Why is wine the common choice to accompany fine food in our culture? Why do restaurant wine lists receive all the work and attention? These questions are increasingly plaguing the craft beer industry. However, is the call for beer’s recognition as an elegant dining accompaniment really justified?
The local availability and diverse array of characterful and flavoursome beers continues to expand across the county. As a result support for beer as a match for food is also growing. Those who have discovered the wonderfully wide and complex world of craft and boutique ales are starting to push for a change to our dining experiences. Instead of reaching for the wine menu, we are itching to ask “do you have a beer list?” On the other hand, are we just blinded by our love for good beer or is there actually merit in beer as a match for fine food?
One establishment that has been bucking the wine-is-the-dining-priority trend for some time is The Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne. Once a foreboding, smoke-filled, working-class corner pub, the venue was purchased by chef Scott Thomas in 2002. With a little restorative care and plenty of passion for English pub culture, The Courthouse was soon one of Melbourne’s most highly regarded gastro-pubs.
With beer taps dedicated to the output of local micro and craft breweries and a fine-dining affair accessible to all comers, the venue was awarded the 2003 3AW Pub of the Year and then the 2010 Pub of the Decade. It has also received one or more chef hats from The AGE Good Food Guide since 2004.
Seeking to establish The Courthouse as an advocate for beer’s place at a restaurant table, Scott invited the nascent Australian Beer Writers Guild to trial the Wine vs Beer dinner concept. It is a plan that has been brewing for some time and Scott hopes to establish it as an ongoing showcase for the merits of both wine and beer when dining.
However, Scott needed to test the idea first and on a recent Monday night, 12 members of the ABWG gathered to do their brutal best as judges in beer’s showdown against the reigning restaurant dining champion, wine.
Sure, a bunch of beer writers will clearly be biased towards beer. However, the make up of the group eliminated the need to advocate for the cause of beer and focused the attention on the delivery of the event. Attendees were already beer lovers and therefore happy to dissect food and the beer/wine match, rather than the push for the recognition of beer.
The evening opened with an entree of Ocean Trout Cornet matched with a Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. This Framboise-Lambic provided an excellent fusion of an almost wine-like beer. The robust flavours of both the Cornet and Cantillon provided an excellent balance, with the lambic’s sourness cleansing the seafood saltiness.
The first course introduced the wine and the battle began. Crumbed Pork Head with a sauce Gribiche and Remoulade was plated with two beers – the Stone & Wood Pacific Ale and Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier – taking on a 2008 Max Ferd Ricther Brauneberger Juffer Riesling. When the votes were counted, beer was a convincing winner with Pacific Ale gaining a one vote advantage over the Kristall Weissbier. The general consensus suggested the Riesling was too sweet for the meat but complemented the sauce Gribiche and Remoulade wonderfully. Both beers provided intricate fruit flavours with long finishes that balanced the whole dish.
Beer again triumphed when matched with Venison Shanks en Crepinette with sweet potato, watercress and horseradish. This course bought to the table two dark ales, as well as a rich cabernet. The Bridge Road Brewers Chevalier Bière de Garde and 3 Ravens Double Ale Noir (Oak Aged Smoke Beer) sparred with Alpha Box & Dice Enigma Barbera-Cabernet Savignon. The spicy complexity and dark fruit characters of the the Bridge Road Bière de Garde saw it emerge a resounding winner against the pork with seven votes. The draught 3 Ravens received four votes and a sole vote favoured the Barbera-Cabernet Savignon.
An exquisite dessert of Four Textures of Chocolate with Raspberry Sorbet was welcomed by everyone at the table and provided wine with the most convincing course win for the event. Eight votes provided the powerfully sweet and complex N.V Sanchez Romate Cardinal Cisneros Pedro Ximenez with a clear majority over the recently bottled Abbey Dubbel from the Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company.
The final course saw a fitting draw when the Hargreaves Hill ESB and 1999 De Bortoli Melba Reserve were served with Isle of Mull cheddar. Equal votes were tallied for both the wine and the beer.
In the end, the scoreboard for the evening read – Beer: 2 courses, Wine: 1 course, Draw: 1 course. Total individual votes favoured beer, 32 votes to 16. It may not have been totally unbiased but beer advocates can be confident that an Australian precedent exists for the cause of good beer in the fine dining arena.
Ultimately, the beer was always destined to succeed overall. Head Chef Julian Hills had designed a menu that would primarily complement the beer. Unsurprising given the idea of the evening was to showcase the potential for beer to work just as well, and sometimes even better, than wine in a restaurant dining setting. The pairings also focused the performance of beer and wine beyond just flavour, but also highlighted variations in the matches of aroma, texture and finish.
The evening was declared a dynamic success and full recognition should go towards Scott Thomas and Julian Hills for the skilled and thoughtful construction of the meal. Even though the participants were a fairly easy crowd to please, Scott noted that the formula and delivery of such an event still needs refinement to convince the wider public that buying into beer will provide a rewarding dining experience. For example, beer education needs to be a component of any introduction to dining with beer.
Scott Thomas told Australian Brews News afterwards about the potential for such events.
“After the dinner I realised that The Courthouse holds a unique position in the beer and wine and food landscape, and I think it is this aspect that is definitely worthy of further research and development,” he said.
“So whether we are lifting the culinary expectations of the beer crowd or broadening the liquid horizons of our food and wine crowd it all holds plenty of potential.”
In the meantime, for those seeking to experience The Courthouse’s beer and food offerings, Scott plans to introduce a bar tasting menu of 4 to 5 courses. He will match it to beers and is also exploring the idea of offering the dining room degustation menu matched to beers as an alternative to wine.
The Courthouse Hotel’s approach to pub hospitality is something we need to see more of in Australia. It is a pub with good beer, good wine and fine food. Without branding itself as a speciality beer bar or craft beer pub, the Courthouse provides equal attention to sourcing quality beer and wine to enjoy with their food.
For another perspective on the event, visit Rick Besserdin’s blog.
For more details on venues supporting better beer lists visit The Crafty Pint.