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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Foolproof beer and food matching - come on, it's time to give it a go


Sorry the blogging has been a bit sporadic - very busy on work, finishing the book (almost there!) and an unprecedented amount of journalism.

Three of the pieces I've been asked to write in the last fortnight have been about beer and food matching, two of which were on the theme of if it's so great, why is it not more widespread?  It's a good question, and I think the biggest issue is confidence - it's a very new idea for most people and in my experience they need to be shown, not told, that it works.  I've converted many people to the delights of pairing beer with food, but I've not convinced a single person simply by talking to them.  Cooking a meal for friends words every time.

So it got me to thinking that anyone who is passionate about beer and is not an absolute disaster in the kitchen should, if they want to convert people to beer and food, or even drinking beer in general, host a meal for the friends they want to impress.  You have a fantastic evening - the fundamental truth is that most people don't really analyse flavour and think about pairings no matter what they're eating and drinking - people usually find it a fun change to do it for once. 

So why does this not happen more?  If everyone who loved beer put their money where their mouth is and actually demonstrated to their friends the delights of beer and food pairing, eventually we'd convert the entire country.  But there's that confidence thing again.  You may know what beers you like.  You may have been blown away at a tutored tasting event when an expert has put pairings together for you.  But it can be daunting to put your head on the line and try to create it yourself.  I know - I found it nerve-wracking when I first started doing it. 

So here is my foolproof beer and food menu for novices.  If you know a lot about beer and if you've ever leafed through Garrett Oliver's or Fiona Beckett's excellent books then stop reading now - you'll only disagree with me and think I'm being too simplistic.  If you are Garrett Oliver or Fiona Beckett, please forgive me.   

But if you think the idea is fine in principle but you don't know where to start, read on.  There's no better time to do this - there's a global recession and we can't afford to go out to restaurants any more, so this is a great way to entertain friends at home.

For each course I've given suggestions for ideal beers if you have access to them, as well as beers you should be able to find in any supermarket or corner shop if you're not near a good speciality beer shop.  Apologies to North American readers - the brands are different for you - but then you tend to have easier access to craft beers anyway.

The main principles are match light flavours with light, heavy with heavy.  And there's a progression from light to heavier as the meal goes on.  It keeps your palate fresh. 

STARTER
A couple of options here, but wheat beer or lager is a safe bet for a first course.  How about a few salad leaves with either smoked salmon or goat's cheese, all tossed together with a citrus dressing or just drizzled with a bit of lemon juice?  The wheat beer compliments the lemon, brings out the flavours of the fish or cheese, and cuts through the fattiness of the cheese.  If you can get a good German Weissbeer that's the best thing to use.  The surprise hit of the last few years has been Grolsch Weizen, which is kind of a cross between german and Belgian wheat beer and matches with pretty much anything.  But if you're dealing with a very basic beer selection, Hoegaarden is absolutely fine.

Alternatively, if you can get hold of a Kriek or Framboise - cherry or raspberry beer - a really surprising match is to simply put these with cured ham, such as Parma or Serrano.  There's a fruitiness in cured ham that really gets brought out by the beer.  And in southern Spain, Serrano ham (or its local equivalent) is often served with cherries.  Put the ham on the plate and open the beer - foolproof.

MAIN COURSE
A good malty dark ale will go with any cooked red meat, because the caramelisation in the meat matches the caramel notes in a malty beer - roasts or pies are a no-brainer, even with something as basic as Newcastle Brown.  But it's a bit obvious, and wouldn't really change the perceptions of anyone who's ever heard of steak and ale pie.

Something a little more refined and interesting is coq a la biere.  Cooking with beer is obviously one step on from matching with beer, but a great way of getting a match is to cook with a beer than serve the same beer with the meal.  It sounds like cheating, but it's not.  If you're a really crap cook, you can get a packet of coq au vin seasoning, follow the recipe on the back and use beer instead of wine.    

There's a recipe for coq a la biere in every beer and food cookbook I've ever read.  Chicken thighs work best, because they have more flavour.  I usually leave them whole in a casserole and slow cook them with onions, garlic, celery, carrots, mushrooms, a coating of flour on the chicken pieces if you want the stew to thicken, and season with salt and pepper and herbs such as parsley and sage - fresh sage is a belter with this. 

