Grape versus grain

Drinks: Beers

Is beer or wine the better food partner? We put two of the country’s finest food matchers into the ring to find out. Susanna Forbes donned her referee’s outfit for this surprisingly close contest

Whereas much has been written about matching food with wine and beer individually, nowhere have they been pitted directly against one another. Time, thought we at Imbibe, to remedy the situation.
We asked Ray Brown, director of food at Geronimo Inns, to come up with a menu that would be fair to both wine and beer, then recruited a beer and a wine ‘champion’ to select a winning team of bottles for each category.

In the ale corner: Mark Dorber, beer pioneer at The White Horse in London’s Parsons Green – 250 on the list at one time – and now running his stylish pub and B&B, The Anchor in Walberswick, Suffolk. For wine: Galvin La Chapelle’s award-winning sommelier and wine buyer Andrea Briccarello, renowned for his ability to coach the best from his artisan producers. The recipes were chosen and the champions briefed:they could field three drinks each for the four rounds – vegetarian, fish and meat dishes, plus a cheese plate.

The teams assembled at The Phoenix in London in front of some exacting judges, including Brown himself, and the tournament began…

Tasting Panel

1. Ray Brown, director of food, Geronimo Inns, chef
2. Mark Dally, wine buyer, Fuller’s
3. Christine Parkinson, group wine buyer, Hakkasan
4. Julie Sheppard, associate editor, Imbibe
5. Alex Stevenson, bars manager, Tate Modern
6. Rupert Taylor, sommelier, Boundary, Shoreditch

How it worked

Ray Brown and Geronimo executive chef Peter Wright created the dishes while our judges assembled in The Phoenix’s airy Yalumba Room. Chosen for their ability to appreciate the appeal and finesse of both beer and wine, the panel were asked to rate not the drink, but the match itself, out of 20. Scores were then collected and adjusted to a rating out of 100. The champions explained their tactics after each dish, but were not involved in scoring the matches.

The Results

Braised onion tart, artichoke, goats’ cheese, pea shoots, shaved fennel and radish

The complexity of the flavours – the earthiness of the artichoke, the anise of the fennel, and the sweet richness of the onions – provided a tough challenge. With just a point separating the top two, the beers took the first game convincingly, with each being the favoured match of half the panel.

80 Hoegaarden Witbier, Belgium, 5%
One of RT’s top three matches of the tournament: ‘It really cuts the rich goats’ cheese.’ JS felt the mouthfeel ‘worked well with the richness of the onion and stands up to the fennel,’ while CP thought the ‘spiciness complements the fennel brilliantly’. RB agreed: ‘Perfect – rich, moist, fresh. Somehow the beer works wonders with this.’
£20.39, 24x33cl; £14.39, 6x75cl, InBev, 0870 169 69 69

79 Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite, Cornwall, 8.5%
Brewed for food in response to a challenge from Rick Stein for a Belgian-style beer, this was one of AS’s top matches. For MD, the ‘sweetness balances the caramelised onion and matches the goats’ cheese and Jerusalem artichokes. JS summed it up: ‘There’s a rich depth of hoppy flavour that really ties together the different flavours of the dish.’
£17.50, 12x33cl, Sharp’s, 01208 862121

70 Champagne Devaux, Blanc de Noirs NV, Côte des Bar, Champagne
Despite being appreciated for its quality – ‘I could be in a castle in Tuscany’ said RB – plus its ability to cleanse the palate and accompany the goats’ cheese, Devaux’s Blanc de Noirs couldn’t match the sweetness of the onions, while some questioned whether it had the depth for such a flavourful dish.
£19.56, Liberty, 020 7720 5350

69 St Aubin 1er Cru Les Murgers de Dents de Chien 2007,
Domaine Vincent Girardin, Burgundy, France

A panel divider, MD felt the richness and good acidity matched the onions, AS thought the green flavours ‘stunning’, while CP felt that ‘although complementary, the citrus and green fruit of the wine dominates and the oak suppresses the vibrancy of the fennel.’
£15.25, Thorman Hunt, 020 7735 6511

65 Früh Kölsch, Cologne, Germany, 4.8%
Some thought this coped well with individual elements in the dish, including the anise of the fennel, while others felt that it couldn’t quite stand up to the richness of the cheese and the depth
of the onions. Still, a good score.
£28.90, 20x50cl, James Clay, 01422 377 560

61 Chardonnay Collezione de Marchi 2008, Isole e Olena, Tuscany, Italy
JS summed up the dilemma: ‘A lovely wine, but maybe a bit too heavy for this dish? Tends to dominate.’ RB felt it would
work better with meat.
£20.59, Liberty, 020 7720 5350

Lightly spiced monkfish, braised lentils and cooking juices

A high-scoring round, with the wines confounding expectations and taking a clean sweep of the top three slots. Along with the texture of the fish, the curry flavours were both subtle and complex, illustrating the importance of the sauce: the challenge was to complement without overpowering.

