Category Archives: Food and beer pairings

What ale will you be leaving out for Santa?

We don’t leave sherry out by the fireplace for Santa on December 24 in our house: not that I dislike an Oloroso or Amontillado myself under the right circumstances, but this is a beer-oriented home, and anyway I reckon the old boy would like something refreshingly hoppy after several tens of million glasses of sweet-and-sticky and around 5,000 tons of mince pie as he and the reindeer fly west dropping off the presents.

This year I thought, as he lives in the Far North, Father Christmas might like a beer from close to home: Haandbryggeriet’s excellent Norwegian Wood, a tribute to Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions, which is made with juniper berries and juniper twigs, and smoked malt along with Munich, chocolate and crystal malts.

Odd Nordland’s book on Norwegian home brewing, Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, is one of my all-time favourite beer books, with its incredibly detailed mapping of the different methods used by Norwegian farmers to make beer. Norwegian Wood is probably the closest most of us will get to sampling real Norwegian homebrew, but it’s a good introduction. Neither the juniper nor the smokiness are pushed too far forward: it’s a lovely, well-balanced dark ale with an attractive tang that almost insists on being drunk with tasty snacks such as smoked salmon or that strange brown Norwegian cheese, Gjetost. I’d probably better leave some of that out rather than the mince pie: if Santa doesn’t like it, Rudolph can have it with his carrot …

An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign
An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign

Christmas is a good time to be a beer drinker, since there’s no part of the traditional British celebration where you can’t enjoy a beer. I laugh myself silly reading articles by wine writers on what wines to have with Christmas dinner, as they struggle to find any sort of match to the turkey before sighing and admitting that sauvignon blanc is about the best you’ll do. Personally I think turkey is too often itself a waste of space, being frequently dry and tasteless, but I can name you at least three or four different beer styles that will leave you, after the dindon, merrily on high.

Strong porter is what I’ll be having this year: the chocolate/coffee flavours of a stout or porter will complement the roast bird, and the crunchy roast vegetables, and also the baked ham that is an essential pairing with the turkey. I’ll probably have a small glass of Gale’s Prize Old Ale as well, since its sourness is a good match to any good gravy-meat-and-veg meal: I’ve said this before: British beer and British food evolved alongside each other, and one naturally pairs up with the other. But if you can’t get POA, a Belgian geuze makes a similar match.

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The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

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A religious experience in a restaurant

To be “intoxicated” means, literally, to have been shot with a poisoned arrow, thanks to a roundabout philological journey involving the old Greek word for bow, toxon.

The same root led to the made-up word “toxophilite” for people who practice archery for sport. Early in the 19th century the Royal Toxophilite Society used butts (that is, “archery grounds”, unrelated either to “butt”, a 108-gallon cask, or “butt”, posterior) near Lancaster Gate, just north of Hyde Park in London. In an apparent attempt to attract the custom of the society’s members, a pub nearby in Bathurst Place changed its name some time after 1831, when it opened, from the Crown to the Archery Tavern.

The Archery Tavern was an airy, attractive retreat from the thundering traffic of the Bayswater Road, the sense of being deep in the country rather than just a short walk from Marble Arch and the hordes of Oxford Street increased by the occasional clack-clack of hooves as horses from the mews next door were ridden out to exercise in Hyde Park.

Sadly, the pub closed at the beginning of 2006. Some 18 months later, however, it reopened as the Angelus Restaurant, run by the French-born Thierry Tomasin, who was head sommelier at Le Gavroche in Mayfair for 12 years and then general manager at Aubergine in Chelsea, where he gained a reputation for open-minded willingness to try beer as well as wine with fine-dining menus.

The Angelus doesn’t seem to be that bold in its standard menu yet. But it was probably Tomasin’s known friendliness towards beer (and the name – the angelus bell is rung three times a day to summon Catholics to “dwell for a few moments on the mystery of the Incarnation”) that led the supermarket chain Waitrose and the beer importer James Clay to pick it for a “saintly beer dinner” earlier this week to publicise some of the beers now found on Waitrose’s shelves, with every dish and every beer having a religious hint in the name.

