Armed with what is fast becoming one of the hottest tickets in Sydney, I recently squeezed into one of the last remaining seats at Murray’s at Manly for the Winter Dark Beer Feast. Since the inaugural feast a year ago, word has spread thick and fast, and half of the entire venue was swelling with happy animated diners.
The autumn Belgian feast hosted by Murray’s in March this year boasted just four large tables, with a fair amount of elbow room to boot. It was an intimate affair, where each group was honoured with the constant company of one of the brewery’s venerable staff. This winter feast drew a crowd twice the size, which surprised me quite a lot. Dark beer is always one of the more difficult hurdles for beer drinkers to overcome, but it seems once that hurdle is cleared, it makes fans for life. Perhaps the thought of an evening of heavy stouts and porters with an average ABV of 10.6% was just too hard to resist at the height of the gloomy season.
Head brewer Shawn Sherlock was again down in Sydney to host the event, although Murray Howe, the man who lends his name to the brand, was conspicuously absent on what Shawn called “his first ever sick day”.
The first exclusive beer of the night, a Rum ‘n’ Raisin porter brewed with molasses, raisins and then aged on rum-soaked oak chips was served with the first sit-down course. The beer and pork belly went down well, although it was clear most of the punters had their eyes fixated on the later prizes, and from that checkpoint it was a steep on-ramp to full-on flavour country.
Part of the evening’s mission was to launch Murray’s tri-pronged season of imperial stouts. Two of these – the Wild Thing and the Heart of Darkness – are already familiar to most Murray’s fans, having been regularly available in bottles for over a year now. The third — which came out with the second course — was a revival of a one-off batch brewed for the same event last year.
The beer in question, the Slayer-themed ‘Seasons in the Abyss’, is a Farmhouse-style imperial stout weighing in at an impressive 11.3% and packing a wicked left hook to the liver. Many seemed quite enamoured of the drop, although to my mind we were drinking it too young, and it felt impudent and overpowering. My advice for those who want to grab a bottle to enjoy now would be to grab another and cellar for at least six months to let it develop.
The relatively-light 9.6% Heart of Darkness followed, together with a very impressive main course of a whole lamb shoulder, together with carving implements, that gave us all a wonderfully wholesome community feel as we shared in the spoils. On the back of the main course success, Shawn invited the head chef of the venue, Eric Charpentier, to say a few words about the menu.
Throughout the night, Shawn had made several references to the communication system that they use to brief Eric prior to the feast on the beers to be served – describing and trying to explain beer flavour profiles across the phone – and when Eric took the floor he repeated the same story. The communication system is obviously sketchy and I think it exposes an overall weakness in the feast. In spite of the high quality of the food and beer on the night, what was most lacking was a strong flavour connection between the food and the beer. Good food sat side-by-side with good beer, but the two were seldom linked in any inspirational flavour combinations.
I fear my opinion on this matter might be controversial, but let me explain myself. The beers were beautifully flavoured, big complex beasts across the board. The food was deliciously rustic, filling and creatively prepared. The fact is that dark beer – and in particular, imperial stouts – are not easy to match with food. Stouts and porters generally range from the lushly chocolatey sweet to powerful, prickly roastiness; neither of which flavour extremes are easily located in savoury dishes. It’s also hard to devise sharp contrasts for them, so there will always be some kind of disconnect between the two unless you throw some left-field, risky flavours into the food.
Murray’s beers have been pushing the flavour envelope for years, with limited releases on the rise as well as experimenting with barrel ageing and wild yeasts. There is no reason why corresponding risks shouldn’t be taken with accompanying food, especially when you’re preparing it for a roomful of craft beer junkies nestled down for a night of tasting. But in a scenario where the chef is unable to use the beer’s actual taste to inspire a match in his head, it’s like trying to paint a rainbow with your eyes closed.
The best pairing of the night was also the most obvious: the dessert of a rich and bitter chocolate tart matched with Murray’s first, most straightforward, and – in this humble reviewer’s opinion — still the best imperial stout, the Wild Thing. The daring thing of course would be to put the Wild Thing up against a fluffy rice pudding or a heavily acidic sorbet, but the instinctive pairing of chocolate with stout formed a predictably tasty marriage.
The final beer(s) of the evening did, of course, send us all off with a bang. Small batches of the sold-out Anniversary Ale 6, a dark Belgian-style barleywine, had been split and conditioned in two different casks: one of French oak and the other of American oak, to give two very different profiles. At 15% ABV each, they were an explosive finale, and they and the accompanying cheese platter went down a treat. The spicy phenols of the Belgian yeast. The rich, complex malts. The different oaks with varying degrees of sweetness, spice and woody characters. The cutting acidity of the cheese. This was the mélange of diverse and fascinating taste sensations I’d been waiting for.
I’m well aware that I will forever hold Murray’s brewery and all its present and future incarnations to exacting, and possibly unfairly high standards. Ultimately, it was a satisfying feast. When you’ve paid for good food and good beer, and good food and good beer are delivered, it is hardly befitting to gripe about a dearth of exciting experimentation. However, I can’t escape the idea that it’s the sensation of being kept guessing — and frequently surprised — that turns a good night out into an unforgettable one.