So uncouth

Paul Crowther asks why beer still hasn’t found a place alongside wine in fine dining


As beer lovers, we’ve all been there. A fancy restaurant, smartly dressed waiters and crisp white tablecloths. A leatherbound menu filled with mouth-watering food, a wine list as long as your arm, a selection of single malt whiskies and artisanal gins and then you reach the beer section and find a miniscule selection of macro lagers, Guinness and a bottle of Punk IPA if you’re lucky.

I was in this position at the Knight’s restaurant inside the historic Lumley Castle in County Durham. Why no craft beer? Durham brewery is just a stone’s throw away, and stocks beer with names steeped in local history that would fit right in with the aesthetic of an Elizabethan castle.

Looking at other local restaurants, I found the problem to be predictably and depressingly endemic. Rather than shrug and moan about it (once again) though, I resolved to find out why fine dining still keeps quality beer at arm’s length.

Fortunately, there are some restaurants offering a glimpse at a better world, as well as some insight into the prejudices and fears that typically come into play. Blackfriars in Newcastle, another restaurant based in a historic building, offer a range of local beers and even hosts beer tasting evenings. The restaurant’s beer buyer, Daren Phillips, says a big issue is food pairing; selecting the right beverage to complement any given dish is a key element of the fine dining experience, and beer is simply not seen as the natural companion to food. This is a position Daren disagrees with passionately.

“Beer can match with food a lot better than wine can. It has more scope,” Daren says. “For example, we match Summer Breeze, a lemongrass and ginger infused pale ale from Tynebank brewery, with an Asian inspired monkfish dish, and Wylam’s Machiatto, a thick and sweet hazelnut, praline, coffee porter, with a sticky toffee pudding. They work brilliantly together, in a way that a wine probably wouldn’t.”

Interested in hearing how it worked on the other side of the equation, I also spoke to a former employee of beer distributor Kicking Horse about their experience of trying to sell beer to restaurants. In their view, the core problem was education, and that staff in restaurants just weren’t as switched on about beer; why buy in beer if your staff can’t sell it? “The training has got to be better,” they said. “Staff need to be as excited when talking about beer as they are about wine.’

Beer can match with food a lot better than wine can

Again, Blackfriars provides an example of what can happen when the staff are properly engaged. It allows all its customer-facing staff to taste all new beers and even vote on what new beers to add to their menu. They also visit breweries so they can talk knowledgably about the production and origins of beers with customers.

So, problem solved? Not quite – as well as knowledge and attitude, there are some boring, pragmatic issues which may well persuade restaurants that beer simply isn’t worth the hassle, and lot of it comes down to packaging.

A lot of smaller breweries in particular are very much draft led, while many restaurants, due to space or structural reasons, do not have any draft capacity at all. Then, even if a brewery does have a good can range, a lot of restaurants still hold the outdated opinion that canned beer is of low quality, or at the very least fear customers will perceive it that way.

As a possible solution, Ben Robinson, head sommelier at Moor Hall, recently wrote about the issue for food industry magazine ‘Chef’, suggesting that breweries could focus on 750ml sharer bottles, which have more gravitas when brought to a table. This way, you’re pitting beer against wine rather than the macro beers on the menu. While there is again a disconnect here – craft breweries very rarely bottle into 750ml – it is perhaps the price that some brewers will need to pay if they’re serious about breaking into fine dining settings.

Another potentially serious issue is around reliability. Even in the days when virtually all breweries had an unwavering core range, Blackfriars’ Daren says sudden breaks in availability would cause mayhem: “We were coming across a constant barrier of breweries not having particular beers in stock, sometimes being told it’s being brewed and won’t be back in stock for a few weeks,” he says. While this isn’t so much of an issue in a pub, where a beer can be removed with a swipe at a chalkboard, restaurants with printed menus and carefully planned pairings are an entirely different beast.

Blackfriars overcame the issue by moving the beer list on a paper addendum to the menu for the beer list, essentially treating them in the same way as specials. While breweries definitely need to understand that working with restaurants probably requires total reliability around the core range, restaurants could equally embrace the opportunity afforded by a constantly changing range of exciting one-off beers.

A lot of our customers are now what I’d call ‘social omnivores’

Ultimately though, there is also the uncomfortable possibility that customers simply do not want craft beer as part of their fine dining experience. A restaurant may know full well that beer makes a great food companion, it may have a local brewery selling exquisite brews in wax-sealed 750ml bottles and staff that are eager to sell, but if their customers just want to drink wine, then what more is to be done?

I put this point to Daren, but he feels customer attitudes and demographics are gradually shifting in the brewer’s favour. “The last few years, a lot of our customers are now what I’d call ‘social omnivores’. The sort of people who will happily listen to classical or opera music, but also to hip hop or death metal. And they’re the same with their drinking, happy to open a bottle of claret but also equally appreciative of a can of IPA. So we’re getting this crossover of new diners, particularly in their late twenties and early thirties; they’re foodies and understand food, understand beer and understand wine.”

Perhaps fine diners are changing then. Maybe it was that older diners preferred wine, because that was simply what they grew up with. But the next generation isn’t holding the ingrained classism over beer that older generations perhaps did. The social omnivores are coming.

Breweries can make this transition easier for restaurants; they can ensure they offer consistent core ranges alongside a limited batch, barrel aged sharer bottle, and host a tasting night at the restaurant or even invite the staff to visit the brewery. Restaurants however need to understand the industry isn’t going to go back to 330ml bottles, and most of all they need to embrace cans.

It feels to me like the brewing and fine dining industries don’t interact enough. And that they’re dancing around each other, not offering what each side needs for what could be a much better partnership. With a bit more mutual understanding and a willingness to come out of our trenches, the day when we can finally enjoy quality beer alongside quality food may be closer than it currently feels.

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