“We’re casting off conservatism and embracing a new beginning,” says Rupert Ponsonby, founder of The Beer Academy. The Cotswold-based ale aficionado may seem rather dramatic considering we’re discussing a nice pint, but he’s passionate about a good brew.
Beer was the standard accompaniment to food several hundred years ago (often in the form of mead, which was less likely to give you an upset stomach than the often-contaminated drinking water of the time), but has since been replaced by wine. Until now.
Can beer replace wine?According to Rupert, also a Cotswold barley and wheat farmer, beer is making its comeback. Though rarely considered a dinner accompaniment, it’s often easier to pair with food, especially now as some new wines are very high in alcohol and tannins and can obliterate subtle flavours.
Modern beer is a low alcohol drink often served in wine glasses and smaller quantities in restaurants, shedding its image of burly men downing pint after pint of mass produced lager.
People are concerned by the quality of what they drink now and as Rupert says, the image of beer has “metamorphosed over the last three or four years.” There has been a huge increase in the types of beers available and supermarkets and independent shops now sell a wide variety of beer from breweries and micro-breweries both in the UK across the world. There are now 1000 breweries in the UK alone. Beer is also growing in popularity with women, as many ales contain fewer calories than wine and are much lower than diet demon alcohol.
New flavours and artisan beerInnovation exists in beer brewing today that hasn’t been seen for hundreds of years. With a growing interest in seasonal and local products, breweries are experimenting with flavours. In the past, wild strawberries or raspberries would have been added to beer in summer, now the same thing is happening again. Whatever ingredients have fermentable sugars can be used. Rupert himself has experimented with chocolate, juniper and rye and myrrh to make a new winter ale (aptly named Myrrhy Christmas).
He said, “It’s good to be creative but not too clever. We’re not trying too hard, we’re just doing it in a rather natural and exciting way.”
Beer versus wine in restaurantsSeveral restaurants have been pairing beer with food for a few years. Purple Poppadom, a nouvelle Indian cuisine restaurant in Cardiff, has recently added an accompanying beer to each course of its taster menu, following in the footsteps of ‘Quilon’ in London, which has a huge beer range.
Similarly, great classic chefs such as Michel Roux and Raymond Blanc stock a sizeable number of beers in their restaurants. It is at Michel Roux’s, ‘Le Gavroche’ that Rupert’s ultimate beer and combination is served: rare tuna with ginger, chilli and pepper combined with a glass of Liefmans Kriek (cherry) beer. “You have the fish flavour and the fire that burns the top of your mouth, then you have the lovely cherry beer to put out the flames and it’s fantastic.” For a more traditional combination, Rupert also recommends oysters, soda bread with unsalted butter and stout or Guinness.
Rupert’s guiding rule is, “The intensity of the flavour of your beer should equal the intensity of your food.” Therefore, if you’re eating steak, a big ale with an alcohol content of five or six per cent with lots of barley will taste great. However, if you choose to cook a light piece of fish, it needs a very light coloured lager or wheat beer with very little hop. Generally, as Rupert says, “Light works with light and dark works with dark.”
Choosing the perfect beer to accompany your food
Once you’ve matched your flavours, decide whether you want your beer to complement or contrast with your food. “Maybe you would choose a chocolatey beer with chocolate, or a fruit beer with a fruit pudding. Or perhaps you go the opposite route and have a chocolate pudding with a fruit beer, a total contrast. The most exhilarating pairings are when you have a contrast.”
Rupert has his own personal method: the “condiment principle”. This requires you to think what condiment you ideally pair with your food and then to choose a beer accordingly. For example, with fish you may like a slice of lemon, so choose a lager or ale with lemony hop flavours. For food seasoned with black pepper, go for a spicier beer and with cheese, if you like chutney, find a beer with zingier, sweeter elements to it. This method can be difficult, especially when you don’t know how a beer will taste, but you can have some fun finding out.
Many ale drinkers only like their beverage at room temperature, but Rupert doesn’t necessarily agree with this. “Regarding temperature, the lighter the beer, the colder it is. Basically treat it more like champagne or white wine. And the darker the beer is, the more you can let it be at room temperature like red wine.”
Forget that bottle of Pinot in the fridge, we’re off to browse the beer shelves for exciting new flavours.