Friday 18 November 2011

Beer lovers scran

I didn't want to be involved from the start. I'd been last year and been quite appalled at how badly the beers had been matched to the food. This year I'd been asked to contribute beer free of charge, two firkins no less. I insisted on the beer I would present being Infra Red at the very least. Of course, I'd have been happier to match something even stronger with the food, but this was a CAMRA dinner and it just HAD to be cask.

The event was the Cumbrian CAMRA branches annual awards and beer lovers dinner. Last year it was very clear that almost universally the beers chosen were session beers, which are rarely very good at matching with food. The one beer that was, if I remember rightly, about 6% gained inappropriate and over-the-top warnings from the jug runner about how strong it was.

Having been persuaded to attend this year, and having received no real benefits from the fact that we had donated beer, not even a free seat, and payment demands for the 4 tickets we had agreed to buy being somewhat less than tactful, I was below optimum mood for the event anyway. Being a person who works, lives and breaths beer nearly every waking hour of the day and being extremely busy with it, a Friday night in front of the TV was then, a week ago, very much overdue. I could still do with scheduling it in right now. A beer dinner like that is work you see, it has to be absolutely splendid to fire me into enthusiasm1.

I'm not against session beer. I've made the point many times before that I drink a lot of it. However, when it comes to beer and food matching, session beer just does not cut the mustard, or for that matter any other condiment.

The menu was fairly dire. OK, it's hard to cater for 200 people, but what was presented seemed ill thought through and lacked flair, imagination or any substantial quality. The technical complacence of the cooking was fine, but overall it lacked any decent interest.

The first course was a "Cumbrian canapé Breakfast on a plate" Please, what was that? A miniature breakfast essentially. Clever maybe, but the only flavours were salt. black pudding and prune. The only positive thing I could say was that the pale session beer it was matched with helped to quench the thirst that the salt created. It did not go at all well with the dominant flavours of the black pudding and the prune.

The second course was more salt. Ham hock and potato terrine and this was possibly the best of a poor bunch of session beer matches. However, the food was bland other than the salt and overall failed to impress me.

Beef, which was actually the best food, was matched with an otherwise superb and very popular pale session beer. The result was a little bit like trying to get morris dancers to perform to Punk Rock. Never before have I ever tried a food and beverage match that was so clearly influenced by organisational needs over and above flavour.

By the time I got to the dessert, matched with my beer, I was already very unhappy that I had spent £120 of my money on tickets and also donated around £200 worth of beer. I was by this time quite convinced I should have gone with my original gut feelings of having nothing whatsoever to do with the event. The Infra Red would have been a far more suitable match for the beef, and I was expecting complete failure of a match it had been chosen for, which was the dessert.

Damson and almond tart. This would have gone well with Stringers Damson beer, for instance, or perhaps a Kriek. I believe Hawkshead do a damson beer too. But, Infra Red, I was sure, was not the best match. I'll be honest, out of the whole menu it probably was the best beer/food paring, but in my view this only goes to highlight just how bad this beer dinner was.

The beer with the cheeses was OK. Sorry, the beer is one of my favourite Cumbrian Beers after Infra Red and would have gone well with the beef perhaps slightly better than Infra Red. But still, it was only just OK with the cheese.

On top of the matching issues the whole event suffered from the major problem of delivering beer in jugs to tables. Decanting beer into jugs knocks out condition by the double decant. All the beers were flat, completely. I nearly ordered a bottle of wine.

All the very best beer matching events I've been to either use beer in bottles, or where logistics are practical, the beers are dispensed on draught directly into the glass. However, this is a concern I have with beer judging where beer is often dispensed with a double decant to ensure quite rightly that blind tasting is ensured.

Quite apart from the fact that this event effectively cost us over £320 to support, which I regret deeply, I also despair at the entrenched ideas of some beer "lovers" How on earth are we ever going to overcome the preconceived ideas of the like of Saturday Kitchen if the organisers of beer diners like this fail to understand that session beers are for drinking in the pub and beer and food matching needs a different approach? If this is the standard of beer and food presentation we will always fail to overturn the general public's view that wine goes better with food.