87 Schieferterrassen Riesling 2007, Heymann-Lowenstein, Mosel, Germany
The darling of the day, the elegant inherent sweetness proved a winner. ‘Both wine and dish make each other better,’ said JS. ‘The weight and residual sweetness of the wine works with the subtle spicing and meatiness of the fish.’ ‘Who needs mango chutney?’ mused RB.
£11.75, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360

83 Deep Blue Pinot Noir 2008, Tesch, Nahe, Germany
This unusual contender – Pinot Noir made as a white wine – proved popular. CP felt it provided ‘a great contrast, with the fairly restrained fruit and herb character of the wine nicely framing the fish, curry and lentils.’ RT thought it the best ‘at combining with the curry spice’, while MD felt it was good with vegetables.
£13.07, Coe Vintners, 020 8551 4966

77 Pietra Nera 2008, Marco de Bartoli, Sicily, Italy
MD thought the acidity was a nice match for the richness of the vegetables, while RT spoke for the majority when he said: ‘Clean, fresh and floral, this cut through the cream and spice well. Not sure this
is a marriage, though.’
£15.95, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820

75 Duvel, Belgium, 8.5%
For CP and RB this was a good match. ‘Evenly balanced flavours and length,’ said CP, appreciating the bitter contrast. Others disagreed, feeling that the beer ‘traipsed all over the delicacy of the spicing’ (JS), ‘leaving too much bitterness on the finish’ (RT).
£38.85, 24x33cl, James Clay, 01422 377 560

74 Colombaia Vigna Nuova 2008, IGT, Tuscany, Italy
Determined to present us with a red alternative, Briccarello’s late substitute swiftly caught CP’s eye: ‘The soft, sweet fruit works well, emphasising the spice and adding a nice contrasting element,’ she said, adding that ‘the fruitiness of wine is a great substitute for sweetness, which is often the best partner for curry.’
£12.40, Aubert & Mascoli Ltd, 020 7734 5399

70 Adnams Innovation, Southwold, Suffolk, 6.7%
With its complex blend of three hops, this appealed to AS: ‘Perfect weight, the sweetness of the malt balances beautifully with the spice and curry, and doesn’t detract from the creamy sauce.’ Others felt the hoppy hit was too heavy and that the fish got lost. ‘If the spicing was stronger, the pairing would work well,’ said RT.
£21.50, 12x50cl, Adnams, 01502 727272

62 Goose Island IPA, Chicago, USA, 5.9%
Again, although obviously a talented player, opinion was divided as to whether this was too flavourful an option for such a subtle curry. ‘Would handle a Madras,’ thought CP.
£28.09, 24×35.5cl, Utobeer, 020 7378 9461

Hereford steak, dry-aged for five weeks, cooked medium-rare and served with tomato, watercress and béarnaise sauce

Seriously high-scoring round, with the average above 80, showing that our Champions had selected their teams with great success. The savoury elements from the chargrilling offered great potential to the maltiness of the beers. The result? A close call, but the wines just won it by a whisker.

87 Massaya Silver Selection Red 2005, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Universally appreciated, this had ‘good weight and spice,’ and was ‘pretty firm – just what red meat needs,’ said RT. ‘The sweetness and spiciness goes well with the sauce. Nice and rounded,’ said MD. ‘Seems decadent,’ said RB.
£9.92, Thorman Hunt, 020 7735 6511

85 Fullers ESB, London, 5.9%
Joint second, this pairing was highly compatible in terms of weight and savoury flavours. ‘This was a tangy, robust match, with the beer asserting itself, but savoury beef juices keeping up,’ said CP. JS liked the ESB’s ability to match ‘the meat/tomato/sauce combo’ and AS loved the malty match.
RRP £2.10/50cl, Fullers, 020 8996 2114

85 Paraschos Evangelos Merlot 2007, Venezia-Giulia, Italy
Joint second, RB felt it worked well with the fat of the meat and the butter in the sauce, while CP thought the ‘sour cherry fruit at the core of the wine’ was ‘the perfect complement to the bloody, meaty steak’ and RT found the ‘zippy acidity and firm-yet-friendly tannins combined well’.
£12.90, Aubert & Mascoli Ltd, 020 7734 5399

