Category Archives: Eating with Beer

Onions: the ultimate multi-layered pairing?


Onions. The humble bulb that was worshipped by ancient Egyptians (but then, wasn’t everything?), rubbed on the muscles of Roman gladiators to firm them up, and used as medicine in the middle ages to facilitate bowel movements and erections, and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss.* Of all the ingredients that spring (ahem) to mind when you wade through the panoply of beer and food pairing, onions have to be pretty much near the bottom. Until now. Yes, when given the chance to try what has to be one of the more unique beers that you’ll ever hope to experience, the other day it seemed apt that the opportunity also arose to pair that beer with pretty much the exact set of flavours in food form. And we’re not even talking about regular onions here, either. No, the layers (ahem) of specificity went far deeper than that.

* That’s quite a weekend

The gloriously named Aji Bhaji – a 7.5% Topaz-hopped amber with caramelised onions, spices and Aji Limon chillies – is just the latest in a series of left-field beers produced by Elixir Brew Co, with Ben Bullen being a sort of brewing equivalent of William Buckland (previous beers Ben has been involved with have included ingredients such as peas, lapsang suchong tea and cous cous). With the sort of happy co-incidence that so often happens when you flip the cap off an onion beer, that very evening it was discovered that Domino’s now offer onion bhaji pieces as a ‘guest topping’ on their build-it-yourself pizzas. The opportunity to pair liquid and solid bhaji goodness was just too enticing to withstand.

After all, the three main pillars of beer and food matching are often stated to be the C’s of Cut, Complement and Contrast. With exactly the same ingredient in each, in front of us had to have been the ultimate ‘complementary’ moment. And so it proved, the beer had a twin dynamic of warming chilli (from the sweet, citrus fruity Aji) and the tangy hum of onions. And the pizza, well, it had fairly imperceptible pieces of gritty overcooked onion. But you could just about taste it, if you channelled everything else out. Onion to onion. Pull them from the soil, add them to pizza and brew with them. Craft.

Onion bhaji beer paired with an onion bhaji pizza. The most specific food-pairing out there?

Does complex beer deserve complex food?


As phrases go, “we needed to get it off the cucumber as soon as possible, they were running riot” is one I’ve not heard before – it brings to mind green, knobbly gremlins scampering around, up to no good, like slightly watery minions. The phrase was uttered by Darron Anley, owner and founder of Siren Craft Brew, and referred to an issue that arose after a single day of ageing one of their beers; the (deep breath) cucumber, basil, mint and grapefruit-infused bourbon barrel-aged Calypso Berliner Weisse. Apparently the first of those additions was becoming too prevalent almost immediately, and had to be removed (presumably one at a time through the cucumber-diameter hole in the top of the cask). Anyway, Darron was speaking about the trials and tribulations – whilst demonstrating the amazing successes – of barrel-ageing at a pairing dinner at Edinburgh’s Spit/Fire, and it got me to thinking. Does complex beer need complex food?

The course that was paired with the barrel-aged Calypso was sea trout tartare, served with a wolfschmidt jelly, radishes, pea shoots and a black pepper & bacon tuille. With the new kitchen team in place at Spit/Fire (Ruairidh Skinner has come over from VDeep) it was predictably fantastic; the sweet, herbal fish working against – in a good way – the beer, which is unlike pretty much any other I’ve tasted. There’s a reason why some of these modern beers make you descend into 80’s wine-speak wankery – it’s because they have such a multitude of things going on. The barrel-aged Calypso gave out aromas and flavours of grapefruit and kaffir lime leaves, alongside a mossy earthyness, as well as a savoury dryness that reminded me of those enormous American-style dill pickles. When combined with the sea trout dish, each and every mouthful brought all kinds of those different flavours from both into contact.

Now, if you read the descriptions in that last paragraph and snorted into your pint, then fair enough. It’s hard to express what barrel-aged beers taste like without sounding like you’re perching on a bar stool in pseud’s corner – let alone for those beers where extra ingredients have been added into the wooden cask. And Siren are masters at this – since their inception in 2013, their keystones have been a) collaborating with a range of other scene-leading breweries, and b) acquiring and using as many barrels as they possibly can. Maiden, one of their two anniversary beers, is a liquid mixtape of rum, bourbon, tequila, brandy, red wine and other barrels, blended together in an afternoon of tasting that few beer drinkers will ever get to experience.

