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Beer versus wine. In a nice way.

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.

On Friday, Mitch persuaded Adnams to run a beer and wine matching evening with a five course dinner. As well as employing one of the UK’s most talented young brewers in Fergus Fitzgerald, Adnams’ Cellar and Kitchen stores boast a formidable wine selection. One of their main suppliers is New Zealand winemaker Forrest Wines, who sent Sam Lockyer to try to persuade us that the wines he’d chosen to go with the food were better than Fergus’ beers. Both were matching blind: they’d seen the menu written on a piece of paper, but not tasted the dishes.

When it comes to the rivalry between beer and wine, when we’re on the front line like this, I’m with Garrett Oliver, finding as I do on so many occasions that he’s said what I want to say before me, better than me. Garrett says that, while campaigning for beer to be taken as seriously as wine, as a craft beer brewer and beer evangelist he has far more in common with a passionate sommelier who wants to educate and inspire people about flavour than he has differences with them.

As well as being true, it’s a clever stratagem: anyone who goes around saying “beer is great and wine is crap”, or “beer is ALWAYS a better match with food than wine,” sounds just as blinkered as his opposite who dismisses the idea of beer ever being as worthy as wine. It actually undermines beer’s credibility.

That’s why, as we sat down, I was genuinely hoping that I would prefer wine to beer with at least one course. It would make beer’s victories sound much more convincing…

To Start
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

Fish Course
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.

But then…

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.

Main Course
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.

The food likes the beer, but it just wants to be friends. The food looks at the beer sadly, takes the wine’s hand, and checks its bag to make sure it’s got the foundation it’ll need tomorrow to cover up a black eye
I want to support the beer.  But when I’m with the beer, nodding and smiling with it, I’m secretly thinking of the wine. The wine may be a bastard, but I can’t help loving it.

No contest.

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

Treacle Tart
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.

Well, sometimes.

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.



Cooking Lager

The whole beer & wine thing is interesting and I understand why many people think beer ought to be marketed in a similar fashion to appeal to the same aspirational demographic and be a posh choice to go with a meal. I rarely see wine buffs on telly or in print slag off a bottle of Jacobs Creek as nasty muck. They may eulogise about how lovely something twice the price is, but it is rare to see them slag off the regular popular stuff. By contrast it is difficult to read a review of for example an authentic imported Pilsner or craft microbrewed one without reference to how crap Stella Artois is. Craft beer is marketed much more by reference to standard products being nasty chemical fizz as extolling the virtues of the more expensive product. I wonder how much that contributes to the decline of beer volume sales when so many extolling its virtues are informing customers of how crap other beer is and how undiscerning people are for drinking it. I think many beery cheery commentators can learn a lot from the world of wine, just not what they are currently learning

Pete Brown

Very fair point cookie.

Reminds me of when I first read Michael Jackson's whisky stuff. I was surprised at first thatche didn't slag off whiskies like Glenfiddich for being easier to drink and/or being a global brand marketed by a bug corporation. Then I realised there was no reason for him to do so.

Ghost Drinker

What about the alcoholic % of the wines? Surely they can't have all been exactly 14%? Your keen to point it out in the beers, to say it makes a difference, which it certainly does, but I think it makes a difference in wine too even if it's only 1% difference

Pete Brown

Ghost, you're absolutely right.

I copied and pasted the product details from the menu. It struck me at the time that wines should have carried abc as well and I was going to mention it, but got too long winded. Good point.


beer isnt ALWAYS a BETTER match than wine with food, but is a more of a match up against wine than people suppose. These "contests" are never one sided, they end up much more closely matched and Im sure you quoted Garrett Oliver in one of your books – but Ive lent my copy out so cant double check 🙂 but he has made the point before about as beer has more flavours its the more versatile partner with food when appropriately matched to specific dishes. so we shouldnt be shocked by these things and its not blinkered or belittling or doing down wine or even trying to create dividing lines, thats just saying hold on beer can actually be just as good at this stuff as wine, lets tell everyone!!!

and I dont feel as fans of beer we should shy away from making that kind of statement or be afraid of repeating it occasionally…even in front of sommeliers, its not about besting anyone in these things, its just reminding people that beer can be as good a compliment to good food, and thats a message everyone deserves to hear from time to time

I would be interested though if youd have chosen different beers from Adnams range, like Old, Extra, Spiced Winter Beer, Yuletide or even the Irish stout might some have fared better as pairings.

Stuart Carter

Speaking as someone from the right hand side of the Pond who is now living on the left hand side, the big, bold, assertive American craft beers are generally better at food pairings than the subtle, understated – I am almost tempted to say "timid" – traditional English or Scottish beer styles.

Texas chili or a vindaloo? A West coast hop bomb IPA. Flourless chocolate torte? A big, bold Russian Imperial Stout.

Cheese? Barleywine – English style malt bombs or American hop bombs depends on which cheese you are going for. Also check out Saison and Farmhouse ales as companions for creamy, Brie/Camembert style cheeses 🙂


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