Cheers to beers – matching beer to high-end food

12 October 2012
Cheers to beers – matching beer to high-end food

There is nothing wrong with a pie and a pint, but can beer really be a true partner to high-end food? Melissa Cole looks at how beer and food pairing is starting to move from being a minority interest to a genuine movement

Who would have imagined five or 10 years ago that a Michelin-starred restaurant would insist that at least one dish on its tasting menu be matched to a beer? No substitutes, no arguments; just an attempt to broaden customers' horizons.

In Restaurant Alyn Williams in London's Mayfair, that's exactly what happens but Williams is not alone. Up and down the country from Antony's in Leeds to Mark Poynton's Alimentum in Cambridge, to Nathan Outlaw in Cornwall and even high-end Indian restaurants like Sriram Aylur's Quilon, serious chefs are getting serious about beer but it's still treated with a lot of mistrust by many in the industry.

But why is this? Richard Dinwoodie of Utobeer, which supplies over 100 restaurants in London, says: "As odd as it sounds, beer's something new to so many chefs. As a country we almost forgot about beer completely for 40 years and it's only in the past five years you've seen a renaissance of quality, artisan beer available.

"But if you look at it from that viewpoint it's still a relatively new phenomenon and the top end of the industry, the opinion formers - the top chefs - actually tend to be late adopters who don't want to be seen to jump on a bandwagon so they'll see whether it's going to last before they take the plunge."

It's something that has always stunned Sriram Aylur, head chef at the Michelin-starred Quilon in London. "We are in a beer nation and I was quite shocked that we didn't do enough to match beer to our food in this country," he says.

"The other thing is that there is always this notion that you can only match wine to food, because beer was considered well, just beer, and it's not true.

"It was particularly when I discovered the Fuller's Vintage range, and I could see from year to year exactly how the beers would change in character and grow in complexity and flavour, just like wines do, that I was totally convinced about beer and food as a pairing."

Flavour Revelation

Just a few months ago Cambridge-based chef Mark Poynton, who has just won his first Michelin star at his restaurant Alimentum, hosted a beer dinner at which a lot of his regulars attended, all of whom were dedicated wine drinkers.

Both he and the guests were amazed at how well the pairings worked: "It was as much a revelation for me as it was for the diners," he says. "Grain Brewery's Ash Wheat and English asparagus, pickled morels and crab couldn't have been a more perfect combination.

"I think one of the most interesting things was everyone learning what diversity there is in the British brewing scene now and how much heritage and provenance there is to call on across the country, as well as the newer breweries that are doing interesting and truly experimental things with ingredients that I'd associate more with being in the kitchen than on a bar."

Glass is Class

And heritage and provenance are key to beer's resurgence as a genuine part of the culinary scene but it's not just there for show; it's also profitable.

Richard Corrigan says it can speak volumes the minute a customer walks in. "If the message is pure in the purchase of food, it should be the same with the purchase of beer - that is why we offer two at Bentley's, Meantime Lager and Porterhouse Oyster Stout," he says.

"Since introducing Meantime, instead of a major commercial brand, we've had a very positive response. We've seen about a 20% increase in sales, in particular an increase in re-orders following the initial first sale once they've tried this quality product."

And, let's face it, beer is part of our national DNA - we are a beer country. New numbers from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) show that we now have over 1,000 breweries in the UK. But we're also a nation of pint drinkers, so how do we get people to make that leap?

One of the ways is to look over the pond at what the Americans are doing, says Andreas Falt, the American Brewers' Association's European ambassador:

"Beer is not just about being served in pints. Although they have their place in a pub, they look ugly on a fine dining table and it's simply too much liquid," he says.

"If you want inspiration then just look at events like Savor, which was held in Washington DC this year, where there were 75 breweries, all paired with chefs to create dishes that matched the beers, and all of the beers were served in elegant stemmed glassware.

"When you present beer in fine glassware you immediately put people in the mindset that it's a fine product, and half the battle is already won."

Training Equals Sales

And, as operations director for Jamie Oliver's restaurants Barbecoa and Fifteen, Jacques Dejardin, points out, there's no point in just putting beers on your list and then not training your staff to sell them.

