A Match Brewed in Heaven

Drinks: Beers
Other: Business

Whether you run a bar, pub or restaurant, beer and food matching can be a good money spinner. Imbibe’s Educator of the Year, Melissa Cole, tells you how to go about it

Because we’re British we seem to have a bit of a tough time reconciling beer as a match for food. For far too long we’ve ignored our burgeoning food scene, with most of our pubs going down the ‘cor blimey guv’nor’ route, and only ever offering fish and chips, pie and chips, anything with chips… and Sunday roasts, with warm brown beer slopped into a clunky dimpled mug.

Now nearly all of that has changed – apart from this insistence that beer should only be served in pints, propping up the bar. As if it’s the red-necked cousin that you don’t allow to the table in case they try and eat with their feet.

Now, don’t get me wrong, at the bar with a pint is one of my favourite places to be. But I also get ridiculously over-excited when I go into a restaurant and they have a decent beer list for me to choose from.

In case you are sceptical about what beer could do for you, here are three unimpeachably good reasons why you should think about hosting your first ever beer and food matching event…
The beer geek crowd often has a high level of disposable income, or they’re young and curious – both are great audiences to get your business claws into.

There are so many crazy, inventive beers out there now that it’s crazy (and unprofessional) to dismiss the whole category as unsuited to the table. And remember, beer is brilliant for hard-to-match ingredients – it can fill the gaps where wine lets you down.

In fact, the flavour wheel for beer, when compared to wine for example, is actually larger, you can get beers that are brewed up to 28% abv, brews that are aged in wine/whisky/rum barrels; beers that have the complexity of a Pedro Ximénez or the subtlety of a young Grüner Veltliner .
Convinced? Then read on and learn how to host a tasty, fun and above all lucrative, event yourself.

Eight weeks to go

  •   Decide if you’re going to handle this entirely in-house, or if you’d rather team up with a brewery or call in an expert.
  •   If staying in-house, designate a staff member who’s a beer fan to head it up or to act as your lieutenant.
  •   If you settle on using an expert, book them as soon as possible.
  •   If partnering with a brewery then agree the scope of commitment – in writing – as soon as possible.
  •   Start investigating beers. If you are using a wholesaler, involve them for advice and ensure that all the beers you are ordering will be readily available at the time of your event. Again, get it in writing.

Four weeks to go

  •   Choose your theme and source some appropriate beers.
  •   Write out your vision for the event and print it out for staff to read and refer to during tasting.
  •   Call in samples, try them with all the staff, and get chef to create dishes.
  •   Order in a shortlist of two beers for each course based on staff tasting.
  •   (Respectfully) Tweet and Facebook experts who might be able to offer advice.

Three weeks to go

  •   Marketing time! Start advertising to database of email contacts; put on website/Twitter/Facebook, and put up posters in your venue.
  •   Emphasise fun and discovery in all of your communications. For instance, a picture of the chef working in the kitchen to ‘perfect’ the beer dinner dishes.
  •   Hold a tasting with all staff, giving a choice of two beers with each dish. Make sure to listen to all points of view.
  •   Take plenty of pictures of all the tasting dishes with the matching beers and put a couple of them on social media.
  •   Order your chosen beers.

One-to-two weeks to go

  •   Think about your logistics. Do you have enough glasses/plates/spittoons?
  •   Have you arranged for staff with beer knowledge to work on the night, or have you trained them on all the beers and the matches?
  •   Check if any of your bookings have any allergies, or are vegetarians, so their dishes can be adapted accordingly.
  •   Keep documenting preparations on social media: the beers arriving, chef tweaking the dishes, excited staff… Also converse with the breweries involved and get your partner brewery to also use their social media platforms.

The Night of the Event

  •   Keep up the noise on social media. This may be your first event but it could become a regular thing, if enough people become interested.
  •   Give your guests time to breathe – a beer evening tends to be more convivial and chatty than wine dinners or whisky tastings etc.
  •   Don’t forget about data capture. If you run one of these again, you might already have a tailor-made audience.

Case Study: Restaurant Alimentum, Cambridge
‘Learning about diversity, heritage and provenance…’

It’s been quite an 18 months for Mark Poynton at Restaurant Alimentum in Cambridge, with his first Michelin star, a three-week pop-up in London, and being shortlisted for The Craft Guild of Chefs’ restaurant chef of the year award. Oh, and he ran his first ever beer and food matching dinner, in partnership with me.

Good marketing was key because Mark has a very wine-led clientele, but one that also turned out to be intelligent and open-minded, which was an utter pleasure to work with. Both he and the guests were amazed at how well a lot of the pairings worked: ‘It was a revelation as much for me as it was for the diners. Some of the flavour pairings, like the Grain Brewery Blonde Ash Wheat Beer and English asparagus, pickled morels and crab couldn’t have been a better match.’

Because we were working remotely from each other, we didn’t nail every match, but I think we did a pretty good job. Poynton explains: ‘I would definitely taste the beers before I did the dinner next time, because I just didn’t expect the beers to be as complex as they were.

‘I think if I’d tried them myself rather than relying on tasting notes I’d have been more comfortable. But we were a blank canvas for this event and perhaps I didn’t quite communicate how light my food was. I would have gone for lighter beers myself. Bitter, chocolatey, leathery, smoky flavours don’t do anything for my food.’

A trace of the dinner still lingers at Alimentum, as Poynton explains: ‘We still serve the Oakham Ales Jeffrey Hudson Bitter – at £4.50 for a 50cl bottle – and it flies out, because it just so perfectly suits my food.’

Case Study 2: The Red Lion, Barnes
‘Trying to bring the public in is a hard job…’

Angus McKean’s Fuller’s pub in south-west London now has a successful programme of beer and food events, but it wasn’t always easy, even with a regional brewery’s weight behind him.

‘The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that just because we’re into beer and food matching doesn’t mean everyone else is; trying to bring the public in is a hard job,’ he says.

‘What I found was that you need to put interesting theatre around it. We’ve converted a part of our cellar into a tasting bar, which gives people the opportunity to venture into the unknown and really get into a part of the pub they wouldn’t normally.

‘Still, we’ve had to pull out of two tastings due to lack of interest. You can’t just expect people to come through the doors, you have to have a strong marketing plan in place. But once you’ve got them, you’ve got a market that will come back and recommendation by word of mouth will spread.

‘Your staff need to have strong knowledge. This applies especially to your non-career bar staff, so I make sure they go to the brewery, have a tour and then have lunch with draymen – that’s theatre in itself. Think of the popularity of farmers’ markets – that’s all about meeting the producer; it’s what people want.’

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