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Why Tony Naylor is being a prat

If you’re going to build a rant, the foundation needs to be dug out of solid, properly researched facts. Which is why Tony Naylor is being a prat.

I’m very sorry to diss a fellow beer writer and freelance journalist, especially when he was writing on the Guardian‘s drinks blog with such excellent intentions – to promote good, properly brewed lager.

However, while plugging the pleasures of pils, Tony attempted a big dump all over real ale, insisting, with no evidence at all:

For years now, perries, ciders, real ales and stouts (and many other things which hardly anybody in the real world actually drinks) have received acres of press and undue prominence in gastropubs and good restaurants. If food literate folk enjoy a pint at all, it is a pint of real ale and not lager.

Tony – that’s just crap, I’m sorry. For years now, people in this country who have talked about beer and food pairings have talked about lager on an equal footing with ale. To pull one example off my shelves, Roger Protz’s The Taste of Beer, from 1998, has a section on food and beer pairings which includes Munich Dunkel, Viennese amber lager, Czech Pilsener, Bock beer and wheat beer. Indeed, you can go back to 1956 – long before Mr Naylor was born, when lager was less than two per cent of beer sales in Britain – and Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer, and find lager given as a suitable pairing with dishes such as roast pork, veal and chicken, and creamier, sweeter cheeses.

Tony then goes on to insist:

no-one … stands up for the joys of lager. Is it snobbery? Plain ignorance? Or some kind of evil, beardy, bitter-drinking conspiracy?

Well, no one stands up for lager except Pete Brown or Roger Protz or Ron Pattinson or me, among a horde of others, some bearded, all bitter drinkers as well as lager drinkers. Indeed, the latest edition of the Guild of Beer Writers’ newsletter has just hit my doormat, and on the back page is a piece about how Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire is going to be distributing the highly regarded unpasteurised lagers made by its near-neighbour, the Taddington brewery: beardy bitter drinkers promote real lager horror..

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Categorical nonsense

The Procrustean nonsense of defining rigid categories that every beer must fit into is well illustrated by The Leveller, one of the brews with Civil War-themed names from the Springhead brewery, at Sutton-on-Trent, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire.

The Leveller is brewed, like almost all Springhead’s beers, with Maris Otter malt, plus, in this case, some roasted malt and some amber malt as well – enough to give a mid-oak colour, but not as dark as a brown ale and without the ruddy cornelian hues that are apparent in darker bitters and dark winter warmers.

While Northdown hops bring a fair degree of bitterness to the party, the roast grain is present in sufficient quantity to give a distinct toasty, almost coffee flavour, which kicks the beer out of the circle marked “bitter” (though Camra, apparently unable to find another home for it, awarded The Leveller a runner-up place at the Great British Beer Festival in the “best bitter” category.)

If The Leveller isn’t a bitter, though, it doesn’t have the sweetness, or the rotundity of mouthfeel, or any hint of chocolate, that might let it slip comfortably into the circles on the Venn diagram of beer styles marked “brown ales” or “milds”.

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The Prize goes to Fuller’s

When Fuller’s announced in 2005 that it was acquiring Gale’s of Horndean, I couldn’t get very upset, in large part because I was angry at what Prize Old Ale had been allowed to become.

This should have been a proud and heavily promoted flag-carrier for British beer, about the last survivor of the “strong old ale” type made by almost every brewery in the country in the 19th century, still bottle-conditioned at a stomping nine per cent alcohol by volume and still, amazingly, available in corked bottles.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, there was something very wrong: when you opened the bottles the ale inside was utterly flat, showing no condition at all, and the flavour was one-dimensional and over-sweet. Gale’s apparently bottled Prize Old Ale without adding extra priming sugar or yeast, relying on the yeast cells still in the beer, and the unfermented sugars that remained after the primary fermentation, to bring it into condition. Obviously, whatever the yeast used to do in the bottle in the past, it wasn’t up to the job any more. But nobody at Gale’s seemed to care, and what should have been a triumph was a disaster and an embarrassment.

