From baltis to biryanis, the British love affair with curry never wavers. But is lager really the best thing to drink with spicy Indian food? Julie Sheppard and the Imbibe tasters gathered around the tandoor to find out...
On Friday nights across the nation you’ll find happy punters tucking into poppadoms, vindaloos and naan breads at their local curry house, usually washed down with pints of anonymous lager. It’s a stereotype that both top-end Indian restaurants and beer producers are keen to dispel – and with good reason. The complex spiced dishes of regional Indian cuisine deserve a drink pairing that showcases their flavour.
Convinced that there had to be a better way to enjoy Indian food and beer together, we compiled a hit-list of bottles and cans that we thought would shine in the curry house. We aimed for a range of styles from pale ales to blondes to stout, including beers that specifically promote themselves as curry-matchers, alongside more left-field choices – and also a small selection of ciders.
Given the choice of styles and the complexity of Indian cuisine, it’s perhaps not surprising that opinions were divided and some real surprises emerged.
HOW IT WORKS
Imbibe compiled an initial list of beers and ciders that we thought had potential to match curry. We then invited producers to choose one of four Indian dishes that would showcase the talents of their brew. Beers and ciders were tasted blind, initially on their own, and then paired with the nominated dish. The scores given are for the match with food, out of 100.
Mitch Adams, The Bull, Highgate; Sophie Atherton, beer sommelier; Alexander Crum Ewing, Indian Dining Club and Kennington Tandoori; Susanna Forbes, DrinkBritain.com; Gus Gluck, Vinoteca; Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe; Barry McCaughley, consultant; Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
Mixed Indian starters
The tasting kicked off with a selection of vegetarian starters including onion bhajis, samosas, crispy pakoras and sev puri (tangy chick peas in a fried lentil basket). The range of flavours proved too much for any one beer, with tasters recording the lowest overall food matching scores in this section.
Interestingly the majority of our lager producers had opted for this food choice, and while the fresh carbonation of lager did cut through the fattiness of the fried dishes to cleanse the palate, most of the bottles added little to the food in terms of taste, beyond dulling the spice.
The two top performers, Staropramen and Jacobsen Velvet Ale, worked by responding to the spices and taking on
extra character as a result.
65 Jacobsen Velvet Ale
‘Fruit sweetness: bananas and apricots. Works well with the bhaji,’ SF. ‘This is fantastic with food; the tamarind spice really lifted it,’ ACE.
5.9% abv, RRP £6/500ml, Carlsberg, 0845 601 3432
65 Staropramen Premium Lager
‘Fresh, with gooseberry wheatiness,’ GG. ‘The beer gains dimension with food as its sweetness is reduced,’ SA. ‘A nice comfortable food match,’ BM.
5% abv, POA, Carlsberg, 0845 601 3432
60 Saint Lager
‘Provides that classic beer and curry match,’ ACE. ‘Lychee and orange oil on the nose. Nice balance. Works against the fattiness in the food,’ GG.
4.6% abv, £24/24x330ml, Chilli Marketing, 0870 242 4608
45 Jever Pilsener
‘Gentle aromas of pine resin and malt. Nicely balanced with a long finish,’ BM. ‘A bitter, citrus, and hoppy beer. Dulls the hot spices,’ MA.
4.9% abv, £30.10/20x500ml, James Clay, 01422 377560
45 Camden Pils Unfiltered Lager
‘Fantastic aromatics. Floral, exotic with a long finish,’ SF. ‘Very lemony, zesty and zingy, but becomes a little harsh with the spices,’ SA.
4.6% abv, from £64.56/30-litre keg, £27.13/24x330ml, Camden Town Brewery, 020 7485 1671
Also tasted: Cobra Lager
Chicken tikka masala
The spices used to marinade the chicken included chilli, ginger, cumin, turmeric and garam masala, but their heat was tempered by yogurt, cream and tomatoes in the masala sauce. We tasted two versions: mildly spiced with a very creamy sauce and a dry tikka where the spicing was more distinctive.
Overall the scores for pairing with this dish were the highest in the tasting, with the best matches adding an extra dimension to the curry and working well across both creamy and dry tikkas.
