Bar snacks are a great way to add interest and profit to your business, but getting the right match is crucial. Oh, who are we kidding? We just wanted to drink lots of beer and stuff our faces with pork scratchings, OK? But we did learn stuff too. Gaëlle Laforest makes sense of the mayhem
Say a customer asks you what beer you’ve got on. You’ll have a few cask ales, some guest beers on rotation and a profusion of bottled beers with funky labels that were no doubt brewed under a railway arch somewhere. Assuming, of course, that you’ve not gone the whole hog and started making your own in the pub’s basement just yet.
But while the drinks offering is given quite a lot of thought, snacks often stick to the ‘safe and boring’ route, a path littered with greasy salted peanuts and scampi fries.
This, frankly, is a missed opportunity. Customers are taking an ever-stronger interest in higher-end food and drink, so now’s a good time to review your snack offering and create a line-up that’s tailored to your beer list, and the tastes of the new wave of connoisseur punters.
And since the term ‘connoisseur punters’ could have been invented for the Imbibe team (are you sure about this? – Ed) we got together to work our way through a selection of bar snacks ranging from ‘really very traditional’ through to ‘seriously weird new stuff’, pitting them against eight classic beer styles in search of top matches.
It was an excruciatingly tough day – but just remember: we did it all for you guys.
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Rebbie Drepaul, The Jugged Hare; Susanna Forbes, DrinkBritain; Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe; Chris Losh, Imbibe; Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
HOW IT WORKS
We chose eight classic beer styles then selected a beer for each style that was a good representative of the category. Next we chose a variety of pub snacks to taste them with. Tasters were asked to taste each beer with all snacks, then pick their top three matches for each beer and mark them out of 20. Scores were collated to obtain a percentage score. Only the two top matches for each beer have been included.
LAGER: Menabrea Birra Bionda, 4.8%
This Italian lager was classically light, with citrus aromas and gentle carbonation. Panellists noted a slight creaminess to an otherwise crisp palate, and a dry, pleasantly bitter finish.
97 Lemon and coriander olives
‘Perfect! Not too surprising that an Italian beer would pair with olives… But it’s the lemon and herby notes that really work here, making a complementary match with the creamy palate,’ JS. ‘Absolutely top-class match. The lemon and light bitterness of the olives are a perfect weight combo for the beer,’ CL.
85 Salt and vinegar crisps
‘The acidity of the vinegar brings out the freshness of the beer, while the lager’s crisp flavours and good carbonation cut through the salt and help cleanse the palate,’ GL. ‘There’s a sweetness to the balsamic vinegar that plays nicely with the bitter finish of the lager,’ JS.
PILSNER: Pilsner Urquell, 4.4%
This Czech classic presented a medium body, with enough structure on the mid-palate to warrant food. It showed malty characters, with a great fresh, bitter finish.
90 Curry popcorn
‘The beer and snack riff off each other and build a crescendo of flavours – it’s an exciting match! It makes you look forward to the next sip,’ SF. ‘The sweetness in the popcorn works well with the Pilsner. This is Brick Lane summed up in one pub snack match – what could go wrong?’ CC.
80 Lemon and coriander olives
‘This is a nice and refreshing match, although a little austere, but it does help bring out some of the beer’s characters,’ CC. ‘The herbs speak to the hops; and the salt and citrus notes of the olives balance out the bitterness in the beer. A surprise,’ SF.
WHEAT: Camden Town Brewery Gentleman’s Wit, 4.3%
This wheat beer had all the classic aromas – citrus, banana, spice – as well as some floral characters that translated into bergamot flavours. A fresh but creamy mouthfeel gave way to a full-on bitter finish.
70 Pork scratchings
‘The savouriness and saltiness of the snack work against the spice, and the fresh citrus notes cut through that chewy fat. Overall, this really needs a meaty snack,’ GL. ‘The beer’s acidity cuts through the fat of the scratchings, and the seasoning of the snack matches the beer OK – though it’s not a perfect match,’ CL.
63 Mature Cheddar
‘The cheese has body and flavour to stand up to this beer’s hops, but this is a hard pairing – nothing is really complementary, there’s always an element that doesn’t quite match,’ JS. ‘Textures work together here, and there’s enough dryness to cleanse the palate; but I’d rather drink this beer without food,’ GL.
