Imagine trying to find a match for a main course of rare pigeon (squab), beetroot and chocolate followed by a rich molten chocolate pudding with ginger ice cream and a garnish of cucumber cress that has a bizarre flavour of raw oyster. No problem, says Garrett Oliver, the answer is beer (Liefmans Frambozen and Brooklyn Chocolate Stout respectively).
Actually even Oliver, generally acknowledged as the world’s leading beer and food authority, has to admit that the pairings, devised by culinary whizzkid Anthony Flinn, are challenging. “But you wouldn’t find a wine that would come anywhere near them” he justly observes.
Described as the Robert Parker of beer, Oliver is about as far from the stereotypical image of a beer drinker as it’s possible to imagine. A sophisticated bon viveur, he combines his role as brewmaster to the Brooklyn Brewery in New York with an ambassadorial role for the beer industry persuading both the restaurant industry and its customers that beer deserves its place on the fine dining table.
The meal at Anthony’s, Leeds’ answer to The Fat Duck, is a typical case in point. We start with an aperitif of Deus, an extraordinary, delicate, sparkling beer brewed in Alsace, matured in Champagne by the traditional methode Champenoise, cheekily presented in bottles that bear a passing resemblance to Dom Perignon and served in champagne flutes. It’s sublime.
Next one of Oliver’s own beers, Brooklyn lager, is paired with poached quail with (no, I’m not joking) a croissant-flavoured velout. I’m not quite so convinced about this match and find myself yearning for a creamy chardonnay. However two German beers, the rich, full-bodied Schneider Weisse and sweet, spicy Aventinus are absolutely sensational with a salty-sweet dish of ham hock ravioli with foie gras candy and caramelised apple. “Better than a sweet wine” digs Oliver. “That can totally devastate everything that comes after it.”
I have to agree the raspberry flavoured Leifman’s Frambozen copes as well as any pinot noir could with the squab, chocolate and beetroot and although the ultra rich chocolate pot neutralises the chocolate in Oliver’s Brooklyn Chocolate Stout it brings out an espresso flavour that goes perfectly with such an indulgent dessert. “The maxim that a dessert wine must be sweeter than the dessert it accompanies doesn’t really apply with beer and that’s refreshing.” comments Oliver.
Cheese is another area of the menu where beer has the edge, he believes, point proved by a fragrant, hoppy Goose Island IPA that Flinn pairs with a croquette of Quicke’s Mature cheddar. “IPA and mature cheddar are one of my favourite combinations. I’ve done several cheese, wine and beer tastings up against top sommelier Paul Greco of Gramercy Tavern, most recently for the Institute of Wine and Cheese, and the beers generally come out on top.”
Not that Oliver is anti-wine. Far from it. “I’m not going to pretend beer is the best option when I’ve got a great wine that will work perfectly but it doesn’t make sense to make wine go where it doesn’t want to go. I’ve yet to find a beer that goes better with lamb chops and rosemary than a nice bottle of burgundy and happily I have nice bottles of burgundy. But there are other dishes like spicy foods or cheese where beer generally outperforms.”
One of the big advantages of beers is carbonation which cuts through rich or fatty food and refreshes the palate between each bite. The range of flavours in beer also gives you more options, Oliver argues. “Wine doesn’t deliver flavours of coffee, chocolate, caramel oranges or smoke to name but a few.”
But surely there’s nothing to beat a good red wine with a steak? Oliver is not prepared to concede that. “Beer is more about harmony-based matching than contrast. Beers made with caramelised malts like amber ales and lagers, brown ales and porters pick up perfectly on the caramelised sugars in roasted or seared meats and vegetables.”
He doesn’t believe wine and beer should be mutually exclusive. “It’s not a lifestyle choice like ‘I’m a wine guy or a beer guy’. A lot of people I know have a beer at the beginning of the evening and a beer at the end with dessert. If people come to my house for dinner there will be everything on the table - beer, wine, sake, armagnac . . . I’ll cook five courses and match each course to different drinks.”
So what about the old adage of not mixing grape and grain? “That’s rubbish” says Oliver robustly. “People who say that tend to have had three margaritas, two glasses of champagne and two pints. They’ve downed a huge amount of alcohol. That’s what’s done them in!”
With a few honourable exceptions such as Anthony’s in Leeds, Aubergine and Le Gavroche in London and Per Se and Gramercy Tavern in New York, restaurateurs still don’t take beer sufficiently seriously, in his view. “I get frustrated that a lot of places which have a 300-400 strong winelist still have the same sort of beer list as a petrol station. It’s insulting to their patrons who are drinking top quality beers at home. The people who are drinking the good wines and the good beer are the same people.”
It’s not a question of one drink being better than the other. “I simply want people not to close their minds to things they might enjoy. If you try to match food and drink without beer it seems to me like playing in an orchestra with only half the instruments. It might sound like a bombastic thing to say but however much money you’ve got, if you’re missing out on great food and drink combinations you’re poor.”
Anthony’s Restaurant is at 19 Boar Lane, Leeds LS1 6EA. (0113 245 5922 www.anthonysrestaurant.co.uk) Garrett Oliver’s book ‘The Brewmaster’s Table: discovering the pleasure of real beer with real food’ is published by HarperPerennial at £9.99.
Garrett Oliver's 5 best beer and food matches . . .
This article was first published in Decanter in May 2006.