This is obviously a French dish, and in parts of France it's just as common to use beer as it is wine.  If you have access to speciality beer shops, try this with a French biere de garde or a Belgian saison - either gives a rich earthiness to the dish, and adds a little zing when you serve the beer with the food.  If you're dealing with a basic supermarket range, pretty much any bottled ale is going to work fine, though I prefer a pale or amber coloured beer such as Timothy Taylor Landlord or Young's Bitter - it just feels a little less heavy than dark brown beer for people worried about stodge - one of the main barriers you have to overcome.  If you fancy it a touch sweeter, Leffe is also fine.

DESSERT
If you've prepared the first two courses, unless you're a real dessert fan I'd just buy your pudding.  Nobody will mind.  And here we can go for a match that veterans will say is far too obvious but soddit - when it's this good, no-one's going to complain. Get a melted chocolate pudding - like the ones in the M&S ad or the ones from Gu, chocolate sponge on the outside and melted chocolate inside - and match with a porter or stout.  Obviously if there are chocolate notes in the stout it's going to go even better.  Meantime's chocolate porter is a no-brainer.  But although this will upset some readers, it's fantastic even with Guinness.  It may be mass market, there may be better porters and stouts out there, but if it's all you can get it is by no means a compromise.  This is one of those dishes where beer and pudding merge until you can't tell one from the other and the flavours just wrap around each other and merge, spiralling up to new heights neither is capable of on its own.    

CHEESE
If you don't have a kitchen you could just do a beer and cheese tasting - in my view this is where beer shines the brightest anyway.  In order: a good pilsner lager like Pilsner Urquell or Budvar with goat's cheese; pale ale (again Landlord would be good) with Brie or Camambert; a north American IPA such as Goose Island or an English beer like Worthington White Shield with a strong, mature cheddar (Mrs Keens if you can get it); and Stilton (preferably Colston Basset) with a strong barley wine style beer such as Thomas Hardys, JW Lees' Harvest Ale, or Fuller's Vintage Ale, or maybe a strong porter or stout.  Not everyone will like every match, but everyone will like at least one, including those friends who tell you they don't like beer.  Fiona Beckett has a little more helpful advice on doing this, with a few alternative suggestions, here.

If you're serving cheese at the end of a meal I'd keep it simple - mature cheddar and Worthington White Shield is the taste of the gods.

A tip for getting your guests on side - I always open a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine and place them in the middle of the table, and tell guests I'm just wanting to try this out, and if they really don't want to play, or if they decide they don't like a match, I won't be offended if they switch to wine.  All I ask is that they try just a tiny bit of the beer with the food, and listen to me while I explain very briefly why I've chosen to put them together.  When you do this it takes the pressure off, everyone relaxes, and nine times out of ten the wine remains untouched. 

And serve the beer in wine glasses - it's the easiest way to change someone's perception and gets rid of the volume issue - a huge psychological and physical barrier for most beer rejectors, especially women.

So there we go - the only excuse you now have for not doing this is that you don't have any friends.     

Saturday, 24 January 2009

DAILY ALCOHOL LIMITS NOT REALLY WORKING FOR US, SAY DRINKERS

A friend recently introduced me to The Daily Mash, a spoof newspaper that will feel familiar to fans of The Onion, but is written in the UK.  It's razor-sharp topical, so much so that I often read the spoof stories on here before I've heard the real news headlines they're taking the piss out of.  I thought the following, published today, would amuse readers of this blog.  Hopefully they won't mind me reproducing it in its entirety:
 
'Piss off!'

THESE recommended daily limits on alcohol the government has come up with are really not doing it for us, drinkers said last night.

Beer and wine enthusiasts across the UK stressed that while three to four units may sound reasonable, it's obviously not going to get you trousered, even if you're a lady.

They are now calling on the government to rethink its guidelines or better still just leave them alone and go and bother fat people instead.

Tom Logan, a trainee solicitor from Northampton, said: "It seems to me that they may have confused a safe daily limit with what I like to call 'lunch'."

He added: "Of an evening I like to smash through the limit with a convivial pint or two after work, before I then jump up and down on the limit and set fire to it with a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio.

"I manage to do all this without bothering anyone else. The worst that happens is an occasional tendency to fall asleep and urinate all over the sofa, but, and I'm sure we're all agreed, that's my problem."

Emma Bishop, a marketing executive from Twickenham, added: "How's about this? As an adult, I think a reasonable daily limit is me drinking as much as I fucking want.

