20 Sep 2010

Italian Craft Beer Evening, The Lounge, Leeds

I recently attended a beer and food evening at the Lounge Bar & Grill in Leeds. The Lounge hosts these nights regularly, with the focus on a different set of beers each month, the chef creating a menu designed to complement the beers. This time it was a selection of Italian beers. I was impressed by the quality of both the food and the drink.

Incidentally, as well as the great flavours, what's noticeable about these beers is that they're nicely designed. Not just the striking labels, but the occasional use of swing-top closures, which emphasise the craft brewing credentials, and the 75cl bottles - an apparently growing trend in craft beer. What's significant about 75cl? It's wine bottle size. It's a visual cue that this is a drink to be savoured, and to be enjoyed with food - in other words, to be treated like wine. Craft beer companies must be thinking, if people pay £15 for a bottle of house wine with their meal, then they might be willing to pay around that for a bottle of house beer instead.

Anyway, on to the meal. First up some canapes (bruschetta, crisp chicken livers, fish fritters) were paired with a bottle of La Gradisca (4.7% alcohol). A good solid start, the nibbles washed down nicely by the Gradisca. It's an uncomplicated, refreshing and easy-drinking lager, which is no criticism, with lower carbonation and a touch more flavour than the average mainstream lager. It'd go down very nicely as a thirst quencher at a summer barbecue, or with a pizza.

On to the starter, which was a terrine of local rabbit, crisp pancetta and fig chutney, paired with Isaac (5% alcohol), a wheat beer. The Isaac was served in a wine glass, which suited it. Isaac has an almost sparkling wine type character to it, with its lightly fruity, apricoty aroma. It has virtually no carbonation - it looked like apple juice in the glass - and worked well with the starter, much as a crisp white wine probably would have done. I'd imagine it'd also go well with a seafood starter, something like prawns or scallops.

It was a duo of mains: chargrilled halibut steak with aubergine and crispy onion rings; and spiced fillet of mackerel with crab and potato salad, creme fraiche and lemon. The two beers that arrived with the mains were Open (7.5% alcohol) and ReAle Extra (6.4% alcohol). Open again brought to mind a good white wine and it worked very nicely with the halibut, the aromatic US hops lifting the flavours in the dish, the moreish, hoppy bitterness of each sip compelling another soon after. It's a good example of a hoppy beer that remains balanced: it's not hitting you over the head; it's drinkable as well as interesting.

The ReAle Extra is lighter in alcohol but there's even more bitterness. The story goes that the brewers forgot to add the necessary hops to the brew and were faced with a 30-second window of what to do - so they attempted to save it by whacking in three times the usual amount of hops but just in the last ten minutes of brewing. "From a mistake, the ReAle is now a masterpiece," our guide Giulio tells us as we take a sip. You hear these kinds of stories from time to time in the alcohol world, where the line between marketing myth and historical fact is hazy. But it's a nice story and you like to think it really happened. And mistake or not, this fresh, hoppy beer is another impressive brew.

But the dessert course was perhaps most impressive of all... or was I bound to think that after four fairly strong beers? The Keto Reporter (5.2% alcohol) was paired with a dark chocolate tart and hazelnut praline ice cream - both the drink and the food were superb; not only that but they worked a treat together. This porter is a really interesting one, not least because a handful of Kentucky tobacco leaves are thrown in during the brewing process (five leaves per 2,500l, I think), meaning that those dark chocolate, treacley, rounded aromas you'd expect are encircled by a whiff of smoke. It's a drink to treat as a rare luxury: the smokiness might become too much if you drank a lot or often, but in this context, as a little snifter of a nightcap alongside the lovely dark chocolate tart, it was superb. As Giulio put it: "It's the last drink of the night, you have a cigar, a tiramisu, a lovely lady..."

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