IPA: Fuller’s IPA, 5.3%
This just-launched, modern IPA showed a green, fresh hoppy note with nice maltiness and a lifted lemon acidity on the finish. Our panel thought its depth and balance would give it more scope to work with food than most IPAs.
77 Chilli and fennel nuts
‘The spice in the nuts works very well with the freshness of what are quite green hops. It makes the IPA more drinkable,’ RD. ‘This works fine – this beer is an all-rounder – but if the nuts were just that bit spicier they could overpower the beer’s flavours,’ CC.
73 Curry popcorn
‘The vivid heat of curry spices is balanced by the measured sweetness of the malt bill in this IPA and its stylish mix of hops. This is an exciting pairing – a star is born!’ SF.
AMBER ALE: Meantime Brewing Company Yakima Red, 4.1%
A favourite with the panel, this beer had aromas ranging from gooseberry and grapefruit to more bitter chocolate and coffee notes. A hoppy bitterness came through on the quite creamy and decidedly malt-forward palate, before a really bitter finish.
97 Mature Cheddar
‘Brilliant match – this absolutely nails it. The beer’s hop notes cut through the protein and the bitterness adds lift to a finish that’s both sweet and fresh,’ CL. ‘Not a surprise, but this works great – it’s what beer and food pairing is all about. There’s sweetness, creaminess, nuttiness and an additional layer of flavours coming from the hops. The beer and cheese work together instead of contrasting,’ GL.
83 Pork scratchings
‘The beer has the bitterness to lift the fat off the food, but also the sweet fruit flavours to go against the sweet meat. It balances the salt and enhances the flavour of the snack, augmented by that citrus lift,’ CL. ‘There’s a nice interplay of textures going on – the super-crunchy scratchings are smoothed over by the beer and make the finish less bitter,’ JS.
TRAPPIST: Westmalle Tripel, 9.5%
Cocoa powder and delicate floral aromatics kicked things off on the nose, leading on to a big palate dominated by marzipan notes. The punchy abv hid behind quite a sweet palate, with green notes and some citrus, before a sharp tartness on the finish.
90 Caramel and sea salt popcorn
‘This pairing brings a note of sweetness to the beer, which tempers its power. The marzipan note of the beer works with the caramel, and the slightly bitter green notes are softened by the popcorn’s sweetness. Weird, but it works,’ JS. ‘The beer gives the popcorn the acidity it needs, and has enough alcohol to pull its weight against the popcorn. With the marzipan notes, it’s all a bit frangipaney – it’s a match that’s better than the sum of its parts,’ GL.
77 Mature Cheddar
‘The Tripel stands up to the rich cheese and cleans off the palate well for the next mouthful. The process is a little harsh, but the cheese is delicious and makes up for it,’ CL. ‘The creamy, nutty richness of the Cheddar echoes some of the big flavours in the beer, with balance coming from that sharpness on the finish. Two really powerful elements,
but go big or go home, right?’ GL.
SOUR: Duchesse de Bourgogne, 6.2%
A quite classic sour, mellowed from its time in oak, but with a positively funky nose – fizzy sour cherries abound. Our panel thought it was accessible, yet gastronomic, but maybe would not be very versatile when it came to food – they were proved wrong.
88 Kalamata olives
‘A very tasty match. The earthiness of the olives cuts through the beer’s sour flavours and smooths out the palate,’ RD. ‘This is really interesting: the olives dial the sourness down, but turn up the sweetness. There’s a funky farmyard note in both that works well,’ CC.
87 Mature Cheddar
‘This is perfect – the cheese gives the beer a stage from which to perform. Blue cheese might be even better,’ SF. ‘The sourness of the beer really cuts through the cheese’s richness, and also has that almost vinegar-like element that works just like cheese and pickles,’ GL.
PORTER: Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black, 6%
This porter was lighter than expected – a nice nose brimming with dark chocolate and coffee was followed by a palate that was on the milkier side, with slight carbonation and a medium finish.
85 Lemon and coriander olives
‘The olives weirdly bring out some dark chocolate notes in the beer and accentuate the caramelised characters, giving it a bit more punch,’ CC. ‘The different elements sing well with the chocolate and coffee in the porter,’ SF.
85 Pork scratchings
‘This is the scratch match I was looking for. The pork snack makes the beer more elegant and lifts things up nicely,’ CC.