1I need to point out that many very good beer events do inspire me. We recently organised a beer dinner at Fayrer Gardens for instance. Also, we had an absolutely splendid time at Thatchers Arms with Tim Atkin and Adrian Tierney-Jones where beer and wine went head-to-head and proved that either, when done well, can be equally as good with food. Indeed, it is cooperation between menu design and drinks matching, along with bucking against influences for political reasons that make these events a success.


Gareth said...

This strikes me as a bandwagon jumping excercise along with Camra trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. 'People are talking about beer matching food. We like session beers, so regardless we're going to put them with the food.' But Dave you're right, session beers are perhaps the most stand-alone of all beer types. If you want to go up against wine, you need to go up against it in terms of wealth of flavour. Subtle beers best served in pints? No chance.

Unknown said...

Let me get this straight. They ask you to donate beer then charge you for tickets? Where's the money going? Charity? The campaigning coffers?

What a great opportunity wasted. They could have put excellent bottled beers on the table, ones that punters could then go out and buy and try again at home... to have thought for one moment about compare and contrast flavours... sheesh.

Sid Boggle said...

Matter of interest David, has there been any movement re: Saturday Kitchen? I had an interesting PR-generated bit of spam re: James Martin last week...

Unknown said...

Simon, there are some beer drinkers that think that the beer industry owe then a cheep night out. The fact that many in the beer industry struggle to make a decent living seems to be ignored.

Sid, there is stuff happening behind the scenes. Rupert Ponsonby is doing a splendid job and may be behind the PR stuff you got if it's the same as I've seen.

Neville Grundy said...

As a CAMRA member, I think that's an example of the Campaign at its worst. Asking for free beer AND charging you for tickets is worse than cheeky. Next time they ask, say "yes, but this time you pay." After all, if you feel your beer is being badly presented (flat) and served inappropriately (mismatched food), then it doesn't even serve as an advert for your products, does it?

StringersBeer said...

We gave some beer to this as well. We were happy that our stuff be on the bar, rather than involved in the food malarkey. I thought the funniest part of the night was when the kid's table (party from well known Cumbrian brewery) went to the bar en masse to purchase an alternative to the beer they were presented with.

Thing is Dave, if you weren't happy with the arrangement, you didn't have to give them the beer, or attend. It's not actually CAMRA's job to be a shop window for us. But a bit of quid pro quo would have been nice.

But it was great to hear how CAMRA saved real ale. Again. It made me feel almost ashamed for just lolling around, cashing in on all their hard work.

StringersBeer said...

Bad apostrophe there, sorry.

StringersBeer said...

P.S. the "miniature breakfast" was bizarre. It created the kind of sensation that I imagine someone "tripping" on "acid" might experience.

Unknown said...

Stringers, damn right I didn't have to give them beer. I also didn't have to attend, I really didn't want to go, especially when I knew I was likely to get the "what you should do" line from you-know-who. Thankfully, I managed to outsmart that one.

But I did go, and I did give them beer, mainly due to a drip, drip, drip of emotional blackmail that is applied to these things. I tried on several occasions to say I wanted nothing to do with it, but on several occasions was told it would be different this time. It wasn't, not really.

It isn't CAMRA's job to be our shop front, but if they want free beer we absolutely have to see some tangible return on investment.

But, CAMRA saved us from Watney Red Barrel, so I suppose we should be grateful.

Neville Grundy said...

"CAMRA saved us from Watney Red Barrel"

Yes, but not freeloaders like this particular bunch. The Campaign would never got anywhere with people like that ~ no one saved real ale by demanding freebies from breweries.

Just say no. You'll feel better for it, I promise.

StringersBeer said...

But @RedNev, how would Dave get to have a dig at CAMRA then? ;-)

FWIW, I'm told the event is pretty much break-even. If this is right, then the brewers are, in effect, subsidising the ticket price (& profit for the venue - not CAMRA). What do we get out of it? A warm feeling? A touch of endorsement? Name on the souvenir menu?

But what else are you going to sponsor? A motorcyclist? Or an event like this?

I don't really like this kind of "pay to play" thing, and I do get the feeling that some CAMRA members don't really appreciate that we're not doing this just for the love of it, we are actually trying to feed and clothe the family along the way. I suppose I should have been handing out promotional bottles of beer, like Dave was doing with his tasty vitesse noir. I got one.