By Jonny Garrett of the Craft Beer Channel
Beer and food matching is nothing new. Tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking gents with bad teeth have sung its virtues since the 70s without much of an audience. But in the last decade things have changed.
It all stems from the simple fact that beer has got better. Objectively better. There is that tired saying that, if you put 1,000 monkeys in a room with a typewriter each, eventually one of them will write Shakespeare. Without implying that brewers are monkeys, something similar has happened in the brewing industry.
In 1974 the beer industry was in crisis. Closures and mergers meant that there were just 150 breweries in the whole country, owned by just 87 companies. Now there are over 1,000. Most are independent brewers producing less than 2,500 barrels a year. And quite a few of them are writing Shakespeare.
This incredible growth is down in part to the Small Brewers Relief – a tax system brought in by Labour in 2002 to help start-up breweries. But it’s also down to a shift in what drinkers want. Instead of pale yellow lager that has more in common with soda water than malt, yeast and hops, we’re looking for big and bold flavours, heady aromas and lingering aftertastes. And because all these small breweries were founded by people looking to drink and brew exactly that, it’s great news for the tweed-wearing pipe smokers. Finally, beer is trendy, and so is matching good beer with food.
So we’ve got porters for roasts, IPAs for curries, whisky-aged beer for cheeses, Pilsners for salads and pizzas, bitters for stews, and weiss beers for seafood – check out our wheat beer clams on youtube. In fact, the range of flavours beer offers is far, far wider than it is for wines. And with every style comes lots of little differences than you can fine tune to meet the food – the carbonation, the texture, the temperature, the aftertaste, the aroma. You don’t want a room-temperature beer with a curry, and you certainly don’t want lots of fizz with fish.
Of course, we’ve also slowly gained access to the world’s beer supply too. Where world beers once meant a stubby bottle of Bier D’Or from Tesco, now we get casks of Sierra Nevada’s (the brewery that pretty much started the American beer revolution in the 80s) incredible Torpedo, perfect for lamb roasts or barbecued meat, or the almost Belgian-tasting Saigon beer from Vietnam, influenced by the nation’s time under French rule and perfect with all kinds of Asian flavours.
In fact, keeping like with like is a pretty good rule for beer matching. Crisp, lemony lagers with a pizza, Indian pale ales with curry (even if we invented the beer), or a Belgian witbier with mussels. Some restaurants are even working with breweries to produce their own craft beers to match their menus perfectly. Jamie’s Italian has Liberta – a floral, crisp lager made with acacia honey – and burger chain Byron works with Camden Town Brewery to produce its own Byron lager, as well to create an amazing US/UK beer list that alone makes the restaurants worth visiting. Tim Anderson, MasterChef winner in 2011, worked with Scottish punk brewers BrewDog to create a miso-based dark lager for Japanese food – an idea I’m totally down with. Why he called the beer Mr Squirrel, however, is a mystery.
Beer has become part of a renaissance in British food. Just as local, sustainable ingredients grown and cooked with love and passion is on the rise, the same can be said of beer. Everyone’s a winner from better beer, right from the farmer, to the brewer, to the pub or restaurant, to the drinker. Here’s to them all.