King of beer dinners: Beavertown Brewery

Last week I attended an utterly delicious beer and food matched dinner hosted by Beavertown Brewery, Dogfish Head and Charles Wells held at Duke’s Brew and Que, just off Kingsland Road in north London. Below are my thoughts on the challenges involved in holding events like this along with my review of the dinner itself.

Beavertown event signYou can’t be half hearted of half arsed if you’re holding a brewery dinner. The beers have to be tip top and the food pairings have to go beyond neutral matches where neither beer nor food interferes with the other’s flavour. That said beer and food matching is not an absolute, neither in the creation   of   matches   nor   the   way drinkers/diners experience them, and it’s doubtful whether everyone you feed and water will approve of all the matches. A 50 – 75% success rate means you’ve done well! But there’s nowhere to hide. You need to know the flavour of your beers inside out and those beers need to be consistent – if you can’t brew exactly, identically the same beer each time then a brewery dinner will show up that weakness almost more than anything else.

It is, therefore, no mean feat to pull off a brewery dinner where both beer and food dance and sing. I went to a Fordham & Dominion one held at Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head pub in Bray (I won’t forget the marvellous Devils on Horseback and Dominion Oak Barrel Stout pairing in a hurry and the way the smokey bacon boosted the chocolate flavour in the beer) – and organised expertly by the UK importers of the beers Heathwick Ltd. No surprise that I’ve accepted an invite to a Thanksgiving beer and food paired dinner they’ve invited me to this year then.

But that’s the Americans, they’re used to this sort of stuff. Brewery dinners are far from unusual in the USA but are the UK’s breweries really up to it? Enter Beavertown…. (I can’t believe I actually just wrote that). Not only did they pull off a stunner but this was a ticketed event (rather than a PR/press only thing) priced at £75 per head – and it was packed out.

Beavertown founder, Logan Plant, addresses his sold out event at Duke's Brew & Que

Beavertown founder, Logan Plant, addresses his sold out event at Duke’s Brew & Que

Arrival drinks consisted of a bottle of Dogfish Head’s famously hoppy 60 Minute IPA (6%), which seems to taste a little more British every time I drink it, but it’s soon blown out of the water as we sit down to eat a dish that is sheer genius in flavour, presentation and beer pairing. Crab Mac & Cheese matched with Beavertown’s Earl Phantom (3.6%) – a Berliner Weisse style sour including Earl Grey tea among its ingredients. The beer is pleasantly like drinking a lemon meringue pie in its combination of tart citric and lactic sourness through which bergamot flavours emerge. It stands its ground with the heavenly concoction of crab meat, cheese and pasta served in a crab shell and acts much like a squeeze of lemon juice across the top. Once the flavours combine the beer is positively lip puckering and the perfect, palate cleansing foil for this rich dish. If I’d had to go home after this course I’d have gone home more than happy!

Genius: Crab Mac & Cheese paired with Earl Phanton

Genius: Crab Mac & Cheese paired with Earl Phanton

We have a couple more Dogfish Head beers. DNA (4.5%), their collab with Charles Wells, now features more hops. I thought it drinkable in a traditional bitter kind of way in its previous incarnation but it does seem a bit more flavoursome now. I would have liked to try the Cote De Bouef Philly Slider topped with a Fried Quail’s Egg with the DNA (had I not drunk all of it before the food came out) as well as the official pairing with Dogfish Head Midas Touch (9%) which is apparently a hybrid mead-beer-wine based on a 2,700 year old recipe from Turkey. It’s a sweetish beer with clove and vanilla flavours that reminds me of Belgian pale – not my favourite style. The ‘Slider knocks back its sweetness and is, in any case, so good that I’m not thinking too much about the beer.

Flavour explosion: Beetroot-pickled Scotch egg paired with Blackberry Gose

Flavour explosion: Beetroot-pickled Scotch egg paired with Blackberry Gose

The next course puts me in a quandary as it involves a beetroot-pickled egg. I’ve long avoided maroon foods such as beetroot, red onions and red salad leaves because they produce an allergic reaction around my mouth which apparently makes me look like The Joker, but I can’t bear the thought of not trying Beetroot-Pickled Egg wrapped in Sausage Meat & Black Pudding, Crumbed and Fried, Served with Bacon Dust & Tarragon Hollandaise. Sounds a mouthful? Wait till you taste it!!! It’s paired with Beavertown’s Blackberry Gose (4.8%)a kind of salty, sour wheat beer which reminds me of rhubarb and custard sweets including the fizzy, sherbetty flavour. The beetroot-pickled Scotch egg brings on a massive, perfumed, meaty flavour explosion which made me scribble, “Fuck me, that’s an eyebrow raiser,” in my notebook probably because of the stunningly good effect of dipping a Scotch egg into herby hollandaise and sticking bacon dust to it before putting it in your mouth.

