I’ve been meaning to scribble down some thoughts on food and beer pairing for a while now, ever since I realised the full, joyful scale of it. Beer is a fairly recent discovery for me, ever since I started working in the industry and took an active interest in the product. Over the last two years or so my eyes have been opened to the world of brewing, and my tastebuds thoroughly awakened by beer, and food with it. Honestly though, it’s a bit of a daunting subject. I mean, how mortifying it’d be to get it wrong, right? What on earth would people think of me? Alas, my palate probably isn’t refined enough nor my pocket sufficiently lined to worry about keeping up appearances, but I refuse to let that stand in the way of my sheer lustful enjoyment of decent grub, decent beer, and the fantastic things that happen when you put them together. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I know what I like, and I like things that taste nice. Beer and food matching often lends itself to extravagant suggestions that can easily prove intimidating, but in my humble opinion there are pairings for every palate, and for every budget. And as much as recommendations from the experts help to guide us all in the ways, I always think it’s best to just dig in and find out what works for you. So that’s what I’ve decided to do, with my customary New Year diet attempt conveniently, and inevitably, abandoned.
I’m always keen to sample great Welsh brews on their own turf, so last week visited The Bunch of Grapes, Otley Brewing Company’s restaurant and real ale pub in Pontypridd. Here, in welcoming and comfortable surroundings, my friends and I indulged in three fantastic courses with some amazing, very well-suggested beers. How refreshing it was to have our beers selected for us upon request to complement our dishes, thus relieving the social pressure I may have felt in publicly choosing my own pairings. Our very friendly waitress confidently served each course and beers as suggested by the handsome resident beer aficionado, Gareth.
My friends’ cold meat platter was paired with Otley’s own dry hopped black IPA, 10 Oxymoron (5.5%), I’m told very successfully. I, meanwhile, had opted for suitably patriotic pan fried cockles, laverbread, leeks and home cured pancetta. Delicious enough as it was served, I squeezed my grilled lemon over it and accompanied it with Otley’s recommended 07 Weissen (5.0%), to mouthwatering effect. A wheat beer with low carbonation and a clean finish, Weissen worked well against the saltiness of the pancetta, simultaneously highlighting the taste of the sea that comes from freshly cooked cockles, unlike those doused in vinegar I might have nonetheless once enjoyed on the beach. In this case vinegar was replaced by the fresh lemon juice, accented perfectly by the citrus hop aroma of the beer. A really excellent match.
Faggots followed; lamb & leek faggots, creamed mash, curly kale, beer & onion jus and braised red cabbage. The beer suggestion this time was something carbonated to work around the sheer richness of my chosen dish; I was presented with a familiar favourite, Anchor Steam Beer (4.9%). This American beer, amber in colour, saw me through this year’s recent New Year celebrations, and I was pleased to see it again and to enjoy it with my delicious dinner. Another great suggestion from The Bunch of Grapes’ own beer sommelier, the rich flavour lived up to that of the food, while the carbonation proved refreshing and made every mouthful a new and equally satisfying experience.
Against my better judgement, I also had a dessert, a Christmas pudding flavoured cheesecake made with Otley’s strong yet pale 08 ale (8.0%). A great example of the power of beer as an ingredient, not just as an accompaniment, the cheesecake was luxurious, reminiscently festive and the perfect end to a delicious dinner. I can’t recommend The Bunch of Grapes enough, and I will absolutely be returning for more.