So how on earth do you go about pairing it with food? That particular beer was matched with a selection of cheeses (and Pedro Ximinez-soaked raisins). Their Gran Marnier-aged barley wine Long Forgotten Journey was put up against mixed berries, elderflower gratin and lavender shortbread; another riot of flavour from glass and plate. The beer in that instance had an aroma of candied orange segments, but was pretty fudge-y on the flavour, with a Picon-like dry orange finish. When tasted with the sharp raspberry and blackberry fruit, it sweetened and broadened the beer. But when the elderflower and lavender elements arrived, the beer became more like a bitter honeysuckle instead. It was all fairly exhausting stuff. But I got the impression throughout that these beers and this degree of execution from a kitchen really had to co-exist, otherwise one of the sides would dominate.

I’m not sure what would happen if you paired a complex Siren beer with something more fundamental of flavour, any more than I would be about matching one of those Spit/Fire dishes with a best bitter – but I guess with beer and food pairing, as long as one makes the other better, it doesn’t really matter how complicated they are – when both are at the top of their respective games. Maybe that is the more important take-home message.

What do you think? When it comes to the flavours of beer and food matching, should complex = complex?

Tea Beers: Chai-na in your hand?

Coffee and beer; the crossovers are endless. The jumpy-beans lend themselves perfectly to brewing, imparting flavours from deep, hearty roast right through to light, red-berry fruit. Only the other week, I was talking about some of the UK’s best coffee beers. In terms of other aspects of the beer industry, coffee keeps brewers afloat following all those early starts – and (closer to home) it fuels writers and helps spark whatever flickering light we have to get that blinking cursor moving. I’m actually drinking a coffee right now, in fact; a Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference single origin fair trade Sumatran, hand-picked by orangutans and delivered to my frontal lobe via the wankiest aeropress money can buy.

But what about tea? Tea beers aren’t nearly as prevalent, despite it being the UK’s favourite beverage. Is there something about the humble leaf that doesn’t quite lend itself to brewing? Associations with vicars and grandmothers, church fetes? Too many jokes about teabagging? Is tea just coffee’s slightly naff cousin? Possibly. Yet, tea-infused beers are on the rise. This could be because brewers have reached the end of the line with coffee, and rummaged around in the brewery cupboard for inspiration (next up; Rich Tea Ale) – but more likely it’s down to the increasing availability of high-level, specialist teas from dedicated sources.

Take Eteaket in Edinburgh. One of the bedrock of tea dealers in the city, they have a fantastic reputation for sourcing and serving loose-leaf teas from all over the world. They have also just collaborated with Argyll’s Fyne Ales, to produce a couple of special-release tea beers, augmenting a new 4% British-hopped pale ale, From the Ashes. After numerous experiments with half a dozen Eteaket offerings, the Fyne team settled on two specific blends, majoring in sencha green leaf and chai – and as you can imagine, both yield hugely different results.

The sencha blend – Blooming Marvellous – also contains mallow, sunflower petals, rosebuds, vanilla and dried fruit, and goodness me, does that come over in the beer. Blooming Brew (4%) smells like Hubba Bubba, there’s really no other way of putting it. Sweet, cream soda and vanilla, yet switching into a long bitter finish – the whole thing comes over as a liquidised Pez (for those that remember Pez); it’s fascinating. With 3kg of tea imparted in a 5bbl brew, cold-infused (as Fyne MD Jamie Delap said, added to the boil, the flavours would vanish), it’s all-pervading.

This is exactly the case with the Chai PA. Brewed with Bollywood Dream Chai, it has a woody, balsa-like flavour, really peaky on the finish. At times, it verges on the medicinal, with a bitter, perfumed aftertaste. To get the Chai blend, Eteaket added aniseed, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, cloves and chicory root to black tea – and all of these spices give that aromatic aroma, and taste, that just keeps on going. I think, on balance, I preferred the Blooming Brew – but there’s no denying that both really bring across the flavours of the infused tea.

