Beer and food matching is pretty established in the UK now – but, beyond beef and ale pie, few use beer as an ingredient. Enter the duo behind pop-up powerhouse Malt + Pepper, fresh off their mini-tour of London pubs and cafes. Will Hawkes asks how good an ingredient beer is, how customers react to the food, and what the team has planned next
When John Longland and Dan James first began to experiment with beer and food, it didn’t go well. ‘It was an absolute disaster!’ says Longland of the time when the co-creators of Malt + Pepper, a pop-up food concept where all the dishes are made with beer, tried out some recipes in his East Dulwich kitchen early last year.
‘We must have spent about £400 and everything was so bitter. The worst was a dish of pigeon in red ale sauce… but we’ve learnt a lot since then.’
So much so that the pair are currently taking their concept on a mini-tour of London pubs and cafes: having launched at The Bear in Camberwell (their tenure ended because the pub is currently being refurbished), they spent December at All Inn One in Forest Hill whilst also taking over the Trafalgar Cafe in Greenwich for three months. January sees them at the Duke’s Head in Highgate, with more pop-ups planned.
It’s an impressive start for an idea that – to put it frankly – doesn’t appear to have appealed to anyone else. While beer matched with food is increasingly popular in the UK (although not at the level of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, the most recent winner of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants award, which boasts an eight-page beer list), not many have gone beyond steak and ale pie in terms of actually putting it in the food.
‘I don’t think anyone else is doing this, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while,’ says 29-year-old Longland. ‘One night me and Dan were drinking and he said: why don’t you do it?’ James, whose career began on the Fuller’s training scheme, is rather blunter. ‘John had had the idea for a long time,’ he says, ‘and he just needed to get his arse in gear.’
The pair studied hard (beer writer Mark Dredge’s Beer And Food was a big inspiration), practiced a variety of dishes and by the summer were ready to go. A planned six-month stint at a restaurant in Camberwell – to be named Beer-stro – didn’t materialise but when Joe Ryan, owner of The Bear, had his chef quit with just four months before planned refurbishments, the boys stepped in.
The food they’ve cooked since covers a wide range of traditions, although it is European/American for the most part (‘that classic cuisine,’ jokes James). Their best-sellers are chicken wings with IPA blue cheese sauce, Kriek-braised pork ribs, and ‘dirty fries’, which are covered with stout chili and ‘beer cheese sauce’. ‘I can’t eat ordinary cheese sauce now,’ says Longland. ‘It doesn’t taste right.’
There’s more sophisticated stuff too, with the menu tweaked to reflect where they’re cooking: guests at their Trafalgar Cafe pop-up could choose from dishes like IPA wild mushroom Arancini, cider-braised ham hock and beer cheese croquettes, and witbier-poached fishcakes.
Different crowds require different menus, as they’ve discovered. ‘At The Bear, stout-braised pork belly was the biggest seller,’ says Longland. ‘In Forest Hill, it didn’t sell at all, so we changed it to beer-braised pork belly – and it flew out. It’s the same beer. They didn’t sell any stout at the pub, so maybe people are put off by [that name].”
They’ve quickly learnt what works and what doesn’t, says 36-year-old James. ‘The easiest thing to substitute out is white wine,’ he says. ‘You can use beer instead, that will work really well. The thing to watch out for bitterness. IPA hollandaise is like a creamy, eggy IPA! I tried it: “It’s horrible, you’re ruining my fishcake!”’
Ingredient to success
It’s pretty clear that James is often the practical foil to Longland’s imagination. ‘We do counterbalance each other,’ he says. ‘There can be a lot of eye-rolling when I suggest stuff…’
The ingredient that excites Longland most is spent grain; what’s left of the malt bill after it has been used for brewing. Malt + Pepper pick up a batch from Mondo Brewing in Battersea each week, and use it in their cooking. So far, they’ve dried it and used it as flour to make burger buns and brownies – and although it didn’t work for falafels (‘too crumbly’), Longland is excited by its potential. ‘You can do so much with it,’ he says. ‘It’s a waste product, breweries are only too happy to get rid of it.’
The public response has been good, with the only complaint – in Forest Hill – being that the portions are too big, says Longland. They wish, though, that more people were interested in the beer aspect. ‘When we have our own place, that will be part of the front of house job, to tell people about how we’re using beer,’ says James.
It’s early days, but it’s clear the pair are excited about Malt + Pepper’s potential. If it’s such a good idea, though, why hasn’t anyone else done it? London’s craft-beer revolution has been going on for six or seven years now, and parts of the rest of the country were well ahead of that.
Longland considers the question. ‘Maybe it’s because it hasn’t filtered through into restaurants,’ he says. ‘The big chefs haven’t had exposure to it … it’s not something that would enter their mindset. For us, having worked in craft-beer pubs, it’s natural. I always said to the chefs at the Crown and Anchor to experiment with beer. It’s expensive but worthwhile.’
For the moment, they’re happy to pub-hop, honing their offering as they go. Where do they see themselves in the longer-term? Longland doesn’t think Malt + Pepper will ever be a full-service restaurant, but he does see a future for it in pubs.
‘I like the idea of a restaurant-pub hybrid, where you’ve got a relaxed atmosphere, 20 taps and a decent kitchen sending out our food,’ he says. ‘It’d be great to have a permanent, free-of-tie pub site by the end of 2018. For now, it’s good to move around and keep on learning.’