A pike and a pint? Beer and fish matching is somewhat of a forgotten art, but Will Beckett says these two British staples were made for each other
Oysters and stout.
There you go – who needs a guideline of 1,200 words from an editor? Surely I’ve succinctly summarised popular knowledge on seafood and beer matching in a pithy three words, and now I can sit back and wait for my cheque.
Right, following a quick call to the accounts department at Imbibe, apparently more is wanted on this, and not just because the editor just suggested where I could stick my invoice.
The truth is that seafood is another brilliant food with which to explore the world of beer, and one that for some reason regularly plays second fiddle to meatier dishes. Perhaps the root cause of this is to do with deep-lying gender or class prejudices; after all, aren’t all beer lovers large-gutted men with beards and monosyllabic names, whereas seafood is mostly consumed either by women, pescetarians or trust-fund kids with names like Tristram or Cuthbert?
What right-minded publican or restaurateur would spend time on these two things together? Like caviar at a working-men’s club or jellied eels at Buckingham Palace, one might assume that fish and beer were incongruous bedfellows.
Of course, this is nonsense. In fact, it may well be this element of surprise that makes this an interesting area to explore – people don’t expect beer and fish to be a particularly exciting match, but it is one that always produces converts, and that isexciting for any business.
So, you matched a sausage roll with a pint of bitter in a pub: who cares? Surprising people makes things stick in their minds, as long as you’re surprising them with something good. Brewdog’s 18% abv Tokyo beer and a tub of Marmite might surprise a few people, but not many of them will have anything good to say about it.
The truth, of course, is that the denizens of this fair country, both male and female, have been drinking beer and eating fish for centuries. After all, brewing and fishing are very, very old professions indeed. In Britain, our appetite for fish was stoked by a church decree in the Middle Ages saying that good Christians should eat fish on Fridays (and perhaps the fact that we eat less fish than a country surrounded by water might be expected to is due to the waning influence of the church).
However, it wasn’t until the railway network was set up in Britain in the 19th century that fish became readily available throughout the country, and second-rate fish served fried with fried potatoes replaced pickled or smoked fish as the favourite of the working classes, all washed down with a hard-earned pint.
In short, fish and beer are almost as central to this country’s gastronomic history as beef and… well, beer. Absolutely to be enjoyed by anyone, from the daintiest debutant to the burliest bricklayer.
If you read any of my past articles (and I’m not kidding myself that you did), you might remember some of the basic tastes that work for beer matching with food.
Fresh, marine saltiness, the delicate sweetness of fresh shellfish, the oiliness of fish like sardines and mackerel, and the fattiness of eel, tuna and salmon all create hooks (ho, ho) for beer to latch on to. Deep-fried foods, we already know, are great with beer, and fish has more than its share of those options. Even more delicate dishes like creamy chowders or creamily-sauced fish can work with a pilsner just as well as with a dry white wine.
Crab and witbier is a brilliant food and beer combination, and also one that traditionally I’ve used to appeal to people who don’t think they like beer with food. Crab is pretty versatile, and can be used irrespective of the level of skill of your chefs or the amount of kit you have in your bar or restaurant – from buying in pre-dressed crab that you just need to plate, in a sandwich or salad, or even in a Thai curry.
Witbier (‘white beer’) is the Belgian style of wheat beer (as opposed to the German Weissbier), and is flavoured with a blend of spices and other plants, most commonly the herb coriander and orange peel. The citrusy, spicy character of the beer handles ingredients such as lime and chilli to perfection without overwhelming the delicate flavour of the crab. When it comes to a specific match my personal favourite is Celis White, which is brewed in the United States.
Celis White, £23.37/24, Beer Here, Utobeer, www.utobeer.co.uk
Fish and chips
Fifteen years ago, the British consumed nearly 300 million servings of fish and chips annually – that equates to five servings for every man, woman and child in the UK. We’ve expanded our horizons a little since then, but to my mind, freshly cooked, piping-hot fish and chips, smothered in salt and soused with vinegar, wrapped in newspaper and eaten outdoors on a cold, wintry day is as close to heaven as deep-fried food can take you, and is absolutely perfect with any good full-flavoured British ale, which mimics the taste of the vinegar.
I really like Fuller’s London Pride. In the summer, I’d go for a Kölsch. These are Protected Designation of Origin beers from Cologne in Germany, which although they look and taste like light lagers, are actually ales (a none-too-interesting distinction based on whether a beer is brewed with a top- or bottom-fermenting yeast). Fruh Kölsch is an excellent example.
Fruh Kölsch, £26.36/20, Utobeer, www.utobeer.co.uk
Oysters and Guinness
OK, I couldn’t resist it. The thing is, oysters and Guinness works on every level imaginable. There’s a story behind it, too, as in 19th-century England, oysters and porter were staple food and drink for the poor. Porter is the precursor of stout – strong versions of porter were called stout porter, later shortened to stout (I enjoy telling that story on St Patrick’s Day – Guinness is basically just a version of an English drink; not Irish at all).
It also works visually, which is not something you can say about all food and beer matches. I think the dramatic contrast of the pearly oysters against the dark liquid, their colour echoed in the ivory head at the top of the glass, is amazing. The contrast of temperature is great, the blend of textures and the briny oysters rounding off the edges of the bitter stout. It’s about as good as beer and food matching gets.
Can you pull the same trick with other stouts? Sometimes. Oyster stouts, which you might expect to work perfectly, tend to have their subtle briny flavour knocked out by the oysters; imperial stouts are too rich; English stouts like Mackeson, too sweet. Porters, despite the historic associations, can be a touch bitter.
Pickled and smoked fish
I’ve never understood why we see so few seafood dishes from northern and central Europe; after all, you find Mediterranean dishes like spaghetti alla vongole and salade niçoise all over the world. There’s a strong tradition of smoking and pickling fish in these countries, as well as a strong beer heritage, and these dishes make ideal bar snacks. A few matches:
Pickled herring with Jever Pilsner, a very heavily hopped pilsner from Germany. (£24.71/20, Utobeer, www.utobeer.co.uk)
Arbroath smokies (haddock smoked over hardwood) with a malty ale like Black Sheep Brewery’s Riggwelter. If you can’t get authentic Arbroath Smokies, use good smoked haddock or kippers. (£12.84/8x50cl, Black Sheep Brewery, www.blacksheepbrewery.com)
Smoked salmon or gravadlax with Kasteel Cru, a beer brewed using champagne yeast which has a lively carbonation and a natural acidity that goes fantastically well with salmon. (£25.65/24, Coors Brewers, www.molsoncoors.co.uk)