint or a pie with ale; there is an art to it.
Take current Beer Drinker of the Year, Sriram Aylur, for example. His fine-dining South-West Indian restaurant, The Quilon (which re-opens at the end of this month following a three-month refurbishment) stocks 18 different varieties of beer.
Not content with this offering, Aylur designed a five-course all-British beer menu to add to his five and eight-course global beer menus, each course served with a different beer. He also recently introduced Britain’s first vintage beer menu, offering beers that date back to 1999.
“There are two aspects of beer and food matching,” says the Michelin-starred chef. “One is serving a variety of beers, in the same vein as you do with wine - you can’t broadly classify wine as red or white, in the same way that you cannot categorise beer as just lager or ale.
“Two is the breadth of the offering. You must offer customers an experience and a variety. I think beer can generally be matched with any food, like you match wine. You should give customers an experience that gives them an element of surprise and also an element of enjoyment.”
The brewer’s view
And it’s not just restaurateurs that have tried to marry beer with food – brewers have been just as active in encouraging restaurants to buy more beer. From developing larger sharing bottles and different styles suited more to stemware, to brands specifically created to compliment food.
Ed Hughes is retail and hospitality manager at Sharp’s brewery, which has created a range of beers specifically for their food-matching credentials.
“It’s essential for restaurants and pubs to get their beer and food matching right,” says Hughes. “With wine sales dropping six per cent, it’s a real chance for the rest of the drinks industry.
“Our Chalky’s Bite and Chalky’s Bark beers were specifically designed to go with food - Chalky’s Bite is Belgian in style and it’s a perfect match for an oily fish dish, while Chalky’s Bark has a lower ABV and works particularly well with Asian dishes.”
For restaurants worried that by serving beer they are limiting wine sales, Hughes advises that you should be paying the same level of respect to all drinks on offer.
“If you walk into a fine-dining restaurant, you are given a wine list with your menu. This should be a full drinks list, empowering the customer with the choice, which is crucial. Wine has dominated food and drink matching because beer hasn’t been given the respect it deserves.”
Top tips to successful beer and food matching:
- Tell your customers about what’s on offer-Master beer sommelier Stroobandt: “A recent report I read showed that 89 per cent of consumers will buy based on personal recommendations. But the flip side was that only eight per cent of them were ever given one - so you see where the problems lie. “
- Make your staff aware– Hughes from Sharp’s brewery: “For publicans and the restaurateurs, you should empower the front-of-house staff to be confident talking about beer and food, and explaining which combinations work best.”
- Keep it simple– Geronimo Inns’ Turner: “If you give customers too much detail or over-complicate your beer and food menus, they aren’t going to read it, so simplicity is key.
- Serve it correctly– Hughes:“you have to get in the same head space as a sommelier would. Perhaps even serving beer in a wine glass.”
- Don’t overdo it– Turner: “Suggesting which beers go with which foods is, of course, a good idea. But if you start trying to match the likes of Carlsberg, Stella or Heineken, then you’re on a hiding to nothing.”