Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Beer and Food Matching

No, I’m not going to be jumping on the bandwagon of making particular beer and food matching suggestions. I’m just going to offer some observations on how the concept reflects on the way in which beer is perceived by us beery types, by wine drinkers, by critics, by the media and whoever else.  

Susy Atkins' beer & food matching
There has been some noise on Twitter about an article written by Susy Atkins in the Telegraph on the subject of matching beer and food. It’s a topic that seems to be cropping up with increasing frequency. A sign perhaps that beer is beginning to escape its flat cap, pie and a pint image and moving into more “respectable” territory, whatever that may mean. Of course, plenty of us beer enthusiasts have known that there’s more to it than swigging pints down the pub for years, even if we often feel more comfortable enjoying our beer in a more lively social setting than in an upmarket restaurant. And there are those beer drinkers who feel that it’s proper place is as a social lubricant in a pub, without too much swirling, sniffing and other analysis. Some would find the thought of discussing food and beer pairing in a fancy restaurant an anathema. For some, even the idea of gastropubs (or whatever we are supposed to call them these days) is repugnant, as the regular drinker can be, or at least feel, marginalised.

The truth is that beer can be enjoyed in a whole range of social settings and at a whole range of quality levels. Despite the efforts of the populist media to convince their readership otherwise, it’s not all kids getting blitzed on the High Street on Saturday night and tramps drinking Special Brew on park benches. Of course, wine has not traditionally been seen as an intoxicant favoured by irresponsible drinkers (unless you count Buckie as wine) but the perception of it has changed massively during the 40 years or so that I’ve been exposed to the joys of booze. Back then, wine was largely seen as the preserve of the well heeled, generally drinking wine from the classic French regions. For the rest of us it was a rarity, consumed mainly at meals on special occasions and on the occasional restaurant visit. And, for the general population, pretty unremarkable, not to mention downright dire, plonk was seen as oh so sophisticated – anyone for a Blue Nun nowadays?. Things have moved on. Good value, everyday drinking wines, often from the New World, are as likely to be consumed on their own as paired with food and the names of many grape varieties have long since entered the common lexicon.  

So, the concept that wine is a drink for many situations and comes at many quality levels (and prices) has gained general acceptance. Although a vague awareness that beer might have a similar versatility is on the increase, progress is slower than I’d like and certainly hasn’t reached the stage of general acceptance. Susy Atkins expressed the view that there's a major push to persuade “us” that beer is just as great a match with food as wine and that beer enthusiasts and bloggers are in the vanguard of the pushers. She may have a point there. She also said “and, you know, they're right to a large degree (even if wine is more versatile)”. Leaving aside the question of how much beer and food pairing research she has actually done, the general view expressed on Twitter was that her piece was a step in the right direction but still carried an air of condescension. And there's no doubt that wine snobbery is still alive and well in certain quarters. Perhaps beer snobbery will become the new wine snobbery?

The fact is that, with a few exceptions, there is a high degree of ignorance about beer in the wine and food world. The majority of better restaurants lavish much attention on their wine list but their beer selection is desultory to say the least, if not entirely absent, and certainly appears no more than an afterthought. Places that wouldn’t dream of serving wine that is no better than cheap plonk to their customers seem happy to offer widely available beers that are poor examples of their style and can be picked up from any local distributor. Guys, Leffe Blonde is not a top-notch example of a Belgian ale. And when the Michelin-starred Quilon restaurant started to display an interest in beer, amidst some ballyhoo, the best they could manage for a Belgian style wheat beer was Blue Moon.

Now, those who know me will be aware that, as well as beer, I’m rather partial to a decent wine or a good whisky and not immune from blathering on about them a bit too. Needless to say, when I visit a restaurant, I’m going to have a few drinks - it’s usually in a social context and having a few drinks is what I generally do socially - and, partly because the beer selection is likely to be piss poor, it’s usually going to be wine. And you know what? Whilst I might make some effort to avoid obvious clashes, food and wine matching is not always something that is at the top of my agenda. For me, the essence of a good restaurant experience is good food, good drink and good company in comfortable surroundings. The drink is integral to the restaurant experience but is not immutably bound to the culinary experience. In fact, I am less than convinced by the concept that synergies between food and drink often produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. The higher up the quality ladder I go the more I am likely to savour that experience outside a purely social context - although there is joy too in sharing choice creations in the company of friends - and the less I want it adulterated with competing aromas, flavours, textures or whatever. I have a bottle of Chateau Margaux sitting at home waiting for a suitable occasion to be opened and what food I should pair it with when that time comes is not in the forefront of my mind. The same goes for a bottle of Alesmith Barrel Aged Speedway Stout that sits close by.

Of course, whisky doesn’t generally have to cope with the straightjacket of being viewed very much in a culinary context. In these times when drinking alcohol for the sheer enjoyment of it can be represented as “irresponsible”, emphasising the food matching qualities of beer is understandable but I wouldn't like to see it go too far down that route either. Maybe respectability through food matching is an inevitable step along the way to wider appreciation. But the truth is that beer is a supremely versatile drink that can be celebrated in many different guises, in many different social contexts and in many different places. Despite the constant tales of woe about pub closures, more brewers than ever are providing more variation and more opportunities for us to revel in those experiences. We beer enthusiasts have never had it so good and, thankfully, others are starting to catch on too. Long may that continue. Just a little bit faster would be nice.

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