"If it affects my work I'll get sacked. If it affects my relationships I'll be all lonely and sad.

"And as for my health, following a quick glance at my tax bill I've decided that the NHS will treat me and the government can keep its fucking opinions to itself."

Thursday, 22 January 2009

You wait eighteen years for a TV series on beer and then two come along at once

I posted recently about the Neil Morrissey/Richard Fox series on Channel 4, with a mixture of criticism, praise and barefaced envy.  Now it's Oz Clarke and James May's turn.  Oz and James aren't brewing their own beer, but are travelling Britain in search of the 'drink that best speaks for the country'.  Which is beer of course, but they need to keep the concept broad enough to include whisky, cider and the occasional vineyard.

So putting even greater jealousy over this one to one side (because I was talking to someone about doing something very similar the day before it was announced this series was being made) what's the series like? 

As with Morrissey Fox, I've spoken to many in the brewing industry who see it as childish, laddish, flippant, and not that educational about beer.  After the first episode this was the camp I was in.  It's on the BBC, so instead of Morrissey/Fox's fucking cunts we have lots of flipping fatheads instead.  When they visited Thornbridge, they used more footage of the boys pretending to get lost on the estate and having to turn the caravan around than they did from the seven hours they spent filming with the brewers, talking about hops and sampling their amazing beers.  The bit where they got pissed on a succession of Yorkshire train stations served no televisual purpose whatsoever.  And after the 100th time, Oz's shit pretend Yorkshire accent really started to shred my nerves.

I watched the second and third programmes because I felt I had to.  And as the series settled in, I found myself utterly disarmed.  This is the third series on drink the pair have done together, so they must be doing something right.  And the thing is... their on-screen chemistry really works.  It's very, very funny.  James May is obviously a far more intelligent and thoughtful man than the persona he portrays onscreen, and his comic timing is brilliant.  I hope for his friends and family's sake that Oz on-screen is also an exaggeration of Oz in person, but put the two together and they play off each other wonderfully.  

So far, it's true, I've learned absolutely nothing I didn't already know about beer.  I didn't expect to.  You come away with a vague knowledge of brewing ingredients and processes, and that's it.  This is disappointing to those already knowledgeable, because they believe that people just need to be educated about beer and then they'll love it.  This series is an opportunity to do so, but it's taken a very lackadaisical approach to the task, preferring instead to focus on laddish larks around breweries and in a caravan.  I've even picked up several errors and inaccuracies in the brief descriptions of beer styles and processes.

But I have enough failed and rejected TV pitches under my belt to know that the days of informative lectures on screen are dead.  First and foremost TV has to be entertaining, because if it's not people will switch over.  As I've often said on here, you might not like it, but that's how it is.  And Oz and James Drink to Britain is very entertaining.  And more than that, it's entertaining in a beery way.  You come away really fancying a pint.  

I've always argued that beer's cultural role is far more interesting to the average punter than its taste profile, especially if you're in a situation where you're talking about beer rather than drinking it.  In today's neo-puritanical age, here are two blokes making a series about how much fun it is to drink during the daytime.  They get to a stage where they're clearly feeling the effects, but not behaving like twats.  They may not tell you much about how to seriously taste beer, but the entire series is suffused with the warm glow, the buzz, the feeling of what it's like to have had a few pints and be content that, in your little corner of it at least, everything is right with the world.  In that sense, it's the best publicity for beer I can possibly imagine.    

I went along to the launch of the tie-in book this morning down at the Market Porter in Borough Market.  The place was rammed and it was difficult to get near the two stars.  When I did, they answered my questions about beer in a very flip and entertaining manner, clearly more interested in taking the piss out of each other than talking about which amazing micros stood out in their minds months after filming has finished.  When I first started writing about beer, this is how I said we should be selling it to those who are not currently convinced.  I'm grateful to them for reminding me of the true value of beer.


       

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

BrewDog rapped for Speedball beer drug connotations

This happened yesterday:

Scottish brewer BrewDog has had its Speedball beer brand pulled from UK shelves following a complaint about the product's intimated link to drugs.

UK drinks industry body The Portman Group said today (20 January) that its independent complaints panel has upheld a complaint under the group's code of practice, brought by Alcohol Focus Scotland, claiming the beer's marketing is associated with illicit drugs.

