Back in September I was invited to a beer and food matching dinner at Simpsons restaurant in Birmingham by Purity Brewing. It was an intimate gathering for twenty in a private dining room with chandeliers and silver floral wallpaper.
To the best of their knowledge it was the first serious beer and food matching dinner in the Midlands, after restaurants in London, Leeds and Manchester have started getting quite into it. The fact that it happened the week the brewery announced a like for like annual sales increase of 84% gave the whole evening a triumphal air.
“We’re passionate about beer. Andreas, the restaurant owner is passionate about food. We let the French get away with murder with their wines. Let’s get a scene going!” said Purity’s MD Paul Halsey as we sat down to a daunting-looking menu.
As well as their own beers – Pure Gold, UBU and Mad Goose – Purity have an exclusive import deal in the Midlands for Veltins and Maisel Weisse. These formed the beers. Paul Corbett from hop merchants Charles Farham was on hand to talk about the hops in the beers, and the fresh hops he’d brought with him filled the room with their woozy, resiny perfume.
But I wasn’t sure about the menu. I do get frustrated when people talk about beer and food matching or cooking with beer and all they deliver is a steak and ale pie or beer battered cod. But this was at the other end of the scale.
Five courses – and the first one was – according to the menu – ‘Terrine of ham hock, chicken and foie gras, sweetcorn puree, truffle vinaigrette’. By any standards this was a bit fancy, but as the first of five courses it filled me with foreboding. And it was to be matched with Veltins Pilsner.
But it worked. Veltins is a big, soft Pilsner, like a comforting bready pillow. There were some diverse flavours in the terrine, but the beer dried off the sensuous, slimy jelly and gave a very decadent dish a sheen of respectability, bringing the whole together and reassuring me that this was indeed a starter.
Next up was ‘Escalope of salmon on a bed of sauerkraut, light mustard sauce”. Again, what were they thinking? Salmon is reasonably light. I love fish, and here it was being weighed down with mustard and sauerkraut. It was matched with Purity Pure Gold, the lightest beer in the range, brewed with Northern Brewer, Fuggles, Hereford Golding and Styrian Gold hops. That’s a big mix of hops. Wasn’t the whole thing becoming too tricksy?
Most of my fellow diners were regular customers at the restaurant and this was their first experience of beer with food. A girl opposite me asked if there was honey in the beer. No, just an extraordinarily complex hop character, that also brought a big hit of lemon with it.
And it worked perfectly with the dish. The hoppiness in the beer married with the earthiness of the sauerkraut, and the flavours of the salmon flowed around it. There were hints of smoke and wood, and my brain leapt to images of freshly ploughed fields, damp clear mornings and the first chill of autumn on the air. Not bad for a bit of beer, cabbage and fish.
OK. The next course was there the wheels must surely come off. The menu read like something from the last days of Nero’s Rome: ‘Slow-cooked belly of sucking pig, ravioli of braised trotter, fennel compote, spiced baby pears, honey & cracked pepper sauce’. I expected I was going to have to eat it from the naked belly of a Reubenesque model. What next – lark’s tongues? I started to suspect someone in the kitchen needed a holiday.
And I wasn’t sure about matching all this with Mad Goose. Brewed with Northern Brewer, Cascade and Willamette for a fruitier, more rounded flavour, it may be SIBA’s best bitter of the year but there was an absence of hoppy notes on the nose for me – all I was getting was caramel.
Of course, it worked. I mean, this was just mental. How could something so ridiculous actually make any sense? But it did.
What looked on the menu like a banquet fit for Mr Creosote’s last supper was of course exquisitely presented. There was just a tiny bit of everything mentioned, arranged artfully on the plate with dun swirls and gravy flourishes – though my use of the word gravy in this context is probably as welcome as nails clawing a chalkboard.
The buttery, opulent sweetness of the pork crackling took down the bolshy caramel of the beer as if with a taser, allowing the spicy hops to come out to play and wrap themselves around the pork. Finally, the dish made sense.
There was more to come, of course. Pudding was ‘Caramelised banana, caramel parfait, peanut butter ice cream’. The match with Maisel’s Weisse was an easy win, schoolboy simple. The banoffee yeast character of the beer was going to make love to this dish. Put off only briefly by the fact that the caramelised banana looked exactly like a burnt Wall’s sausage, I dived in. Everything I expected was there, the beer merging with a nicely tart orange and banana finish. But there was more too. The caramel biscuit at the bottom of the parfait, together with the caramel sauce, made me realise what a big caramel character there is to the beer. My stomach expanded, and began to creak.
Mercifully, it was almost over – just one more course to go. And what was that course? A little petit fours, perhaps? A nice, palate cleansing sorbet?
The only surprising thing is that there was still something they could do that did surprise me: ‘Welsh rarebit’. No flowery descriptions or flourishes, just ‘Welsh rarebit’. Cheese on toast, after four courses. Why not? Apparently it used to be traditional.
It was matched with UBU. The whole thing was dark and rich and lovely. No more. My hand had become too fat to write.
This was one of those meals after which you don’t eat for twenty four hours. It was extraordinarily ambitious. I think it’s probably a little too much for most people, and it was telling that, after the plates were finally cleared, most diners opted for a glass of burgundy or port rather than continuing to drink the excellent UBU.
But the restaurant and the brewer had set out to prove a point, and they had proved it. These were very fine beers, but they can’t really be described as ‘speciality’ or ‘extreme’ in any way. And yet they were paired with Masterchef Grand Final levels of Fancy Dan food, and gave as good as they got. They worked perfectly, and in some cases stopped the dish from becoming too much.
I offer this account as proof to anyone who thinks beer and food matching can only work on a basic, clunky pub grub level.
Just don’t hold your breath that pig’s trotter ravioli will be appearing on the menu down your local any time soon.