One of the earlier front-runners in this (semi-recent) revival of brewing with tea was Marble’s much-heralded Earl Grey IPA, produced in conjunction with Emelisse. The combination of flowery bergamot and resinous hops worked beautifully. Maybe that hints at one of the reasons why – until now – tea beers haven’t been as prevalent as coffee beers; it takes real thought to get success when blending a complex tea with all the constituents of a beer. The style you are brewing is critical, for instance. Obviously, Fyne Ales understood this, given their multiple experiments and winnowing-down, on the way to their two final beers.

But, although it might be a difficult ingredient to brew with, that’s not to say tea beers aren’t available here in Scotland. Aside from the two Fyne efforts (which are pouring now at Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh, and will also be on the bar at FyneFest next month), here are some other Scottish brewers who have experimented with the underutilised, under-appreciated leaf. Have you experienced a great tea-beer? Is it more than just fuel for builders?

Pilot Beer Iced Tea Ale (5.0%)
Leith’s new young pups bravely started life with a tea infused beer as one of their very first offerings. Involving Matt and Pat’s ‘unique tea blend’, the ITA is hopped with Citra and Amarillo, then infused with fresh lemongrass. Lots of citrus peel on the flavour, as you’d expect, the tea imparts an almost caramel sweetness, which balances really well with the zappy citric flavours.

Stewart Brewing Earl Gray Amber (5.3%)
Produced at Stewart’s new Craft Beer Kitchen, this small-batch tea beer was suggested by their marketing executive Emily Gray (hence the spelling of the tea-title). A walloping bergamot express train, it finished hugely bitter from the malted-biscuit tea flavour, yet started with a blast of perfume the like of which I’ve not tasted for a while.

Barney’s Lapsang Smoked Porter (5.0%)
Dark beers aren’t just the reserve of coffee – blend in a tea like Lapsang Souchong and you’ve got an instant smoker, particularly when brewed with a touch of rauchmalt. Barney’s Lapsang beer is rich, leathery and tastes like bacon rendered into the earth. But there’s an acidity from the tea that lifts and differentiates this one from ‘regular’ smoked beers.

Elixir Tea Total (5.0%)
I couldn’t round this list off without mention of Elixir’s Tea Total – a beer produced specifically at the behest of Scotland’s uber-rater Craig Garvie, in celebration of his 10,000th beer recorded on RateBeer. Also involving Lapsang Souchong, this smoked oatmeal stout came from the same stable as Benjii’s short-lived oolong and chilli mead; a style that is, in every sense, both behind and ahead of its time…

Coffee beers for UK Coffee Week


This week, amongst other things, is UK Coffee Week. Running until Sunday, it’s a celebration of all things jitterbean-related, and acts as a platform for Project Waterfall – a scheme, run in partnership with Water Aid, which aims to bring clean drinking water to some of the poorest coffee-growing regions of Africa. I only started drinking coffee a couple of years ago; I was convinced, for years, that I didn’t actually like it. Incorrectly, as it turned out; my tastes had changed since that distant, shuddering experience. Predictably, when I actually tried coffee again (a Sardinian espresso, no less – deep end), I loved it.

The amusing thing is that throughout this coffee prohibition, I discovered – and enjoyed – other coffee-flavour products. Coffee cake was a struggle, but I got there eventually – even if it did seem like a waste of icing or buttercream, tainted by the evil bean. Coffee chocolate was an easier sell – although I still draw the line at coffee Revels; but then, doesn’t everyone? They taste like several other people have eaten them before you. Actual coffee, though, I merely thought I didn’t like. How wrong can you be? What a waste of all those years. Still, there was always coffee beer.

Yes, before I rediscovered the capillary-widening flash of caffeine-fuelling, I was drinking coffee beer. I admit, this is pretty daft. Still, that’s me. Coffee works so well in beer – particularly (but not limited to) darker beers; as a beer writer I would have been even dafterer to not try them, despite my dislike. The flavours complement other ingredients beautifully as well – things like chocolate, coconut, vanilla. Who knows? Drinking coffee beers may well have been my gateway back into the real thing. Anyway, in the spirit of UK Coffee Week, here are a few of the UK’s best coffee beers. If you’d like to donate to Project Waterfall, you can do so here.

Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA (6.5%)
I last tried this beer on March the 26th, 2011, as part of the prep for this blogpost on a Coffee IPA battle between the Kernel and Mikkeller (a similar idea was had by a fresh-faced Hopzine Rob). At the time, I bought two bottles of the Ethiopian-laced Suke Quto – or rather, a bottle of each of the two batches – and still have one in the cupboard. Produced in collaboration with Square Mile Roasters, and featuring a Best Before of 01/12/2012 – how would it fare, all dusty and three years down the rails?

Pretty well, as it turns out. There’s a welcoming hiss when the grubby cap is popped, and a puff of foam from the bottle neck. As the foamy head layers up in the glass, there’s a palpable whiff of US caramel malt-style sweetness, alongside a touch of the cold cafetiere. Tastewise, things have faded around the edges – I remember, fresh, the IPA flavours charged out from the off, before the coffee arrived (unlike the Mikkeller, which went Coffee>Hops). But the dull flatness is rescued by the hop tinges that do remain, and by the coffee bitterness that has lasted for these three years, pulling through from the finish.

Summer Wine Barista (4.8%)
Barista was one of the first coffee beers I ever tried, I think, pretty much around the time I was experimenting with coffee IPA’s. A very different beast, this espresso stout pours blacker than a Pennine night, and has roasty coffee aroma from the off. As the flavours follow on in a similar fashion, they are joined by an ashy quality that really adds to the dryness. Leather, tobacco, all these bitter flavours wait their turn before arriving, and working beautifully.

Cromarty Brewed Awakening (4.7%)
Speaking of firsts, aside from the eponymous Happy Chappy, Brewed Awakening (coffee beers have great names) was probably one of the first I tried from the more remote of the Black Isle’s two producers. Locally ground Arabica beans result in a real deep roastiness, giving a fantastic backbone. There’s even a bit of caramel sweetness, before the mildly bitter coffee finish. A one-off cask with added sarsaparilla root passed swiftly into Edinburgh folklore when it appeared at the Stockbridge Tap.

Bristol Beer Factory Mocha (4.5%)
Produced as part of 2012’s ’12 Stouts of Christmas’ range, I pushed the boat out a little to include this one – it didn’t hang around for long. Brewed in collaboration with Extract Coffee Roasters, BBF Mocha featured Tanzanian Hope Project Peaberry Espresso, blended with Bristol’s base stout. The main talking-point was how much body it had, despite being ‘only’ 4.5%. The chocolate provided a bittersweet edge, which – of course – worked wonderfully with the big coffee roast. Great stuff.

BrewDog Dead Metaphor (6.4%)
Oh, how did this one get in here? I…er…

Elixir Cool Beans (5.0%)
Ending this list as it began – with a coffee IPA – unlike Kernel/Mikkeller the coffee was omnipresent, rather than merely the opening or closing half. In contrast to the ashen dryness of Barista, or the soft roastiness of Brewed Awakening, Cool Beans comes over more as a green, unripe, almost biting bitterness. If there’s a coffee equivalent of a raspberry, yet to ripen, this is it. Combined with the resinous hop element there too, it’s as different as all the others – proving how unusual and versatile this most magic of beans can be.

Spreadable beer – is drinking passé?


Spreadable beer – yes, that thing you never knew you needed, is here. Well, it’s in Selfridges, at least – at £7.99 for a 280g jar. A Italian collaboration between brewer Emauela Laurenzi and chocolatier Pietro Napoleone, they essentially seem to have turned two sorts of beer (one light, one dark) into creamy pastes that can be then applied to toast, crackers – or anything else. It’s a gimmick, of course, but one that might do well in its native land – Italy gave Nutella to the world, after all (February 5th is World Nutella Day, hazelnut fans).

Over here, it’s doubtful anyone will really go for it – particularly given the price tag. Robertson’s Silver Shred it is not. Still, it raises an interesting point – is merely drinking your beer now passé? What other mechanisms are out there for conveyance of your beery needs? Is spreadable beer just the (sticky) tip of the iceberg?

