Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What beer would you pair with it?

I’ve always thought that food would be what propelled beer into the minds of the masses. A couple of newspaper columns or a TV show, centred on beer and food, would elevate beer onto the same lofty level as wine, lifting it to be the alternative choice, something not to fear and instead something which adds genuine variety and a wide range of flavour to the eating experience.

But it hasn’t happened yet.

For four years it’s been like ‘it’s coming, I can feel it’ or ‘we’re really close with beer now’. But still we wait. The food and beer thing never gets that attention we’ve been expecting or hoping for. Yeah, there’s the occasional moment of breakthrough, but it’s never enough to make it consistent, or it’s presented by those who don’t know beer as well as they know other drinks or food.

Yet beer is cool right now. It’s a hot trend – it’s got provenance, it’s seen as something changing, challenging and exciting, people are getting interested in it and it’s an affordable luxury. To know about good beer is like knowing how to fillet a fish, choose between a thyme and rosemary and eat with chop sticks. Beer, like the others, takes a little effort to understand it, but once you get it you realise it’s easy.

With the growing interest, is aligning the meal table with the beer glass the right way to go? There’s a lot going against it: old fashioned prejudice is like a big bouncer on the door with arms crossed; it’s a default mindset thing – beer is for the pub or for curries and pizza while wine is for the dinner table or for finer foods; it’s difficult to educate people onto something new. Visuals are another thing: I think 500ml bottles are very unappealing (Fuller’s and Thornbridge are classy and sleek exceptions) and much branding leaves beer looking like it’s wearing grubby jeans and a worn old t-shirt (thankfully some hit the smart-casual middle ground). But at the same time, beer is the relaxed drink of choice and pushing it towards shiny cutlery and china plates formalises it, forcing it into a situation which it isn’t comfortable in.

Prescriptive pieces which say lager is like white wine and stout is like red wine are tiresome now and makes me think that I should just have a white wine. Likewise, I’m not sure how many more times I can read the cut, compliment and contrast approach – is that the best we can do? It’s the fun things which will put beer and food together, the natural and casual alliance. Like Leigh’s food and beer pairings – always simple and always good, it’s normal food and good tasting beer and it somehow feels happily coincidental and serendipitous that they’ve come together.

Beer and food is an important idea together but it hasn’t kicked on yet so maybe we need a new approach. Until it feels natural and normal then beer and food is always going to feel like we’re promoting something which isn’t ready for the top job (even if we know in reality that it could do it) or which is getting attention as a novelty idea. Maybe that TV programme will come soon. Maybe that column will be hitting the papers. Maybe not.

I love beer and food together. I’m not going to stop matching them as I like doing it. I also do still think that it plays an important role in the appreciation of beer, but perhaps that appreciation comes through learning more about beer on its own, backed up by knowledge of food in general, rather than ‘try these two together and you’ll discover that you do like beer, after all!’ Beer dinners are great as they introduce the idea of beer and food, but making it overly formal is a step in the wrong direction.

Does beer need food or do we just keep throwing bottles at it in the hope that one day we’ll get something back from it? What do you think?


  1. Well, Mark - it's not often a post leaves me absolutely needing to respond on my own - but if you head over to the blog you'll see what I think about your (very valid) post! Thanks for the mention, dude.

  2. I don't know what it is like over there, but at least in some countries the problem seems to be that there aren't people who know about beer. More often than not you get "wine people" who don't know much further than "beer can be divided in Ales and Lagers" spreading the kind of bollocks that make you want to seriously hurt someone.

    Then, of course, you have the big advertising money from the macros, who can recruit big name chefs or other similar food gurus who should know better to tout their stuff.

  3. Pete and I went to a cheese/ beer matching evening recently, and one of the people leading it went through that cut, compliment or contrast mantra. To be fair, it's an easy way of stating the obvious and it's not disimilar to how one would match wine to food too, it's just wine and food matching is never stated in such simple terms because the vocabulary is so much further along.
    There does seem to be growing interest in beer, especially in craft beers or in a wider range of beers. And more and more restaurateurs are thinking a little bit more about their beer lists, not just their wine lists. But that's perhaps mostly in London and still the exception rather than the rule.
    Someone at that same matching event pointed out that the UK's obsession with wine and food is really very recent, maybe 30 years at most, and that it wasn't long ago that beer was far more widely drunk with food.
    Weird isn't it?

  4. Our contribution to getting there is absolutely refusing to be socially embarrassed into drinking wine with food when we don't want to. We sit with pint glasses at the dinner table; ask for beer in restaurants; and, if the beer isn't up to snuff, drink water. While there's a lingering feeling (as Jay Rayner said on the One Show) that wine is best with food, but beer's 'not bad', it'll stay in its ghetto.

  5. "...perhaps that appreciation comes through learning more about beer on its own, backed up by knowledge of food in general, rather than ‘try these two together and you’ll discover that you do like beer, after all!’ Beer dinners are great as they introduce the idea of beer and food, but making it overly formal is a step in the wrong direction."


  6. One pro beer & food matching voice on the BBC - albeit radio - is Nigel Barden. He has a weekly recipe slot on Simon Mayo's R2 Drivetime show and matches his recipe with beer about 50% of the time (or so it seems to me when I listen).

    This month's Restaurant Magazine has a European beer & food matching article (although all light / blonde beers, and the panel's defintition of flavourful is a bit conservative) - the consensus seems to be that packaging is key and 750ml bottles would have more appeal. But at least the article is there!

  7. Hi dude - I'll second Nigel Barden, I listen to that show and he often shouts out beer. Recipes are always good too.

  8. I would chip in and suggest that maybe one thing which stops beer and food matching is the variation/confusion in beer categorisation - when a restaurateur sits down to work out their beer list (I wish) they are challenged with actually identifying what the beer is!
    Would you say that in your experience you can rely on the classic categories, especially until you have actually tried them?
    I can't see the person putting the wine list together trying each wine to check it is what it says it is - and I don't expect they have to, whereas with beer I wouldn't trust most labels as far as I could throw them.
    The solution? keep plugging the beer and food matching and try to educate those selling food as at the moment I am sure it is simply easier to match wine with food

  9. While some beers are particularly matchable with food, there are some that deserve to be tasted separately.
    As said before me, it's also easier to match wine and food, since plenty of people know that for ages.
    As it is simply more complicated to match food and beer, without enough, say bibliography, on the subject, too many people give it up.
    But with enough willpower, one day, they'll understand our views.
    Hoppy yours