Food-topia

Anthony Gladman dreams of a day when beer is the high-end food accompaniment of choice

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Let’s play a game. You could call it When I Am King, or When The Revolution Comes… Either way, let’s imagine a world where we’ve waved a magic wand and finally put proper beer and food pairings on every table throughout the land, from caff to castle.

More than that, I want us to picture a future together where getting the perfect beer for your meal is easy, commonplace even, no matter where you are. Where drinks menus are no longer called wine lists, because there’s just as much beer and other stuff on there as well. Where beer isn’t typecast as wine’s rustic cousin – fun but a bit rough, not fit for when company comes around. Where instead it gets to show all that it can do, from drink-of-the-people all the way up to sophisticated beverage that deserves, and can hold, your full attention.

And most of all, I want to describe a culture where everyone benefits from the amazing ways that beer can work with food. Because make no mistake, beer plays extremely well with all sorts of cuisines, even the poshest. And in many cases, it does so better than wine ever could.

One organisation working to show the way things could be is The Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American craft brewers. Each year it hosts a beer and food pairing lunch in London to showcase what the two can do together (and bang the drum for US craft beer). These events started in back in 2013. Since then Paris, Munich, Tokyo and Shanghai have also been added to the list of host cities.

This year’s London lunch was held at Yeni, a Turkish restaurant in the heart of Soho. World renowned beer and food expert Adam Dulye, Executive Chef of the Brewers Association, partnered with acclaimed Yeni chef, Civan Er, to develop an exciting, creative menu designed to challenge preconceptions about standard beer and food pairings and showcase the versatility of beer.

Some two-dozen food and drink writers gathered to witness this meal. We drank a juicy hazy IPA with su böreği, a baked spinach pastry, that came with watermelon and tomatoes. We ate Sucuk, a little brick of spiced lamb sausage, that we washed down with an IPA and a brown ale that had been aged on vanilla beans. We tasted rich, unctuous lamb shank set against a robust porter and a hefty barrel aged stout. We ended by refreshing our palates with baked Alaska and raspberries paired with two delicate sparkling fruited goses.

The pairings were good but just as interesting was the service, which elevated beer to a level more usually reserved for wine. This wasn’t done with a great deal of fuss. Our attention wasn’t drawn to it directly. But this one simple change registered nonetheless.

Service matters. It sets a tone. It creates expectations — namely that the food and drink you’re about to enjoy is going to be good. And when you think something subjective is going to be good, it’s more likely that it will be. That’s psychology, folks. Ambiance and anticipation are important.

That’s why, in this future utopia we’re building together, beer served with food will be given the respect it deserves. Which means, by extension, that beer drinkers will also be given the respect they deserve.

For a start, your beer will come to the table at the correct temperature. Did you know that a beer’s temperature affects its flavour? Too cold and you won’t be able to smell as much, which means you won’t taste as much either. Now it’s not your job as the customer to know or care about this, but your server should — and will, when I am King.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s gone for sure: the frozen tankard plonked down on your otherwise chi-chi table. It’s a mood killer as well as a flavour deadener. But no more! I have banished it. Henceforth beer will come in the correct glassware, or failing that in a wine glass. No more hulking pints swamping delicate dishes.

There’s no need to gulp beer down by the bucketful when you’re pairing it with a fancy meal. It’s about flavour, not quantity. Let us order beers by the glass instead, so we’re not left working our way through the bottom half of a pint that was paired with the food two courses ago.

If you’re ordering a special occasion beer, the chances are it will come in a nice bottle. Perhaps it’s a 750ml one, or perhaps it’s something imported and a little bit rare. Seeing the bottle and admiring the label are part of the pleasure of this beer. Wine comes to the table with its bottle; beer will come with its bottle too. Same rituals, same respect. I mean, that’s pretty simple to grasp. Right?

In Britain, pairing beer and food has long meant having an ale with your ploughman’s, or perhaps two pints of lager and a packet of crisps. It’s straightforward, and it’s good, but it’s also a little limited. There are dishes that include beer in the recipe, like beer-battered fish’n’chips, steak-and-ale pie or Welsh rarebit. These broaden the repertoire just a smidgen. But if you take a step back you’ll notice they’re all songs sung in the same key. Good honest grub.

So before we go any further let’s get one thing straight. If I have talked a lot in this article about more high-end, frou-frou stuff, it’s purely because that’s where there’s work still to be done. It’s not that I want us to stop enjoying beer and food at a more simple level as well. We’ve done that, and done it well, for a very long time. And I for one am not ready to give up the pleasure to be had when I match my pint of bitter with a pork pie. My point is simply this: beer can do more.

Who would want to live in a world where beer could only be one thing? That would just be boring. But despite what some people seem to think, we do not live in such a world. Beer already performs many roles.

There is nothing inherent in wine that makes it a better match for food than beer

Sometimes all I want is a beer that will quench my thirst. Sometimes I want a beer that will be the backdrop to a good night out. And sometimes I want to revel in a sensory overload of aromas and flavours. Equally, I might want a beer to wash down a quick snack; to liven up a some home-cooked supper; or as part of a flight that comes with a ridiculous tasting menu. Beer is so diverse that it can fit all of these needs.

Drinkers are used to the idea that wines can be plonk or posh, supermarket or supermodel. No one is going to grab their pitchfork and cry death to snobs should one winemaker try to produce something more refined than the bloke who runs the vineyard down the road. We recognise that they’re just aiming for different audiences – or perhaps the same audience on different occasions.

Craft beer lovers already know this applies to beer as well. That’s the whole point, after all. But in our perfect future, the mass market will also drop the idea that beer is ‘just beer’, cheap stuff to be bought by the slab and drunk in volume. And, when I am King, this rethinking of beer will filter through to bars and restaurants too.

There is nothing inherent in wine that makes it a better match for food than beer. Instead, wine’s prominence in the restaurant sector stands on two main pillars. First, chefs have a better understanding of wine than they do beer or cider because they are taught about it during their training. Second, restaurateurs – who generally make most of their profits on drinks – are more enthusiastic about wine because they can make higher margins on it.

When the revolution comes, these pillars will fall. Beer will be taught alongside wine and cider to our future chefs, who will then be able to bring their culinary nouse to bear on its many flavours and textures, just like any other ingredient. And you and I, the dining public, will play our part in building this utopia by recognising that if we want to enjoy these sunlit uplands, we’re going to have to pay for them, just as we do now with wine. We too will have to treat beer with the same respect we currently give to wine. Because it’s worth it.

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