To the Thatchers Arms, Essex, a pub recently taken over by young Mitchel Adams, an ambitious publican who wants to create a destination food and drink pub. Via a combination of doing his job very well and using social media to promote the place, he’s quickly succeeding in his aim. The Thatchers has already been named CAMRA’s Pub of the Year in the region.
Beetroot Risotto with a Spinach & Parmesan Pesto
Beer: Adnams ‘The Bitter’ Cask 3.7%
Wine: 2006 Chardonnay, Forrest Estate, Marlborough
The two misunderstood, much-maligned pariahs of their respective worlds. No, not Adnams and Forrest specifically, but brown bitter and chardonnay; the former often persecuted in craft beer circles for being dull, boring and characterless, the latter the tart of wine, going anywhere with anyone, so much so that it had a fictional WAG named after it. Can either cover themselves in glory?
Well, as individual drinks, each is impressive – a lovely subtle, fresh, herby hop balanced perfectly with liquid Twix, versus a sharp fruitiness with just enough, and not too much, buttery backbone.
With the risotto… hmm. The chardonnay’s acidity stomps all over it, annihilating the food’s flavour. The beer looks up hopefully, but fails to make any impression at all. For me it’s a goalless draw, each side shooting wide. But others enjoy the match, and it splits the crowd down the middle with a narrow beer victory.
Aggregate scores out of five:
Wine 3.0 vs Beer 3.2
Mackerel & Horseradish Fishcake
Beer: Adnams ‘American IPA’ Cask 4.8%
Wine: 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, John Forrest Collection, Marlborough
I always compare the aromas of American hops to those of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc – and here they are, head to head. I’m not sure the cocktail of Cascade, Amarillo, Chinook and Centennial is done full justice by being served on cask. American hops can become brutish thugs in cask beer. Sometimes their power and violence can be breathtaking, but more often it can just be a bit nasty. Carbonation elevates them, refines them, has them swapping studded leather jackets for Thomas Pink shirts and cravats.
But Fergus argues that there’s a real breadth and depth of flavour here. He tells us there’s a lot of bitterness, so he’s whacked in a lot of malt for balance.
Sam talks about terroir. It’s a wonderfully evocative advert for going to New Zealand. When he describes the smell from the wet stones by the river after rainfall as being the aroma of the wine, I think he has us seduced. Again, both are excellent drinks on their own.
Once again, the wine charges in and smashes the place up. This is my favourite wine style in the world. I often have it with fish, but here the acidity once again just creates noise. The beer fares a little better – there’s the beginnings of a herby matching of flavours. But I’m not blown away. A narrow beer victory for me, and a total split in the room.
Wine 3.5 vs Beer 3.5
I’m obviously here as a beer fan. I want the beer to win. But on the basis of these two so far, I’m starting to wonder: is wine actually capable of matching with food at all? I’m so accustomed to looking for complementary flavours, I’m shocked by the boorish display of acidity here, too vulgar for an effective contrast. I adore these wines on their own, and resolve to stock up on them as soon as I can. But they need much bigger food than this to go with them. Even then, I’m not sure they would work. Is food and wine matching a myth?
And then, everything changes.
Venison & Binham Blue Cheese Suet Pudding
(V) Mushroom & Blue Cheese Vegetarian Suet Pudding
Beer: Adnams ‘Oyster Stout’ Cask 4.3%
Wine: 2005 Cab Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec, Cornerstone, Newton Forrest Estate, Hawkes Bay
The oyster stout is a good stout. It’s a good beer. As expected, it’s full of coffee and dark chocolate and looks to all the world like a confident contender. Matching it with a venison pie is a no-brainer, a routine operation. It goes in, gets the job done, comes out again.
And then I nose the wine.
I first started getting into wine late in my university career. A year or two after the Iron Curtain came down, Hungarian and Bulgarian Carbernet Sauvignons began appearing in the supermarket for £1.99 a bottle. I mean, who would want to drink East European wine? Well, students for one. Initially buying it because it was even cheaper than Liebfraumilch, after the first bottle we drank little else thanks to its concentration of spiced Ribena blackberries on liquid velvet. These bottles quickly went up to £2.99, then £3.99… by the time we graduated they were £7.99, beyond our reach. And by the time I could afford them again, they just didn’t taste the same. Either my palate had improved massively, or the wines had been dumbed down.