The news that one last brewing of Prize Old Ale had taken place at the Gale’s brewery in Horndean just before it closed in March 2006, and the fermented beer had then been trucked up to Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick for maturing, gave me a little hope. At Horndean the beer was apparently matured for six to 12 months. Fuller’s looks to have taken at least 19 months: the last Horndean Prize Old Ale was only bottled in December last year, given the three months that Fuller’s likes to give its bottle-conditioned ales before it puts them on sale (believing they take that long to settle down after bottling), and they were released to the public in March.

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One for the Curmisagios

When I was researching the etymological roots of various European beer-related words, I discovered there had been a Gaulish personal name, Curmisagios, which translates as “the beer seeker”, or, if you like, “the beer hunter”. Among the tribes who lived in Gaul, home of Curmisagios, were the Belgae, whose own name was borrowed in 1790 by the subjects of the then Austrian Netherlands for the short-lived Etats-Belgiques-Unis – United States of Belgium – they set up during a soon-crushed rebellion against the Emperor in far-away Vienna.

The name Belgium was revived 40 years later, in 1830, by the Roman Catholic Flemings and Walloons of the old Austrian Netherlands for their own new country after they rose against the Protestant Dutch who dominated the post-Napoleonic United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the 20th century the beers made in Belgium were championed by Michael Jackson, who – some of you can see where this is going already – called himself the Beer Hunter, and who was thus, in the language once spoken in ancient Belgium, the Curmisagios.

Tomorrow I’m travelling to the seminar on wood-aged beers being organised by the Zythographers’ Union in Yorkshire, and I am sure Michael’s benign influence will be felt at the event, even though his death a month ago has robbed us of his presence. He would, I know, have had pertinent and insightful comments to deliver on beer in wood. Every person there will be sorrowful he’s not around to let us have his opinions and experiences, gathered from 30 years of hunting beers across the planet.

For me, the most influential book he wrote during those 30 years was the Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion from 1993, mainly because of its 40-page section on matching food and beer, and cooking with beer. I began my own experiments with beer cuisine by trying out recipes from the book, before going on to try to invent some ideas of my own. One of the dishes from the Beer Companion I’ve made several times is a Belgian dish involving strips of lamb cooked in a beer-and-cream sauce which is a definite dinner party winner.

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Cakes and ale and ducks

Cakes and ale is an under-rated combination, despite it being a well-known expression in English*. Barley wine is best: I once had a slice of fruit cake with a bottle of the Traquair House Ale (seven per cent ABV) at the tearoom in the grounds of Traquair House itself, when I was travelling through the lowlands of Scotland with the woman She Who Must Be Obeyed likes to refer to as “your first ex-wife”, and very fine it was: the residual sweetness, and fruitiness of the strong ale, combined with its slight bitterness, matched well with the cake.

Ale IN cake is just as good an idea – I’ve been experimenting with a recipe for malt loaf from The Guardian that includes malt extract and strong dark ale, but I haven’t yet got the degree of solid stickiness I’m looking for in the final product. However, here’s a recipe for something I know works well, and is amazingly delicious – Guinness Cake.

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The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

How much metaphorical baggage can you pile on a simple bar snack? Can bread, cheese and pickle (plus some lettuce and a sliced tomato, if you like) really be placed in the dock and charged with representing the worst kind of British fakery? Does the ploughman’s lunch masquerade as a false representation of simpler times, when muscular farmworkers furrowed the fields with the aid of a couple of tons of Clydesdale or Shire, while in reality it’s the invention of Italian-suited marketers in slick Soho offices? And what does the father of Martin Bell, the BBC journalist and former MP for Tatton, have to do with the story?

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