27 May 2011

Balance – is it as important in beer as it is in wine?

I've had a few beers lately that I've really enjoyed and that, when I thought about it, shared a common characteristic: balance. Or drinkability, for want of a better word. Tasty, refreshing and with sufficient interest, but not hitting you over the head like a lunatic and saying how manly they are.

With beer, you could draw a straight line and write the word 'challenging' at one end and 'drinkable' at the other. Now I might be totally wrong, but I suspect there's a fashion at the moment in the craft beer world for stuff that errs more towards the challenging or extreme. Some of these beers can be really interesting to drink - but personally I sometimes find the first sip is the one I enjoy the most. And that's not ideal. After three or four gulps of a more extreme beer my palate can feel like someone's been at it with a steam-powered wallpaper remover. Interesting flavours, challenging, but not something I'd necessarily want to drink regularly. Perhaps this kind of beer is playing to a macho I-can-eat-a-hotter-vindaloo-than-you mentality. You can't imagine many women being daft enough to bother with some of these drinks beyond the first sip.

Of course it depends on the occasion; there's a time and place for a more extreme beer. And it's worth noting the caveat that more extreme beers can still be in balance; choc-full of flavour but with all notes singing in harmony.

But the beers I tend to enjoy most are the ones where everything is nicely in balance and that I don't tire of after a few gulps. And by that I don't mean boring; it's easy to confuse the idea of balance with lack of flavour. It's not that at all - sometimes it might even be the addition of more flavours, sometimes it might be fewer, to strike the balance. A food analogy would be using a pinch or two less of chilli powder to tone down the spice, or perhaps adding a squeeze or two of lemon to freshen it up.

Like anything sensual, it's of course subjective to some extent - one drinker's idea of balance won't be the same as another drinker's. Some of us prefer more bitter flavours, for example. It's all about personal taste, as well as mood, context, what you're eating (if anything) - the time of year, even. Which are some of the things that make food and drink so interesting.

So what were the finely balanced beers I've had recently that slipped down so easily? The first was the acclaimed El Bulli chef Ferran Adria's beer, Inedit, brewed by Estrella Damm – nothing exceptional you might think on trying it, but an intriguingly light mouthfeel, and just so damn tasty and refreshing. Perhaps a touch sweeter than I'd regularly go for and it may not be earth shattering but, as was intended with this brew, it's very food-friendly.

Another very nice beer I had recently was Stormstay Premium Ale, from O'Hanlon's Brewery in Devon, which is also a beer that I suspect might not satisfy the label drinkers looking to tick off the latest new world hop bomb. It struck that fine balance between hops and malt, with a subtle caramel depth underpinning the fresh green hop flavours. I really enjoyed this beer. If it was a stranger at a party it wouldn't skip quickly from person to person and talk about itself as certain other craft beers might; instead it'd be an understated but likeable presence with a touch of class. I thought it had a nice balance and a slight zip of acidity reminiscent of a good sparkling wine.

Going back to the fashion for extreme beers: it does seem to be specific to beer. Wine writers seem to be more preoccupied with elegance and structure. The reason for this difference, I'm not sure. It could quite simply be that when we drink a glass of beer or a glass of wine, we're looking for different things, and the difference in the tone of coverage reflects that. Perhaps an extreme IPA is only meant to be enjoyed for a few sips - that's the whole point, it's not designed for session drinking.

Or another theory could be that the craft beer revolution - for want of a less tabloidy term - is at an earlier phase than that of wine drinking (if that's the case it's ironic, given the long history of beer brewing and drinking in Britain). Perhaps the over-the-top late-hopped IPAs or quadruple imperial black quadruple chocolated stouts (I exaggerate) are the beer equivalent of the over-oaked chardonnays or the harsh one-dimensional sauvignon blancs wine lovers tired of to some extent in the 1990s and early-2000s, and beer fashions will evolve in much the same way over time. If this is the case, some classy but currently underrated more traditional British and Belgian ales, for instance, might enjoy a resurgence as beer drinkers become weary of yet another new wave British or American brew. When I drank a couple of Rochefort ales recently I was thinking what classy brews they were.

It's all about time and place. Sometimes the grapefruity hit of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or an American IPA just hits the spot, just as a gin and tonic or a really very hoppy pale ale does, but at other times the moment calls for a deep, mellow porter by the fireside, or a savoury, herby syrah from the Northern Rhone. More often you're going to want the over-the-top hoppy pale ale as an aperitif as you would the G&T; the less extreme ales will more likely do you for a meal or a session.

But if beer wants to catch up with wine as a respected match for food, I think there might just need to be a slight shift in emphasis towards balance. Good Italian wine is often so very food-friendly thanks to its pure fruit flavours and fresh acidity (not to mention its sense of place), and it doesn't need to shout about itself. Over-oaked fruit bomb wines, on the other hand, are less likely to complement food quite so easily. I'm certainly not saying it's impossible to match foods with drinks that have extreme flavours, but it is more tricky.

The key point is that there's a time and a place for any well-made drink. But if beer wants to gain more respect at the dining table, and among drinkers generally, I'd say balance is an important thing to bear in mind in the long run. The craft beer movement will struggle to win over set-in-their-ways Stella drinkers on the one hand or set-in-their-ways Bordeaux drinkers on the other if it tries too hard and veers too far towards the extreme.

*The picture at the top is a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord on cask and some mini fish'n'chips. Lovely.
*Anyone in Leeds reading this can buy a 75cl bottle of Inedit from Latitude Wine for just under a fiver, or from Harvey Nichols for just over a fiver.

23 May 2011

Supermarkets: bringers of affordable food & drink to the masses, or unethical corporate giants?