Ciders were a surprise hit here: ‘Bhai made the tikka lovely and fruity,’ noted Susanna Forbes. But it was the complex Belgian blonde beer St Stefanus, brewed with three different yeasts and refermented in bottle, that stole the show.
83 St Stefanus Blonde
‘Good creamy balance with slight clove tang that works well with the tikka,’ SF. ‘Nice rich round palate that adds a nutty character to the food,’ GL.
7% abv, RRP £5.25, Miller Brands, 01483 264 100
71 Bhai Cider
‘Light, sweet cider with low carbonation,’ SA. ‘This comes into its own with food; refreshes the mouth and the sweetness balances the spices,’ JS.
5.0% abv, £21.99/24x330ml, London Cellar, 01268 533999
68 Meantime London Pale Ale
‘Good balance of hops and malt with a pleasing sweetness,’ ACE. ‘This is great with food. It lifts both the dry and creamy tikkas,’ MA.
4.3% abv, 330ml POA, Meantime Brewing Company, 020 8819 7479
58 Westons Caple Rd Cider
‘Restrained apple notes and some nice bitterness,’ BM. ‘Pleasant match that makes the tikka taste more fruity, but does increase the heat,’ SA.
5.2% abv, £25.43/24x330ml cans, Westons Cider, 01531 660233
Also tasted: Celt Experience Brigid Fire IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur IPA
Coconut and tamarind fish curry
Tangy tamarind, mustard seed and creamy coconut were the flavour and texture challenges to be met in this South Indian dish, though tasters were also looking for a match that didn’t overwhelm the delicate white fish. Most of the beers we tasted managed to do one or two of these things, though often the tannins proved too much for the fish.
Both Jacobsen Saaz Blonde and Kingfisher Lager refreshed the palate while allowing the flavour of the food to come through. Surprisingly, the only stout in this tasting worked by highlighting the tamarind in the dish, though its score was higher without food.
‘Tamarind opens up the tastebuds, so you’ll find more flavour, whether that’s spice or sweet,’ explained Alexander Crum Ewing. Once again cider performed well. ‘The sweetness and stickiness of Old Rascal worked really well – the tannins come through at just the right moment,’ praised Mitch Adams.
77 Thatchers Old Rascal Cider
‘Citrus sweetness balances the breadth of the dish,’ SF. ‘Really sweet without food, but works well with the spice and tamarind flavour,’ GL.
4.5% abv, RRP £1.99/500ml, Thatchers, 01934 822862
63 Jacobsen Saaz Blonde
‘Clean and zesty. Paired well: both food and beer shone together,’ MA. ‘Very refreshing on the palate; the beer keeps its identity with the curry,’ SA.
7.1% abv, RRP £6/500ml, Carlsberg, 0845 601 3432
55 The Kernel Export Stout
‘Smoky, nutty palate with coffee bean notes,’ BM. ‘Nice richness, and it picks up some notes from the sauce in a pleasant way,’ GL.
7.1% abv, £36.96/24x330ml The Kernel Brewery, 020 7231 4516
52 Kingfisher Lager
‘Walnut and banana bread aromas. Very fresh on the palate,’ GG. ‘Doesn’t fight with the spice and allows the more subtle flavours in the dish to come through,’ JS.
4.8% abv, £21.99/24x330ml, Kingfisher Beer Europe, 01622 351110
Also tasted: Coopers Original Pale Ale, Vedett IPA
Kashmiri rogan josh
The hottest dish of the day caused fierce debate, with tasters talking about ‘flavour rollercoasters’ and ‘taste explosions’. As well as chilli heat, tomatoes gave extra acidity, while cloves, cardamom and black pepper added a bitter note. Let’s not forget themeaty texture of the lamb either...
Heartier ales had the guts to cope with all of this, often adding flavours of their own into the mix. ‘The Fraoch Heather Ale was one of my favourite beers. The nectary element of the heather really worked with the food,’ noted Crum Ewing.
