Beer versus wine: the truth
I believe ... wine drinkers, even the most cultured, are unfairly blinkered about beer. (Not all, but most.) Whereas cultured beer drinkers invariably appreciate wine. Unfair!
The great London chef Michel Roux is an exception; so, too, is his legendary Maître d’Hôtel, Silvano Giraldin. Le Gavroche, Michel’s restaurant, has a beer list as well as its exemplary wine list, and there are several dishes for which Michel and Silvano consider beer the ideal accompaniment. The superfit, marathon-running, elfin-slim Michel was actually named ‘Beer Drinker of the Year’ in the UK last year, joining Madonna (who loves to nip out with Guy for a pint of Tim Taylor’s Landlord when she’s in the UK) as one of the most unlikely beer evangelists of all time.
So when Amber Dalton of Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine and I decided that it would be a good idea to try to win over some of our wine-loving readers to beer’s cause, one restaurant naturally came top of the list as a venue: Le Gavroche.
(This is, in fact, a no-brainer. For the quality of its raw ingredients, its cooking and its service, and for its sane refusal to get blown around by the winds of fashion, this is, for me, London’s greatest restaurant. We work with around ten different restaurants every year on our programme of reader lunches. None ever goes to the trouble which Le Gavroche does – to provide five courses, to provide us with a choice of courses for each stage of the meal when we excecute our planning lunch, to make the readers welcome, and to serve what are sometimes exceptionally complicated meals with smooth aplomb. I’m a connoisseur of professionalism in every field – and am in awe of Le Gavroche.)
The deal was simple. Around 100 guests, and the following menu and wine/beer pairings. We asked for a simple show of hands as to which drink was preferred with each course. We also solicited more detailed feeback from keenies about the food and wine matching via questionnaires, and 34 were returned. I introduced the wines, and beer chef Richard Fox introduced the beers. (Thanks to Ros Shiel and the Beautiful Beer Campaign, as well as Louis Jadot and Taittinger and Rupert Ponsonby of R&R for making this contest possible.)
Kasteel Cru Alsace lager (Waitrose £1.49) versus Taittinger Brut Réserve (Waitrose £28.99)
OK, it was always going to be hard for Kasteel Cru to displace a glass of Taittinger as the perfect apéritif, and it didn’t. But serving this French lager made with champagne yeast in a flute glass helped a lot of the guests to see “lager” (almost a four-letter word in Britain) in a new light.
Coquille St Jacques « à la coques » parfumée au gingembre
Fuller’s Discovery Blonde Beer (Waitrose £1.69) versus 2006 Meursault, Louis Jadot (Waitrose £21.99)
The Meursault took this next course, though personally I thought the Discovery, with its flowery Liberty and Saaz hops, was a brilliant partner. Among those filling out the questionnaires, there was support for both. We asked for a score out of 10 for each partnership, and the Meursault notched 240 while the Discovery managed 219.
Petite tourte de pigeon à la sauce poivrade
Lindeman’s Raspberry Beer (Waitrose £1.99) versus 2006 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages, Louis Jadot (Waitrose £6.99)
Gasp! The raspberry beer eclipsed the Beaujolais-Villages with Michel’s wonderful pigeon pie, both on the show of hands and on the questionnaire scores (240 versus 226). Many guests had never tried a fruit beer before and were instantly seduced. If you are a beerophobe, a Belgian fruit beer makes an ideal crossing point, for obvious reasons: it’s fruity, just like wine is.
Agneau de lait aux Pyrenées Rôti, flageolets et carottes et petits navets
Marstons Old Empire IPA (Waitrose £1.69) versus 2006 Côtes de Beaune-Villages, Louis Jadot (Waitrose £9.99)
The wonderful main course of meltingly tender lamb parts, each individually cooked, saw a comprehensive victory for the Côte de Beaune-Villages, both on a show of hands and on the score sheets (189 against 207). The problem, I intuited, was that Marston’s Old Empire is, as every true IPA should be, magnificently hoppy – and wine lovers who have yet to become beer-enlightened find hoppy beers a challenge. Many guests found this beer “too bitter”. (Unenlightened beer drinkers, contrariwise, often find wine “sharp” or “vinegary”.) Richard and I took it on the chin, but urged persistence to the sceptical.
Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer (Waitrose £1.50) versus 1999 Louis Jadot Nuits-St Georges (Waitrose £24.99 moving to £25.99 for 2001 soon)
With the twice-cooked and gloriously rich soufflé … another beer win. Everyone loved the generous and multi-layered 8-year-old Nuits-St George, yet on both the show of hands and on the score sheets the Innis & Gunn oak-aged beer won through (222 to 211). The oak-ageing gives the beer a vanilla-sheen which wine lovers (especially Rioja-lovers) can relate to … and the ageing period gives the beer a becoming gentleness and affability.
Le palet au chocolat amer et praline croustillant
Leffe Triple Belgian Abbey Beer (Waitrose £1.75)
No contest for the final round, since there is truly nothing in Burgundy (except maybe a glass of marc) which would go with a rich chocolate pudding … but a strong Triple managed. Just.
A deadheat on the show of hands, then, while on the scorecards wine inched ahead of beer (884 to 870), but honour was retained on both sides.
Thus encouraged, we all glowed off into the coruscating March air.
But if you, gentle reader, are a beer sceptic, let me say very briefly there is no doubt in my mind that the finest beer can truly match the finest wine for subtlety, nuance and gastronomic aptitude. Let me also urge every visitor to Britain to try a glass of what we called cask-conditioned beer, since these are magnificently complex beers and unique in the global context. They are as great as Scotch whisky, yet for practical reasons (they don’t travel easily) they are far, far less well-known.
By the way, you can even afford to breathe in our pubs nowadays since we went smoke-free last July. Come on over!
If you’re into this competitive stuff, the guys at the Stone Brewing Company in Escondido CA sent me a dvd recently which included a delicious film of another Wine versus Beer showdown (at the Rancho Bernardo in San Diego), entertainingly edited in best ‘Raging Bull’ style. I won’t tell you the result there, but you can see highlights of this epic slugfest at