Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Beer & Cheese Tasting at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough will have noticed that I don't really talk about wine very much. At first it was because I decided I didn't know enough about it to make any salient points, and so I just kept quiet rather than run the risk of embarrassing myself. Following that, there was a period of time where I made a conscious effort to learn more and write more about wine, and I can't thank enough wine lovers like Robert Macintosh of Wine Conversation and Dan and Gareth of Bibendum who have gamely and enthusiastically organised some wonderful events and tastings for food bloggers in the face of what must have been a frustratingly slow and amateurish response (although I'm talking mainly about myself here).

But more recently, after three years of food blogging and genuinely often trying my best to get more involved in wine appreciation, even going so far as to book myself on a long weekend in Lisbon for the European Wine Blogger's Conference, wine has again somewhat fallen off the radar. I'm still an enthusiastic (some would say far too enthusiastic) consumer of fermented grape juice, but when it comes to finding anything interesting enough to say about it without resorting to blogger clich├ęs like "this course went well washed down with a glass of Chateau Lafite '95", then I'm afraid I'm stumped. I like drinking wine, I just find it a struggle to write about, and when writing is a struggle it's usually a sign my heart's not in it.

Perhaps, though, all this time I've been focussing my energies in the wrong direction. I've long been a big fan of proper craft beers, and one of my most enjoyable days out of 2008 was to Beer Exposed in Islington, and in particular a guided tour through the styles, ingredients and processes that make good beer by writer and beer consultant Pete Brown. For some reason, compared with wine, tasting beers seems natural and comfortable - the different styles of beer are distinct and familiar, the flavours bold and unique, and the sheer contrast between the various different things we call "beer" is likely unmatched in any other food or beverage. You may think that Hoegaarden is pushing the boundaries of what you might reasonably expect when you order a pint, but just wait until you try Sam Adams' Utopias, a 27% ABV treacle-thick concoction tasting of chocolate and port which comes in a copper kettle and with a suggested retail price of US$150.

So when I was invited to a beer and cheese tasting at the White Horse in Parsons Green last night, hosted by author, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and all-round food and drink expert Garrett Oliver, I barely needed to give it a second thought. Oliver is an engaging public speaker and frighteningly knowledgeable about his chosen subjects, and when he talks about the need to put proper craft beer on an equal footing with wine in homes and restaurants, it's hard to disagree with him. In a room full of beer producers, bloggers, enthusiasts and reps I suppose it's easy to get away with the claim that "beer is a more diverse product than wine" (who knows what the reaction to that statement would have been in a room full of wine lovers) but even so, the way Oliver speaks about beer he makes that conclusion seem obvious.

If the cheeses last night played second fiddle to the stunning range of beers, I suppose that's understandable considering the main focus of the evening. A pleasant if otherwise unremarkable goat's cheese (Rosary) was tested with a Brooklyn Sorachi Ace Ale (7.6%, named after the hop used), the tangy citrus elements of the beer matched the fresh goat's cheese very well. Some bright white slices of Brillat-Savarin, a cheese even Wikipedia says matches better with beer than wine, was paired with the lovely Belgian-style Brooklyn Local 1 (9%) - hoppy and yeasty and a great drink. And Hereford Hop, a semi-hard cheese made by the same producer as Stinking Bishop (Charles Martell of Dymock) has its rind flavoured with local hops and so is a natural match for some tasty Brooklyn Lager (5.2%).

It's no coincidence that my favourite cheese of all was the only unpasteurised example we tried last night. If you instinctively think cheddar is a dull workaday cheese that doesn't deserve a place on a high-end cheeseboard, then I urge you to try Montgomery's Cheddar, nutty and rich and with that all-important and so sadly rare unpasteurised farmy, grassy freshness. The grassy notes of the cheese were again complimented with the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale (6.8%), less hoppy and citrusy and more earthy than the other beers, and with a fantastic complex aftertaste. My favourite beer all night however was the Black Chocolate Stout (10.1%), an extraordinarily flavoursome beer in the Imperial Stout style which tasted of Christmas dried fruits, malts and yes, bitter dark chocolate. Heavenly.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, then, and one which got me thinking. Why don't more restaurants in London have craft beers on their menus specifically selected to match the food? Some do, of course - Viajante paired one of their courses with a lovely sour cherry beer, and I believe Bar Boulud has an extensive Belgian beer list, mainly due to the insistence of beer-loving Daniel Boulud himself, but they are still very much a rarity. If beer can be as exciting and complimentary to food as the examples we tried last night, is it simply an image problem? Is it just that wine has better PR? And why do I find talking and writing about beer (even if my efforts are still more enthusiastic than enlightening) so much easier than wine? Is it purely an aversion to the often rather elitist and inpenetrable world of wine appreciation, despite the efforts of wine advocates mentioned above, or could it be - could it even be - that beer is simply a more interesting drink? I'll leave that thought with you.

I was invited to the Brooklyn Brewery beer & cheese tasting by R&R.


Hollow Legs said...

Gah. I wish I liked beer.

Niamh said...

Sounds like a fun evening!

Friends of mine have launched a craft brewery in Ireland ( @dungarvanbrewco) and it's going really well. There's a real buzz about craft brewing in Ireland at the moment.

Northern Snippet said...

Enjoyed this post-there's massive choice of craft brewers to choose from in this country,rightly so as beer is part of our heritage as wine is for France.From an industry point of view real ale sales are a massive growth market and the varieties available are so diverse.Definitely agree more matching with food needed.Love it.

Helen said...

Oh I bloody love beer I do. Did you know that? You did? Oh. I wish I could have made it. I agree that beer tasting is just as interesting as wine tasting and I used to agree about wine being pretentious and difficult to get interested about - until I went to wine school. If I had to choose between beer and wine I literally don't know what I would do. I need to stop saying 'literally'. I also don't need to type all my thoughts. I can't stop now.

OK I'm done.

Unknown said...

I got a taste for beer and food matching when I lived in Belgium a few years ago - it is a big deal over there and surely should catch on more here given the number of beer drinkers out there

rabidbarfly said...

Bar Boulard also has 9 craft beers on tap, one of the few restaurants to do that many.

Chris Pople said...

Rabidbarfly: Yes I did of course mean Bar Boulud has an extensive BEER list (not wine). Oops. Have fixed it now.

Robert McIntosh (@thirstforwine) said...

Glad you enjoyed the trip around wine, and am sorry it might have seemed like hard work, but I'm genuinely excited that you do like beer.

What is important is breaking down barriers between 'disciplines' so that there are separate blogs just for food or wine or beer. The products go naturally together, so it offers readers more. One can still specialise (there is not much point me talking about cheese for example, I HATE the stuff), but at least we can acknowledge the relationship and get folks talking!

Beer is definitely on the up these days!