Despite the fact that the category has enjoyed massive growth, with 42,000 outlets now stocking craft beers alone and has been verified as a partner to food, we are yet to see restaurant diners offered beer lists alongside or, instead of, the wine list.
“If you walk into a fine-dining restaurant and look at a tasting menu, about 90 per cent of them will have a wine flight to accompany it,” says Ed Hughes, beer sommelier for Brew + Press at Molson Coors. “That’s wonderful, because I love wine and food, but it’s a shame that beer doesn’t occupy the same space.”
Hughes, who is one of 135 accredited beer sommeliers, is working hard to make more space for beer in restaurants in particular. He has collaborated with a number of chefs, including Nathan Outlaw, Tom Kerridge and Alyn Williams to advise them on beers to work with their menus.
“Beer is massively versatile when it comes to matching it with food. I’ve lived and breathed it for the last six years and worked with some incredible chefs and front of house teams,” he says.
“I’ve done a lot of work with The Mariners at Rock - Nathan (Outlaw) is a massive champion for beer and food, so when you get people like Nathan, Tom Kerridge and Alyn Williams behind it, it helps and can make it seem possible. They have more influence than brewers really.”
The main reason beer sommeliers are encouraging restaurants, pubs and hotels to consider promoting beer as a match to food is because they believe the vast range of beers now on the market offer so many flavour variations and, with an improved focus on quality from the industry, they provide a valid alternative.
"The pubs I've worked with doing a good food offer have found there’s more diversity in beer than there is in wine," says former Everards brewer and beer sommelier Mark Tetlow who is now offering beer and food matching experiences through his new company The Beerhub.
Tetlow says there are less 'rules' when it comes to matching beer with food than with wine which makes it easier for recommendations to be made.
"At the beer dinners I host, I like to link two beers with every course as people don’t always agree on the choice. I might pair a dark porter style beer with a dish and something a bit lighter. It's less about the weight and more about the flavours," he says. "If you know what flavours you’re going to get in a beer you’ll start to understand what will work with what.
"One amazing combination is a chocolate brownie with a sour Kriek cherry beer. It works like a dream, like a Black Forest gateau. Generally you’re trying to compliment things and sometimes get contrast – cheese with an old ale, or fish with a beer with a citrus or hop note in it."
For beer sommelier and trainer Annabel Smith of Beerbelle the issue isn't that beer is a better match for food than wine, more that it isn't being considered as an alternative by enough outlets. Another plus point for beer, she believes, is its accessibility - it is generally sold at a lower price point than wine.
“All beer sommeliers would say the same thing: We are not trying to say beer is better than wine with food, we’re saying they are two completely different things but now’s a great time to experiment with beer," she says.
"When I’m training staff at restaurants I say 'I’m not here to cannibalise your wine sales', I’m saying that so few guests are given a choice between beer and wine when they’re dining out. So often they are just offered wine and yet, what a great choice and experience for a guest if a member of staff could offer both as match for dishes."
"I also think the message we need to get across is, there are some wines in this world that, because of their high prices, most consumers will never experience, but with beer it’s pretty affordable for all."
Work to do
While beer could have an equal weighting to wine in the food pairing stakes, there is still 'a lot' of work to be done to convince the hospitality sector to embrace the practice, say experts.
Beer sommeliers blame brewers for sitting back and letting the wine sector educate and engage with consumers while they focused on building volume sales in pubs.
"Beer fell by the wayside a bit when wine makers did so much brilliant training to the on and off trade to understand their product in simple language, and the brewers weren’t quite on the ball with that. It was just seen as a drinking drink, rather than going with food, so the beer industry can take a lot of lessons from the wine industry and how you can get engaged," says Smith.
"The marketplace requires knowledge and the brewing industry has not been good at it over the years. The wine industry has been good at it, we haven’t," echoes Tetlow.
"People are interested in beer but the brewing industry is very lazy in educating people about it. For them, it’s about converting a Carlsberg drinker to a Carling one, but the history is actually fascinating for all the brands," adds Hughes.
While brewers catch up, there are some simple ways hospitality businesses can work on matching beer with food.
Hughes suggests serving accompanying beers in wine glasses or brandy balloons as the practice 'not only looks good' but has a functional element in that the shape of the glass captures aromas, while Smith, in agreement, suggests simply listing suitable beer matches alongside dishes on a menu.
All three agree that educating staff about beer and its adaptability as a match for food is the key.
"You have to educate staff so they understand what they are serving," says Tetlow. "Once you’ve got that in place you look at the food offer and think how can we put the two together. It’s an education for the whole of the business, but more and more consumers are asking questions and are interested in beer and why it tastes like that, so staff need to know what they are serving."
"There are two ways you can get beer and food matching right," summarises Smith: "Number one, you need the culture there with the right glassware and the right staff training, number two you need your guests to experience it. Don’t just stick all the bottles in the fridge, or only have a beer menu, get some sampling done, let them taste what you’ve got. We do it with wine, we offer tasters but we rarely do it with beer.
"There's such interest there for beer, it's just a case of getting the word out there."