Speedball is the name given to the practice of combining heroin and crack cocaine to give both sedative and stimulant effects, the Portman Group said.

The drink is marketed by BrewDog as a "class A ale" containing "a vicious cocktail of active ingredients" which creates a "happy-sad" effect.

"The blurring of alcohol and illicit drugs fosters unhealthy attitudes to drinking and trivialises drug misuse.," said David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group. "BrewDog is profiteering from the scourge of illegal drugs, mocking the misery caused by misuse.

"We are taking urgent action to protect the public from exposure to such negligent marketing."

A retailer alert bulletin will be issued to retailers in the UK, urging them to remove the drink from sale until its marketing is altered to comply with the code.

The co-founder of BrewDog, Martin Dickie, defended the company's behaviour. "The Portman Group has attacked us for our marketing instead of going after the companies who are mass-selling products cheaply and causing the nation's alcohol problems," he said.

"This is a drink which, in the UK, had a release of 1,184 bottles and cost GBP3 a bottle, so Speedball is for those who enjoy a quality beer responsibly and enjoy a premium drink at a premium price.

"Technically, the name fits within the product. The ingredients are natural stimulants including guarana and kola nuts with natural depressants Californian poppy and hops, so it is a speedball of a combination."


Love the beer, love the brewery. Agree with the point the lads are making. But at the same time, I'm not sure it was a great idea to launch this beer with the specific intention of getting this result. Yes, it gives them an opportunity to put a case forward, but in an attention-deficient age where most people read the headline and skim the rest of a story, I worry that if you just get the barest facts or read reports like this one half way, then you're going to walk away on Portman's side. Am I being an old fart about this?

Monday, 19 January 2009

The difference the Atlantic makes

Every British beer drinkers knows Foster's - an 'Aussie' lager brewed under licence in the UK, the second-biggest beer brand in the country.  I like lager as much as ale and I try to keep an open mind, but I used some in a beer tasting recently (they wanted to learn about lager) and a can from the supermarket proved utterly undrinkable - not just in my opinion, but in that of the beer-tasting novices who had poured it from a can and really thought about the flavour for the first time in their lives.  Maybe that's why Foster's these days trumpets the virtues of 'extra-cold' so loudly in their ads.

Not a lot of Brits know that Foster's lager is also available in the US.  And today, when I was looking at funnies on The Onion, I was held up by a banner ad for their latest product launch:


Yes, Foster's has launched an ALE.  At least, it claims to be an ale.  It has caramel colouring added, and may be a lager in disguise, but the website makes a great deal of how it tastes different from the lager: caramel and fruit aromas versus 'light malt aroma', and a 'smooth caramel finish' rather than a 'light hop finish'.  More interestingly, the beer aficionados at beeradvocate say on the whole that it tastes pretty decent.  I'm sure it will never give the likes of Stone or Dogfish Head sleepless nights, they've seemingly launched a perfectly drinkable beer.

It makes me want to cry, really it does.  What does it say about this country and its attitude to beer that this kind of launch would be unthinkable here?  Crucially, Foster's in the UK is brewed and marketed by S&N Heineken, whereas it's a Miller brand in the US.  But Miller are here too, doing a very good job of Peroni and Pilsner Urquell, and they show not the slightest intention of going anywhere near ale.

This is not a CAMRA rant; it's a flavour rant, the latest example of how beer is summarily excluded by drinkers, major corporate brewers and food and drink writers alike from the revolution that's happening on the British palate.  Every year it feels like we make little bits of progress, then something like this makes you see how far there is to go.  

Saturday, 3 January 2009

New Blog

Is anyone interested in reading my thoughts on stuff other than beer?  I don't really care.  But occasionally I do have the urge to write about other things.

The thing about this beer blog is it's here for professional reasons - to promote my career as an author and beer pundit.  

But every now and then there are other things I want to write about - things I feel strongly about, ideas I maybe want to work up a bit, or stuff to just get off my chest.  Just an ordinary blog then, like millions of others.  But having it as a blog rather than just a diary provides a bit of motivation to write it, craft it, think about it rather than just forgetting it.  If anyone else wants to read it, I'm flattered.

So if you fancy a chat about Barnsley FC, music, cool books, life in London, love-hate (mostly hate) relationships with advertising and marketing, then please drop by to Pete Brown's other blog!