In the end, though, both Meantime’s IPA and Oliver’s punchily named Shezam cider tied for first place, the IPA bringing out a sweet nuttiness in the dish, while the cider added fruitiness.
65 Meantime India Pale Ale
‘The orange sweetness works well with the spice and tomato sweet character,’ MA. ‘The creamy mouthfeel fits both the spice and the texture of the lamb,’ JS.
7.4% abv, POA, Meantime Brewing Company, 020 8819 7479
65 Oliver’s Shezam Cider
‘Dry and tangy, with nice balance,’ SA. ‘Very dry with a sweet finish, but takes on a coconut taste along the rogan josh. Good!’ ACE.
6% abv, £20.88/12x500ml, Oliver’s Cider and Perry, 07768 732 026
61 Modus Operandi Old Ale
‘Dark, chocolatey, unfiltered. Lots of yeast character,’ BM. ‘Fruity – this acts like a chutney, and the sourness cleanses the palate,’ MA.
7% abv, £44.50/18x330ml, Wild Beer Co, 01749 838742
61 Fraoch Heather Ale
‘Fresh and light, with citrus and pine notes. A good match to the tomato and spice,’ GL. ‘Works really nicely with the spice, which adds depth to the beer,’ GG.
5% abv, £20.80/24x330ml, £138.80/50-litre keg, Williams Bros, 01259 725511
Also tasted: Hardknott Infra Red IPA, Saison Dupont
St Stefanus Blonde
This Belgian blonde beer was voted favourite overall match by the tasters, thanks to its rounded creamy palate, good balance and complexity of flavours – including clove, bananas and caramelised notes – that enhanced the curry spices. ‘The St Stefanus rocked my world as a beer match,’ concluded a happy Mitch Adams.
7% abv, RRP £5.25, Miller Brands,
01483 264 100
- The lower scores in the starters category indicate that it’s difficult to find a one-size-fits-all match for an Indian meal.
- In the same way that residual sugar works in wine, a touch of sweetness in beer helps to moderate the heat of spicier dishes.
- Think also about listing an off-dry cider: fruit sweetness and spice will balance each other well.
- As well as spice, ingredients such as tomatoes and cream can make it challenging to find a perfect match.
- Beer styles such as IPA, pale ale and blonde proved their worth in this tasting. Consider listing them alongside lager.
- Beers with spice or citrus notes tend to complement the flavours in curries.
Mitch Adams, The Bull, Highgate
‘The biggest challenge in this tasting was getting the balance right, as hops and tannin argue with spice. My star matches were St Stefanus and Wild Beer Co’s Modus Operandi.’
Sophie Atherton, beer sommelier
‘Often the sweeter beers and ciders gained dimension with the spicy food as their sweetness was reduced. The best, such as Jacobsen Saaz Blonde, were refreshing on the palate and kept their identity with food.’
Alexander Crum Ewing, Indian Dining Club & Kennington Tandoori
‘Indian dishes can have up to 30 ingredients, which can lead you on a voyage of discovery with flavours; it’s a challenge to match a beer that everyone can enjoy without being bland or average. My vote went to St Stefanus.’
Susanna Forbes, DrinkBritain.com
‘I liked both Saint and St Stefanus. I was surprised how well the wheat beer and Belgian-style beers rose to this challenge; also how big hops – in the right format – can partner big flavours.’
Gus Gluck, Vinoteca
‘For me the St Stefanus was a winner on two fronts. On its own it oozes poise and cool – it’s so balanced. Then with food it holds its own so that you can taste both the food and beer equally.’
Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe
‘It was tricky to find a beer that brought out the flavours without cranking up the heat too much. Ciders were a good surprise; ripe fruit worked well with spices as long as tannins weren’t too harsh.’
Barry McCaughley, consultant
‘Matching is as much about texture and mouthfeel as flavour. But that classic lager and curry experience is still what some customers will want.’
Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
‘I had tried St Stefanus with curry in the past, so knew it made a great match. But I was surprised to see how well the off-dry styles of cider, such as Bhai, worked across the board.’
Thanks to the team at Kennington Tandoori for hosting this tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Steve Ryan.