Beer Vapour
Like the onetime-fashion for boutique Oxygen in jarring, multi-levelled 80’s clubs, trendy inhaling often catches a wave (only to fall flat soon afterwards, once the light-headed rush has gone). From their TV promo, BrewDog (who else?) look to have had a go at creating a literal interpretation of a steam beer whilst in California – will the future see more of this? Nights out in ‘Aroma Bars’, hunkering down over bowls of dark, swirling clouds of stout, or zingy grapefruity IPA vapour? ‘Steampunks’ taking the piss out of ‘LagerBreathers’ (the term becoming an insult), as they inhale their faint-smelling gas? Beer vapour would be great for the sinuses, if nothing else.

Ouch! Trypanophobics might not go for this in a hurry, but there’d be no need to sit down on a creaking pub stool listening to the usual bores, when you can mainline the stuff in seconds. Admittedly, the Daily Mail would probably have a field day with the idea, but one-time shots of monstrously-strong imperial stout straight into the bloodstream would certainly help you forget the long meeting with the accounts department. It would also shake up the RateBeer crowd, no longer requiring them to note a beer’s appearance, aroma, or flavour: ‘Rusty Plunger Brewing Company ‘Veinfiller’ (syringe-aged version): Pupil Dilation 6, Sudden Rush 8, Trackmarks 2, Tetanus 0′

Similar to the Aroma Bars (by then a predicted scourge on society), beer-containing deodorant simply combines this with your morning cleansing routine. Let’s face it, most of us end up smelling of beer towards the end of the evening anyway, so you may as well set off for the office as you mean to go on. It shouldn’t require a quantum leap to get from cornie kegs to underarm dispense. It would then present a tricky dilemma for CAMRA members – get a morning beery jolt, dispersed quickly into the bloodstream, yet have to purchase a pressurised container to deliver their hit?

Fast-forward five hundred years. As our descendents zip around on personal space-fairing rocket skateboards – the entire galaxy available at the flick of a hyperspace-enabling switch – who has time for five pints on a Friday night at the Rat & Cockroach? With breweries condensing their wares into handy capsule format, you don’t need to! Take part in the weekly beer ritual in seconds, wherever you are, by popping a few beer-flavoured pills. Carry a round back from the bar without the need for a slippery tray! Just be careful when programming hyperspace coordinates into the skateboard afterwards. Oh, and craft beer pills go in one end, macro lager pills, the other.

Virtual Reality
Maybe in the sparkling future there won’t be any physical beer to pour at all. Instead, ‘pub-goers’ will lie in their individual gloop-filled pods and simply download beer straight into the cortex, in nanoseconds. What would this be like? When every virtually-thrown dart hits the treble twenty? Your jukebox song comes on, instantly? Every beer that’s ever been made is available, all the time, served however you like? Paradise, my friends? Or a nightmare? There is an alternative, though. Take the blue beer pill – and remain in the beer matrix, or take the Watney’s Red Barrel pill, and be transported into the early 1970’s, to see what real beer really meant…

Newcastle Brown Ale ice cream – a step too far?

It may have been released back in 2003, but strangely it took a short break to Sweden for me to finally cross paths with Newcastle Brown Ale ice cream. “This will totally blow your mind,” says the bloke who hands it to me at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival. Dressed as a 1950’s ice-cream salesman, he looks more like Andre 3000 in an Outkast video. I asked him if he’d tried it. “Oh yeah” he said. Did you like it? “Sure I did – it’s amazing” he replies, somewhat unconvincingly.

Well, beer festivals are all about trying new things, after all. I take the sticky tub over to a nearby table. The carton label tells me to ‘Try something a little different’. Fair enough – it certainly looks like ice cream, toffee-brown colour. The flavour, though, is really quite something. For one thing, it really does taste of beer – and not just any beer, the thing actually tastes of Newkie Brown. Quite amazing.

There’s a fairly standard sweet, vaguely vanilla-ish taste at first. Just as you start thinking “Hmmm…I thought this was going to taste of…” – it tastes of beer. Just like that. The flavours switch to sweet malt, and then become sour and bitter. You can only applaud the skill of the iced artisans at Doddington’s. Having said all that though, after three or four scoops, I’d had enough. Accurate it may be, but nice…well…