79 Westmalle Dubbel, Trappist Beer, Belgium, 7%
Chosen for its weight and dark malts, JS found ‘a great umami vibe’ when tasting the two together: ‘Weight and texture are great. Quite full-on, though.’ ‘It works well with the steak’s chargrill flavours,’ said RT, ‘but maybe the bitterness hangs.’
£35.55, 24x33cl, James Clay, 01422 377 560

78 Gaia Estate Agiorgitiko 2007, Nemea, Greece
This ‘delivered the whole package’ for JS. ‘Wine and food melt into each other’. ‘A very classical match,’ said CP, ‘Wine is a little dominant, but very “proper”.’
£12.86, Novum, 01582 722538

73 Worthington White Shield, England, 5.6%
Three high scores, three not so.‘Well balanced, with hops easily contrasting with unctuous béarnaise,’ said CS, although others thought it too bitter, with not enough richness, and too much carbonation.
RRP £2.69/50cl, Molson Coors, 01283 511 000

Cheese plate – Keen’s cheddar, Saint Agur blue, Somerset brie

‘There was no sensational [overall]match for me,’ Parkinson said, echoing what all felt. But perhaps that was more to do with the impossibility of the quest: one drink for three cheeses. Yet such compromises are what face sommeliers and waiters everywhere, so our judges persevered until they found the best overall partnership, with the sweet Brumaire just edging it.

80 Pacherenc du Vic Bilh Brumaire 2007, Château Bouscasse, Vignobles Brumont
‘The cheddar with this is sublime,’ said JS. ‘The sweetness countered the savoury taste of all the cheeses,’ said CP. ‘And the extra weight on the palate also worked well.’ ‘Bridges the gap best,’ said RB.
£11.92/50cl, Thorman Hunt, 020 7735 6511

79 Woodforde’s Headcracker, Norfolk, 7%
With a distinct earthiness, as predicted, this was ideal with the cheddar. ‘The cheese brings out the fruitiness in the beer,’ CP. ‘A well-balanced combo,’ said RT.
£29.44, 12x50cl, Woodforde’s, 01603 720353

77 Quinta de la Rosa Colheita 1997, Douro, Portugal
RB called this ‘the ultimate match’, JS thought it ‘a good crowd-pleaser’, while RT felt it ‘worked well with the blue, but too much power elsewhere,’ and CP felt ‘the fruitiness and sweetness is a plus factor but the high, spirity alcohol is more challenging.’
£18.50, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360

75 Saison Dupont, Belgium, 6.5%
‘Very versatile,’ thought JS. ‘The tangy bitterness is great with the cheese, especially the blue,’ said CP.
‘A ploughman’s match!’
£30.43, 24x33cl; £33.71, 12x75cl, Beers of Europe, 01553 812000

70 3 Monts, Brasserie de St Sylvestre, France, 8.5%
‘Palate cleansing with the brie, good with the blue but too acidic with the cheddar,’ summarised JS.
£41.91, 12x75cl, Beers of Europe, 01553 812000

65 Mâcon-Chardonnay AC 2008, Pascal Pauget, Burgundy, France
Although RT felt this was a good all-rounder, this wasn’t its best position. Its medium-bodied, fresh elegance meant that it was somewhat overwhelmed when faced with the strong flavoured cheeses.
£10.40, Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770

How to introduce good beers to your drinks lists

  • A good beer list definitely offers a point of difference, but most customers will be uncertain about it, and it certainly needs explaining.
  • Because of this customer hesitancy, if you do make a beer and food suggestion, you can’t afford to get it wrong.
  • Tasting and food notes are good or you can list by style, by place/provenance/region and country. Or do it by flavour profile – malty and full-bodied, and so on.

Matching beer with food according to our Beer Champion, Mark Dorber

  • The flavours should have the same weight – the beer shouldn’t overpower the dish.
  • In brewing, the chemistry involved in cooking the malted wheat – the Maillard reaction – is the same process that happens when meat browns during cooking, thus providing a natural affinity between many beers and savoury dishes.
  • As well as providing a complement or contrast to the flavours on the plate, a beer’s hop bitterness, carbonation and cultured acidity can cut through a dish’s flavours, cleansing the palate. This is especially true for cheese.

Thanks to Ben, Luke and all of the team at Geronimo’s The Phoenix in Victoria, London for making us feel so welcome.

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