Taps beyond tradition: beer and food pairing
“Everyone knows that wine matches with food but craft beer has so many different styles. The variation is huge, so you can pick out different flavour notes to match with food really easily.”
Mark Jensen of Sydney’s Red Lantern along with his more recent ventures Pork’d and Salmon and Bear, has long been an advocate of food and beer pairing. While the offering at Pork’d – American-style low and slow barbecued meat – is a natural match for beer, what Jensen is doing at Red Lantern and Salmon and Bear is letting the complexity and nuances of craft beer shine through by matching brews with more refined dishes.
Salmon and Bear is a casual seafood eatery specialising in local craft beers and sustainable seafood that is charcoal grilled in the venue’s Spanish Mibrasa oven. According to Jensen, the quality of the beer at Salmon and Bear is just as important as the food.
“Beer obviously plays a very important role,” says Jensen. “We’ve got the Willie The Boatman Old Salty which is a beer made with Himalayan sea salt. It’s really crisp and refreshing and as a result it has a really nice salty finish that goes really well with fish and it’s a beer that was specifically brought on board for that reason.”
On the menu at Salmon and Bear you’ll find brews from Willie The Boatman together with Rocks Brewing Co., and the Batlow Cider Co., each of which has been thoughtfully chosen to complement the venue’s dishes, which include grilled Ora King Salmon, Spanish Mackerel and Barramundi.
However it’s at Red Lantern’s sister venue, Red Lily that specially curated food and beer matching events take place. Jensen’s Beer and Clams events are held roughly every month and have proven to be exceptionally popular since their inception 18 months ago.
Red Lily's Beer and Clams event
The events are a casual affair where Jensen talks through dishes that he has created in collaboration with a specific brewery. A representative from the brewery is also present during the event to talk through each of the matched brews.
“I actually go through the brewer’s range and either taste the beers, or exchange tasting notes in order to create clam dishes to match – it’s very specific matching the flavours of individual brewers to the clams. The events themselves are really casual and people get really into them. We find that we don’t so much [attract] the beer nerd, but more the people that are kind of interested both in beer, and the idea that we are using food to match with beer rather than wine.
“I think beer and food matching has got more legs than just being a trend. I think beer will soon sit quite comfortably beside the wine matching menu.”
Red Lily's Beer and Clams event
A natural pairing
Steve Jefferies, co-founder of The Local Taphouse (St Kilda and Darlinghurst) says that the first objective of both venues when it comes to food is to get the basics right by creating great quality, honest pub food. Jefferies says that it’s only been in recent years that the venue has started to experiment beyond traditional pub fare, offering more refined dishes that match well with beers of the same standard. While these dishes are created more for special events than as core menu staples, Jefferies says he’s been in the beer game long enough to know the current momentum towards food and beer matching is no ‘passing fad.’
Boasting one of the nation’s most extensive craft beer selections, both Local Taphouse venues tap around 450 different beers each year, making regular food pairings quite challenging. To get around this, Jefferies and his team are in the process of developing technology to automate the pairing process. Whenever a new beer comes onto the premises, the core flavour characteristics of the beer (hoppy, malty, roasty, smoky etc.) are entered into the system via a tick-box process. A similar process occurs in the kitchen whenever a new dish is added.
“The kitchen staff will input the dish into our system and list the prominent characteristics of the food using a tick-box process. For example smoky or spicy, and by doing that it allows us to automatically make suggestions for any beer which is on at that time because the beers will have been entered into the same system,” says Jefferies.
“We’ve been investing a lot of time and money in this system and the feedback that we’ve got from it has been fantastic. Beer and food pairing is something that really plays a part in the whole craft beer excitement if you like, but it’s only a part of it. We try and tread a fine balance between becoming a bit too similar to wine – you know the whole wine thing has characteristics about it that we don’t want beer to emulate. Beer was, and always should be, an every man’s drink – you should be able to enjoy it almost without thinking. That said, I definitely think that there will continue to be people who are particularly interested in the pairing of beer with food, and anyone who has done their homework will know that beer is a more versatile drink than say wine when it comes to pairing it with a whole variety of food styles.”
The Local, Darlinghurst
Like Jensen, Jefferies believes that the idea of matching craft beer with food is more than just a trend. Looking at markets where the craft beer scene is more mature, like in the US, the notion of pairing quality beer with quality food and incorporating beer into the cooking process has become almost second nature.
“There are a number of quite high-end restaurants in America that specialise in this, which they call Cuisine de la Biere. It hasn’t come to Australia to that extent [and I’m not] convinced it will, but what has already started here is that restaurants at the higher end of the spectrum are starting to understand how suitable beer is for pairing with their food and as they have discovered, there is a growing number of their customers who are interested in that sort of experience. That’s really exciting for me because it shows that craft beer is growing beyond the bubble of inhabitants that are at the pointy end, or nerdy end of the market, if you will.
“For events like Good Beer Week and Craft Beer Week, the event organisers have been really proactive in working with restaurants in Melbourne such as Vue de Monde where they do a lunch with a beer suggestion and a wine suggestion for every dish. There is an element of fun competition as to which drink pairs best with which particular dish, and I think for the past two years beer has won both of those events – perhaps not surprisingly.”
The Local, St Kilda
The food and beer movement
Alastair Dobbs of St Kilda’s Grosvenor Hotel is another strong proponent for the beer and food matching movement. Similar to the boom in consumers’ wine knowledge in the mid-2000s, Dobbs says that consumer interest in the depth and breadth of craft beer has encouraged people to look at the beverage in a different light.
“I think what’s happened in the last couple of years is that craft breweries have stepped up their game and come out of eclectic parts of town and more into the mainstream so now, people are starting to treat beer as seriously as they treat wine,” says Dobbs.
“Right now there’s a food movement and a beer movement, and when those two circles overlap, you have people that are looking either for food that matches beer, or for beer that matches food. At The Grosvenor, we’ve done a lot with stouts such as the Mountain Goat Milk Stout, and the Mornington Brown Ale with dishes like our braised lamb shoulder. Then with more of the hop-driven North American-style pale ales such as Barrow Boys Pedlars Pale, we’ve matched their stuff with more spicier dishes where the acid in those styles of beer really helps to accentuate the spice.”
St Kilda’s Grosvenor Hotel
Dobbs says that as beer has such a large aromatic component, different styles can lend themselves particularly well to a broad range of flavour profiles, some of which are not traditionally recognised by wine.
“Quite often bitterness is considered a fault in wine, while in beer it’s almost imperative to a lot of the styles, so it opens up opportunities to explore a whole different food genre. You know, you’re avoiding bitterness at all costs with wine and generally with the food and wine pairing. Sometimes you’re looking for bitterness to accompany beer so you can do things like a confit duck leg with a honey and coffee glaze to counteract the bitterness of the beer. I think it’s a really exciting product to work with.
“There is a huge demand for people who are just right into the craft beer scene, which is exciting for us as purveyors of good quality beer and it’s exciting for brewers, so it’s the public that’s the winner. There’s some really cool stuff out there.”