For those who regularly engage with me or read my articles on a regular basis, know I have a passion for both beer and wine, although I would say I have more familiarity and probably authority with the former. I have held both beer and wine tastings, but have time for whisk(e)y, gin, vodka too (although it may sound like a mission statement for an alcoholic, bear with me!), as each drink has a place for when it can be enjoyed. Wine and beer especially lend themselves well to being paired with certain foods, although for some reason, we do not celebrate our beer being paired with food with the same gusto as wine does traditionally receive.
Beer does have many negative associations across a mostly male demographic, from the lager-lout football hooligan, to the morose and drunken real-ale barfly, but there are also negative stereotypes for other drinks; Gin, Vodka and Whisk(e)y have their own connotations, as does cheap chardonnay. Twisting this, when we think of premium or luxury artisanal products within each of these categories of spirits and wines, the negative associations generally fade away. The same should be true with beer; alas it is not always. A good example (yes, bringing it up once again) was Liverpool City Council and Merseyside Police’s opposition to Brewdog opening premises in the city based purely on the reputation that there would be strong beers (and concluding this would cause issues). To date (granted three months is relatively short period), there doesn’t seem to have been an issue for either to take concern from the premises on Colquitt Street. Granted this is a little bit of ‘whataboutery’, but there is a pertinent point here. That beer does not get a fair press, considering the prominence of something we actually do incredibly well in this country.
In terms of accessibility and pushing a product in the drinks market, wine often gets it’s own headline link on food and drink sections of broadsheet websites, plus wine also gets a page or even two to itself for wine writers picks. The same often isn’t true for beer getting this type of coverage on a regular basis. There are many examples of this in the ‘broadsheet’ world of journalism, which are shown in some of the screen grabs posted with this article.
Move out of the virtual and printed world and into the clattering, bustling restaurants in the UK. Recently a beer writer sent out a tweet to a London establishment asking where beer matches were for the food on their menu; this is something that has set in heavily and hasn’t shifted. There’s only a single restaurant in Liverpool (currently, to my knowledge) that actively pairs beers with its food menu, whilst wine continues to be seen as a normal or celebratory choice for pairing with a meal. Often, an obligatory and grudging nod to beers is given, maybe 2 or 3 choices of ales, plus the array of mass-produced ‘lager’ for which people are usually charged £4+ for the privilege of sinking a bottle or pint of this stuff and which often does little for local producers/brewers and often pairs poorly.
There is certainly the economics to consider, whereby margins are made from wine sales whilst beers do not garner the same profitability to restaurateurs, the ignorance is sadly not just on that side of the fence. Given the option to match a superb saison with some shellfish or a cheese dish and although it would be interesting and very tasty (provided the quality of food and drink allows), without actively suggesting this combination to a customer who might not have the beer knowledge, the saison would sit in a fridge or cellar, still waiting to be enjoyed.
Jane Payton (beer sommelier of the year 2014) recently tweeted that the most widely drunk alcoholic beverage in the world was beer, not wine, not whisky and not vodka; in context this was within a suggestion to the BBC to use beer matching and not just wine matching with food on their food and drink programme – although they have done this on occasion, its almost lip service the number of times they do match a beer.
A prime example of the matching of food and drink is on BBC One in the form of Saturday Morning Kitchen presented by James Martin. There are some excellent dishes cooked during this programme both by Martin and the guest chefs (well, at least those that aren’t doing the breaststroke in a lake of butter), which are crying out to be matched with a beer. However, at the end of each of these dishes, the camera pans out to admire the dish and we are then shifted to a supermarket (this in itself is a doubled edged sword – good for availability and so people are able to access the wine, but not exactly pushing a local merchant or local independent wine store, who also in theory could provide a better wine) in Cirencester or other UK town with a drinks expert to select something to pair with the dish just cooked in front of us. Sadly, 99.99% of the time, this seems to be a wine. Would it hurt the programme to select perhaps a cider or more pertinently, a beer to go with the dish?
Granted there are other things to consider in this, such as the target audience for Saturday Morning Kitchen. 75 year old Edna from the wilds of the Scottish Highlands may ring in, having a bear carcass in the freezer and is planning a Sunday dinner, therefore she wants a recipe from one of the chefs and perhaps she would be less inclined to take beer with a meal. Joking aside, it seems rather imbalanced and ignorant to assume this always the case with the audience that they are not going to be interested in trying something different as a drinks match. More recently and positively wine experts such as Fiona Beckett have give time for matching some great beers to food on her own website and in other publications, this is to be welcomed.
Continuing on a more positive note, June 15th sees Beer Day Britain, whose campaign can be followed on Twitter: [https://twitter.com/BeerDayBritain]. The day has been selected in order to celebrate our national drink (in terms of alcoholic beverage consumption, it is above all else in the UK - at least until the start of this month where consumption of Wine has marginally pipped it, sadly for this article!). This will give many an opportunity to try something new; just like ‘Tryanuary’ has earlier this year, which provided a shot in the arm to the drinks industry (thus protecting jobs and spurring the creativity in smaller breweries we have seen blossom in the last few years), which does take a significant sales downturn in January.
We have a remarkable opportunity here in the UK (indeed, globally) with a purple patch for brewing and some excellent and diverse beers being produced and without a customer demand, it is possible it will fade to a fad at some stage, although the genie will probably never be truly put back in the bottle. If a few more establishments take a leap, try sourcing some different beers and holding tasting sessions with staff, encouraging staff to take up beer sales/tasting/advising qualifications and including an extra page in a menu, beer might start to be taken a little more seriously in mainstream media. This may then give additional longevity and security to a growing UK market and indeed art form.
There are many excellent and passionately eloquent writers and speakers in the world of beer, who are informed, intelligent and able to pair beer with any dish presented to them. There has been a surge in the number of female beer drinkers and brewsters (some 20,000+ at last estimate) over the last decade, which has bolstered both interest and sales. Sadly there has also been an ugly level of sexism that has not been totally eradicated in the industry, which is thankfully garnering more and more vocal opposition to this outdated and tiresome facet. Making the world of beer a more accessible and friendly place for new and curious drinkers regardless of gender is paramount, but this is a topic adequately covered by many other bloggers and writers. Accessibility should be a given for our national (alcoholic) beverage and a bit more respect should be given in the mainstream media, though many may think it is at an appropriate level, you can be guaranteed there are many thirsty for much, much more.
Until next time…