Here, Cornerstone reveals itself my first winey love, back from the dead, all aniseed, pepper and red berry compote. It swaggers in and sits down heavily next to the Venison and Binham Blue Cheese Suet Pudding, invading its personal space. No slouch itself in the flavour department, the pudding looks timid, nervous. “You and me. We’re friends, right?” growls the wine. The food meekly agrees. It’s a match, but only because the food knows it would get knocked about the room and bounced off the walls it if disagreed.
The beer tries a friendlier approach: a winning smile, some supportive overtures, a technically competent and absolutely complete matching of various elements of flavour.
And yet, bizarrely, for the first time the room overwhelmingly prefers the beer. The rest of this audience is obviously much nicer than me.
Wine 3.6 vs Beer 4.2
Beer: Adnams ‘Tally Ho’ Bottle 7.0%
Wine: 2006 Botrytised Riesling, Forrest Estate, Marlborough
Our Botrytised Riesling is a kind of wine equivalent to lambic beers, both in how Sam describes its production, and in the effect it has on my palate.
It smells of petrol. But not in a bad way – I like the smell of petrol.
It tastes like cough syrup. But not in a bad way – I like the taste of cough syrup.
Tally Ho is strong and dry with a not unpleasant hint of oxidisation that makes it come across as venerable and authoritative. Initially I think it lacks the sweetness I want from a dessert beer, and wish it was a barley wine instead.
It’s OK with the tart, competent, but no more than that. But then I take a spoonful of the tart together with its accompanying vanilla cream, and it’s like that bit in musicals where the back wall falls away to reveal the set for a big show tune. New flavours walk into shot, smiling, like carol singers during the finale of a Val Doonican Christmas Special. Chocolate, vanilla and caramel all sing harmonies, and beer, wine and cream become one.
The wine is way too phenolic, with or without the cream. It walks into the analogy in the above paragraph banging a drum and playing a tuneless harmonica until everyone stares at it coldly, willing it to leave.
Again, opinion is divided elsewhere – but a well-deserved victory for the beer overall.
Wine 3.2 vs Beer 3.4
OK, so on my palate I’m looking at one nil-nil draw, one beer victory by default, one bruising wine triumph and one graceful beer victory. I think the results don’t reflect how close the play has been and things could still go either way. But oh dear – here comes the cheese.
And we all know about beer and cheese.
Mrs Temple’s Alpine, Suffolk Gold
Beer: Adnams ‘Broadside’ Bottle 6.3% & Adnams ‘Innovation’ Bottle 6.7%
Wine: 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Forrest, Marlborough
Sam stands up to introduce his late harvest sauvignon blanc with a dead look in his eyes. He knows he’s already lost. It’s almost unfair to make him compete in this round, and he knows it. The best I can say is that if he’d deployed this wine back there at the treacle tart’s Christmas party, that result could well have gone the other way. It’s a great wine with an unexpected flavour dimension. It’s got interesting things to talk about.
But when the cheese comes out, it falls apart, makes its excuses, gets its coat and leaves quickly.
Maybe we could accuse Fergus of cheating by bringing a tag team, especially when its these two. But either one wipes the floor on its own. Broadside with the Suffolk Gold is magisterial. Innovation with Mrs Temple’s Alpine is simply perfect.
Wine 2.2 vs Beer 3.9
I’ve learned a lot. And as I put my notebook away and Fergus celebrates his victory by producing some very special Adnams’ beers that are possibly older than he is, Sam, he and I discuss the action. In the room it’s 4-0 to beer with one draw – and this was not a room full of beer geeks, but a balanced audience of foodies who, if anything, might be expected to go with the wine. I’m happy because beer is the winner. But I did emphatically prefer the wine in one course, so my palate’s conscience is clear.
It’s dangerous to attempt to draw conclusions from one New World winemaker going up against one Suffolk brewer, but the general trend tonight has been that wine on the whole has been aggressive, thuggish and brutish. Even its victory on my palate was down to its power and intimidation, and this was emphatically the reason for its defeats. It’s the beer that has demonstrated subtlety, sophistication and style, and this is arguably the reverse of the popular image of the two drinks. Beer is supposed to be a bit thick and dumb, wine intelligent and stylish. Across a menu of diverse flavours, the positions have been reversed, and I wonder if this is true in a broader sense.
But maybe not – maybe a match between New Zealand wines and US beers, or British beers and French wines, would have seen the contenders belonging to the same class, and given a more balanced result.
No matter – It was great fun, I’ve made new friends in both beer and wine, and every drink was excellent in its own right.
Thanks Fergus, thanks Sam, and thanks Mitch and everyone else. From my hazy recollection of aged beers and bar billiards, I think the night got even better after the dishes were cleared away.