- The Cheddar was the most versatile snack, making at least an OK match for all beers, and creating one of the top pairings. Its fattiness, nutty flavours and creamy texture stood up to hop bitterness to let the beers shine.
- Classic snacks are classic for a reason. In most cases, scotch eggs, pork scratchings, and salt and vinegar crisps were able to balance things out and made it easy to go back for another sip.
- Big beers with big flavours, such as the Tripel and Duchesse de Bourgogne, were the hardest to match. One or two snacks worked very well with each, but the rest failed quite dramatically.
- Texture was an important concern: lighter beers with good carbonation did well with salty and acidic snacks, while the fuller-bodied beers called for more substantial food: meat, cheese and olives worked well.
- Olives were a surprise high scorer, making for consistently strong matches. Their savouriness opened the palate up, while the lemon and coriander flavour often played nicely with citrus flavours in the beers.
- Thinking outside the box is worth it – and it doesn’t have to be hard. Cheese and olives proved really versatile. While they are a little bit more work than packets of crisps, all you really need is a fridge – and there are plenty of options for ready-to-eat olive packets. Popcorn is also worth exploring, as the variety of flavours allows for very precise matching with tricky beers.
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘The classic snacks were often the best – scotch eggs, pork scratchings and salted nuts are classics for a reason. The Kalamata olives were a surprise hero: they have complexity, saltiness and bitterness that made them more versatile than expected. Careful with spicy snacks – they can overpower lighter beers, and some matches dialled up the heat. Some would love it, others wouldn’t.’
Rebbie Drepaul, The Jugged Hare
‘We offer crisps and nuts at the pub and the more unusual flavours are very popular. However, if your customers see you sell scotch eggs and pork scratching they will automatically go for that rather than asking what flavour of crisps you stock – cooked snacks are more popular. After doing this tasting, I do think there’s a whole different market out there that we are missing out on.’
Susanna Forbes, DrinkBritain
‘You have beer boards, so why not have beer and snack boards –
or top beer and snack matches listed on a blackboard? This tasting revealed that there are pairing opportunities outside of the traditional aperitif occasion: the Tripel with salted caramel popcorn would make for a great digestif.’
Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe
‘This tasting showed that upselling snacks to customers needn’t be difficult. Taste through your offering with your best-selling beers and you’ll find some matches to recommend. Look beyond crisps and peanuts – cheese was amazingly versatile. Why not encourage punters to try a few snacks with a selection of third-pints?’
Chris Losh, Imbibe
‘There were some classic matches, but the more surprising ones were where the two elements were making up for imbalances in their partner – the serious, linear Tripel tamed the over-sweet caramel popcorn, for instance. It’s best to be conservative with your snack offering, but adventurous with your potential matches.’
Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
‘Crisps and nuts only performed well with lighter beer styles, with anything else they just got lost. Nuts, in particular, I feel are a bit dated as a snack. I think this tasting proved that there’s a real opportunity to trade customers up with snacks. Keep a big chunk of Cheddar behind the bar; offer charcuterie. In terms of classic snacks, pork scratchings are a must-list.’
Your quick guide to matching beers and snacks
Kettle Chips Lightly Salted (£1.99/150g RRP, 0800 616 996)
Kettle Chips Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar (£1.99/150g RRP, 0800 616 996)
Joe & Seph's Salted Caramel Popcorn (£1.50/30g RRP, 020 84500 922)
Joe & Seph's Madras Curry with Black Onion Seed and Lime Popcorn (£1.50/30g RRP, 020 84500 922)
Olives et al Kalamata (£21.95/2.5kg tub, 01258 474300)
Olives et al Lemon and Coriander (£20.95/2.5kg tub, 01258 474300)
Mr Filbert's Cornish Sea Salt Nuts (POA/120g, 01458 833744)
Mr Filbert's Chili & Fennel Nuts (POA/50g, 01458 833744)
Serious Pig Snackingham (£2-£2.60/35g, 020 7732 7979)
Mr Trotter's Pork Crackling (£2-2.50/60g, 01889 583025)
Ticks: matches that scored 80% or above. Crosses: pairings that really didn't work.
Many thanks to The Jugged Hare in Vauxhall for hosting this tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos by Sebastian Higgins.