I chipped in to an interesting mini-debate on twitter yesterday about supermarkets.

Daniel Primack of Around Wine said: "I've never underst'd why wine writers cover s'mkt wine. Worst case ppl stop buying in s'market and buy from Indy."

A very valid point. Wine writer and Saturday Kitchen presenter Tim Atkin replied: "Partly because very hard to buy from the bottle by indies unless you live nearby. And 80% of wine sold there."

I chipped in: "Tricky one, but plus-point of s'mkt recs is steering casual buyers to more interesting buys & without patronising them."

I also made the comparison of millionaire celebrity chefs preaching to the public to buy organic chicken. Yes, in an ideal world battery chickens would simply not exist and everyone in the country who eats meat would buy free-range, organic, or at least local. But the principle of someone who is very wealthy and privileged advising those who are neither, about their moral judgments, is on shaky ground. After all it's much easier to take 'ethical' purchasing decisions when you're rich enough to do so. When every penny counts, your child's nutrition will probably come above the welfare of the chicken. And poor people who can't afford one car, never mind two, or one foreign holiday in their whole lifetime, never mind two every year, aren't preaching to celeb chefs about how they could look to reduce their carbon footprints.

Us wine lovers also need to face up to another troublesome issue: just how sustainable is wine full-stop, whichever retailer you buy it from? Just 750ml of liquid (which might have been produced mainly by low-paid workers) in individual bottles that have been shipped across the world must have a sizeable carbon footprint. But that's another issue.

I totally agree with Daniel Primack's fundamental point that no-one has to buy any wine (or meat) in the supermarket – as he says, there are plenty of decent £7 wines in the independents and, actually, you might probably get more for your money that way. I believe in supporting local, independent businesses where you can. The local businessperson has a passion for what they're selling, they live where they do business, and as a result they care about quality rather than just making money. The independents will also pay their fair share of business taxes, unlike the corporations, and will be focal points of local communities. What we do when those same independents become successful multinationals because we've all supported them, again, is another interesting issue…

But going back to supermarkets, the two top concerns for most people are price and convenience when they buy food and drink. Not everyone treats wine any differently from all the other brands available in the supermarket – it's only the wine buffs who spend many of their waking moments thinking about the stuff, who would enjoy browsing online or in a local independent (if they're lucky enough to have one) to get the more interesting and unusual bottles. For everyone else, if they can lob a couple of recognisable and consistent £5 bottles into their trolleys during their weekly shop, why would they go to the extra cost and inconvenience to shop at an independent? Because if they did, it would mean either a) going several miles out of their way just to get their couple of bottles of wine for the week, or b) spending extra time online to buy their wine (with the two bottles costing say £7 each at the independent, so £14, plus a say £7 delivery charge, so £21 for two decent bottles).

I'm playing devil's advocate. I don't earn much money, yet I'm still able to take the extra effort to buy ethical meat and more interesting wines where I can (but by no means every time, admittedly), from independent retailers. But that doesn't mean I think everyone else could do. In an ideal world, yes, and I agree with the basic point that the wine trade should do what it can to encourage independents over supermarkets. And not just the wine trade.

But in the current climate more than ever, us wine geeks need to remember that although it's just simple alcoholic grape juice inside the bottle, we all look at the stuff very differently.

10 May 2011

Pasta, English asparagus and Greek white wine, Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2009

Pasta with English asparagus (from Leeds' Kirkgate Market), some other veg, a slosh of white wine, olive oil, garlic and basil. Stirred through with a cheeky slice of butter (I'm not a purist) and served with a fresh white wine from Greece - the one that was thrown in with the pasta.

Nice to drink something that isn't an 'international' variety: this is made from the ancient Malagousia grape, its freshness zinging from the glass, as vibrant as a clear blue sea beneath old white-washed houses.
It won a Decanter Gold Medal and was awarded Best Value White Wine of the Year by the Wine Gang.

Funny how your eating and drinking habits change with the weather. Spring has arrived.

Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2009, Laithwaites, currently £8.99 a bottle reduced from £13.99

8 May 2011

My Wedding Day

I got married! Which is why I've been a bit absent from here lately, but I'm back now.

An amazing day, shared with our loved ones. We won't forget it.

To cap it all off, we were extremely lucky to have some very talented people on hand to make it even more special…

We genuinely felt privileged to have Luke Downing (of the exceptional Dough Bistro) creating our food. Slow-cooked Yorkshire short-horn beef and New Moon (Leeds) ale stew, with roast potatoes and Yorkshire Blue cheese, was as sublime as it sounds. As was the non-meat option: vegetables in Woodlesford (Leeds) white wine, coriander and tomatoes, with wild rocket and parmesan. Again, fantastic. And later an amazing evening buffet… all despite the non-existent kitchen facilities at our (nevertheless beautiful) venue.

My eldest brother Matthew brought a couple of kegs of fantastic beer he'd brewed especially for our wedding: a pilsner and an ale. Much as the words evening buffet don't adequately describe Luke's creations, the term homebrew goes nowhere near describing Matthew's beers. Really brilliant; craft ales of a commercial standard, but brewed especially for us on our big day. Extra special. 

For our sparkling wine we went for Roche Lacour 2007 from Limoux in the south of France (from Laithwaites). Made in the traditional champagne method but without the razzmatazz of the champagne name. Gorgeous stuff.

With the meal, our red wine was Capucine, Les Ollieux from Corbieres in the south of France; the white was the Naked Grape Riesling from the Pfalz in Germany.

Also a special word for our brilliant photographer Mark Tattersall, who crafted incredible images despite the piercing light and crazy winds; and also our DJ Ossie - who provided a memorable end to the night, after a very memorable day.