In lesser establishments this might have proved to be mere pretentious nonsense but not at Duke’s Brew and Que. This deliberate method of eating, which we’ve been instructed to undertake, is an act of flavour. If you can believe it, sipping the Blackberry Gose after eating this actually has a calming effect and the fruitiness of the beer is a delicious contrast to the rich, fatty meat surrounding the egg.

After this we’re given another Dogfish Head beer. A palate cleansing, zingy little Berliner Weisse-style brew called Festina Peche (4.5%). It did the job but was too cidery for my liking.

Then there was Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%)… in cask. Imagine the smoothest, most chocolatey beer you’ve ever had and then times it by 10. Sigh. It was paired with Pork Rib, Smoked Beef Rib & Brisket served with Mash, Lemon Chilli Broccoli and BBQ Jus – and the smokey, meaty barbecue – and chilli – flavours boosted the chocolate and smokey flavours in the beer. It was like a carnivore’s wet dream.

A carnivore's wet dream

A carnivore’s wet dream

Dessert? Who cares. There was a delicate little panna cotta and a chocolate terrine served with inventive, tasty interesting sauces and paired with Wells’ Courage Russian Imperial Stout (10%). If you have a sweet tooth I’m sure it was heaven but, for me, after the Crab Mac & Cheese, the Beetroot-Pickled Scotch Egg and more meat than you could shake a stick at – each perfectly paired with an amazing beer, dessert is the last thing on my mind.

Even the excitement of the release of Beavertown’s Bone King double IPA (8.5%) – a collab with Spanish brewer Naparbier – didn’t touch me after the dinner I’d had. I bid my farewells to my fellow diners and to my hosts and floated off to the train station high not only on the beer but aloft on a flying carpet of flavour sensations.

British brewing may be booming, but if we want to keep it that way we have to step up a gear with our beer and food matching efforts. If you want a delicious lesson in how to put on a brilliant beer dinner look no further than Beavertown Brewery and Duke’s Brew and Que.

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Why Wetherspoon’s is my local

Some people aren’t fans of Wetherspoon’s but from a drinker’s point of view the chain has much to offer – especially if you live in a small town not yet reached by the ‘craft beer revolution’. Here’s why I think of JDW as my local and a look at its latest International Real Ale Festival.

I’ve always liked hoppy beers and the more I’ve learned about beer the more I don’t want to drink a pint of Doom Bar, Bombardier, Greene King IPA or similar – although there was I time I happily drank all of these (‘sure they had more hops in then, but that’s another story). But the thing is – even though we are in this new, exciting age of beer these beers (and/or others like them) are still huge sellers beloved of many drinkers and in a small town you might struggle to find much else. Unless there is a Wetherspoon’s pub nearby. Here, the flavour-seeking beer fan and the lover of malty, brown blandness can happily co-exist! And who knows, the latter may even develop into the former.

There are two pubs within three minutes walk of my house. I visit them occasionally as I want to do my bit to support backstreet locals but mostly when Beer Husband and I go out for a few beers we head into town to The Isaac Merritt one of two Wetherspoon’s pubs. We wish they would stock more dark beers or put Adnams Broadside on permanently but other than that we enjoy going there and it’s never long till we return – unlike the locals where months can pass between us popping in for a pint.

My local Wetherspoon's The Isaac Merritt, Paignton

My local Wetherspoon’s The Isaac Merritt, Paignton

The other day we took a trip to Brixham to walk around the harbour and hopefully have some lunch. We called in at several pubs. One had no cask ale (that hasn’t happened to me for a while!), staff in another ignored my husband for so long without serving him that he walked out, one had two beers on but lacked atmosphere – we stopped for a half but didn’t stay … guess where we ended up?

Again we were fed up at the lack of dark beer but nevertheless I found a beer that husband was happy to drink and I was overjoyed to smack my lips round a couple of pints of Black Sheep Reaper (4.1%) which was on as part of the Festival. It was a red rye style beer – which so often doesn’t float my boat – but this time did. It was a properly bitter, packed with zesty hops and rocking a rich fruity aftertaste. We stayed for something to eat and settled in for a couple of hours with our chess board. The only downside was that we’d made the effort to go to Brixham and we could have saved the £10 bus fare and gone to the local Wetherspoon’s! The Harbour Walk was great though – if a little expensive.

Brixham Harbour. The local Wetherspoon's is called The Vigilance

Brixham Harbour. The local Wetherspoon’s is called The Vigilance

Before too long we were back at The Isaac Merritt so I could partake of more festival beers. I confused the bar staff a little by asking if they did flights (the barman thought I wanted a trip on an aeroplane) but soon had three thirds of beer stowed in a paddle and ready to be sampled. The only fly in the ointment was the 7.5% beer could not apparently be included in the flight as it was more expensive than the others – a shame as being able to order stronger beers in smaller measures is only ever a good thing. I ordered a half to go with my flight and flew back to my table.