"Beer training is invaluable to our staff, particularly at Barbecoa where we offer a wide selection of British and American beers and suggest food pairings too," he explains.

"We use independent experts because we think it's important to get the best information from the right people when we don't have that skill in-house.

"The training is directly reflected in our sales of the beers and we have a six monthly refresher sessions on the beers, even though we have low staff turnover, because it helps fix in our employees' minds that this is a key part of our offering, it's not a gimmick, and it has to be done right."

How to Pair Beer and Food

Cut, complement and contrast
Cut - think about the way a sharp fruit- or vinegar-based sauce cuts through the richness of duck or pork belly and choose a beer style accordingly: it could be a citrussy pale ale or wheat beer to go with eel or salmon sashimi, a big American IPA with unctuous lamb shoulder or a sharp geuze with a ripe blue cheese.
â- Complement - a creamy stout or coffeeish imperial porter goes brilliantly with a tiramisu, while a Trappist ale with a Flemish carbonnade (beef and beer stew) is a match made in heaven.
â- Contrast - a bold cherry wild ale is a delightfully sharp contrast to a chocolate mousse, while a shy, English-style mild is a surprising foil for rich pÁ¢té.

Match strength of flavour
Delicate beer styles such as pilsner lager, golden ales and KÁ¶lsch will go well with delicate dishes, like steamed fish, whereas more robust beasts like IPAs and bocks will be needed for dishes like curries and barbecued or smoked meats.

match seasonal beers and foods
Light blonde ales or gutsy Belgian-style tripel are delicious with asparagus, whereas deeper, richer old ales and winter warmers are excellent with game, beef and slow braise dishes.

Final Tip
Try your beer first and then think about food when planning a beer and food matched meal, because unless you are 100% familiar with your beer and your dish, it's all too easy to miss the mark.


Having opened his own restaurant after years of working as Marcus Wareing's right hand man, it's taken Alyn Williams less than a year to earn his first Michelin star. And while beer is now an integral part of his offering, he has only come to the craft beer camp in the last year.

"My epiphany beer was when I was at Sharp's in Cornwall. My restaurant manager Giancarlo dragged me there between lunch at Paul Ainsworth and dinner at Nathan Outlaw, so it wasn't hard to convince me it was good idea," he explains.

"The shop manager Ed brought out nine speciality beers, from Monsieur Rock, which was very subtle, to DW, which was like drinking a good Champagne, and then an experimental one that was brewed with some sort of super-yeast and was like rum - it was full of demerara and molasses notes and it was 24% ABV - it was more or less a fortified wine!

"That beer was so incredible that it completely changed my opinion on what beer could be. There's such a range that you are almost talking from a bottle of Buckfast to a bottle of Petrus '64. You can't pigeonhole it and can't preconceive it; it's such a great subject.

"What fascinates me is that it can cross over so many dimensions and flavours and textures and it adds another arm to our beverage offering, and neither wine nor beer has preference.

"Of course I would always want wine but I get annoyed if the staff haven't thought about a beer match for each course, and particularly with the tasting menu it adds a sense of entertainment and difference - a sense of surprise.

"When guests get offered a beer they can sometimes be suspicious that it's some sort of gimmick but when they try it, it's a revelation; it opens the door and changes perceptions on what beer can give to food.

"Everything that you can make beer from you can use in food, such as malt and hops - the hops were very interesting and after speaking to experts about the chemistry of hops, I decided to use them in ways that would extract harsh bitterness from them.

"For example, we broke them down and rubbed them into some pork belly, then poured beer into the vac-pac and it really penetrated the pork, giving it a lush bitterness against the fat.

"But this isn't just a gimmick, the most important thing is that it has to be delicious. The malt is just like candy - we use it a lot in candies and panna cottas and also with game. Smoking with hops, not literally of course, is also amazing. I use Bramling Cross for smoked potatoes as it is lovely and they really do impart a different flavour.

"I'd recommend that every chef finds themselves an expert or just gets out and tries some of the amazing beers that are out there - it offers you another way to deliver a great hospitality experience."

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