Not a trip on an aeroplane

Not a trip on an aeroplane

Like some other beer writers who have blogged on the subject I found some of the festival beers disappointing and lacking depth of flavour, the Two Birds Golden Ale (4.4%) lacked body to the point of being watery and the hops used created a synthetic orange squash type flavour that I’ve come across in a number of beers recently – such as another Festival beer Birrificio Lambrate’s Ligera (4.8%) and although Caledonian Brewery Trojan Horse (5.5%) was a wittily named attempt at combining two beer styles (an IPA within a schwarzbier) and included some decent hoppiness it was drowned by milk chocolate flavours that – for me – spoiled it. But this is what beer festivals are all about. A variety of beers, offering more of a chance of there being something for everyone with even the beers you don’t like providing something to talk about (Beer Husband and I spent quite a while discussing the flavour explosion that was Wicked Weed Freak of Nature (7.5%) although I still can’t tell you if I liked it or not!

Two beers I enjoyed though were Bateman’s Colonel’s Whiskers (4.3%) a hybrid mild/stout – which proves to me Bateman’s should play to their strengths and stay traditional rather than tarting about with dessert-style beers – and Sixpoint’s Bklyn Bitter (5.5%) which despite the apparent inclusion of American hops tasted pleasingly like a traditonal British Bitter.

JDW selects 50 beers for its International Real Ale Festival; 40 from the UK and 10 from overseas – albeit brewed in Britain which is another thing some criticise them for. (Why not import the beers instead of bringing the brewers over?) But with permanent offerings including the Sixpoint cans and Lagunitas IPA, and always some interesting cask ale on, any trip to The Isaac Merritt has an air of beer festival about it – but with the added bonus that there’ll definitely be a decent selection of honestly priced food on offer.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is I like Wetherspoon’s pubs. If I’m in a big city, or somewhere with a beer-led bar or pub scene – or even just one pub or bar with a reputation for great beer – then I’ll be there instead but the reality is not everywhere has that.

The (beer) revolution has come and although some seem keen to put them first against the wall I find J D Wetherspoon pubs offer a variety of excellent pints in locations otherwise, or nearly, devoid of good beer. It’s almost as if they were part of the revolution…

Beer Husband’s Top Three Reasons for Liking Wetherspoon’s

1. Hearing human voices instead of music.
2. Honesty – does what you’d expect.
3. Professional – rarely get bad service and if they do get something wrong they put it right.

… and mine

1. Beer range (although more dark beers would be appreciated!).
2.Nice staff, esp at our local where they also have good beer knowledge.
3.Food. It may not be gourmet but it’s reasonably priced and you know what you’re getting.

Wetherspoon’s latest International Real Ale Festival continues until Sunday 2 November.

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A woman walks into a pub

This post is a bit of a moan. If you don’t fancy reading a bit of a moan, look away now. 

A woman walks into a pub – the lounge bar of a backstreet local. It has a long behind-the-bar area which runs the length of both public and lounge bars. There is a man seated on a barstool in the lounge with a full pint. The female bartender (I’m trying to wipe out the term barmaid) looks up and sees the woman who has just walked up to the bar but does not make eye contact with her or speak to her.

A few minutes later the woman’s husband also walks into the pub and stands at the bar. The bartender looks directly at him and says, “I’ll be with you in sec.”

Eventually, having served the customers already waiting in the busy public bar, she comes to the lounge side and says, “Who’s next?” even though she has seen the woman walk in before the man and the other man, still seated at the bar, is clearly not yet ready for another pint.

“I’m next,” says the woman, orders two pints of Wadworth 6X and pays for them. When the bartender comes back with the change she heads for the woman’s husband to give it to him before correcting herself.

Woman walks into a pub drawing

Scenes like this one don’t happen to me as often as they used to but are related to the still irritatingly common ‘women at the bar are invisible’ syndrome – a form of apparently intermittent blindness suffered by bartenders who only seem able to see male customers. (Perhaps their female customers have been waiting so long they have literally become part of the furniture?)

I let this most recent example pass as I didn’t want it to spoil having a pint with my husband, but I knew – as do all women who have experienced this – that I hadn’t imagined it and that it amounted, at best, to very poor customer service and at worst to sex discrimination. I’m not equating it with the pay gap or other unjust things women suffer in the workplace – just using the phrase literally – discrimination on the basis of my sex. Men will be served first even if women are ahead of them in the queue for the bar.

As women are often still, illegally, paid less than men; sacked for becoming pregnant or not hired in the first place in case they become pregnant as well as having to endure a catalogue of other ill treatment based on being female, I doubt that discrimination at the bar will be eradicated ahead of these much worse examples of sexism any time soon. A word to the wise publican though: Make sure your bar staff aren’t doing this. In times of so many pubs apparently at risk of closure automatically sending 50% of potential customers to the back of the queue isn’t the smartest move.

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