Beer is From Mars, Food is From Venus. Well, not Exactly, but…
One area of the food and beer debate rarely considered is their potential opposition. More typically, you will read of “what goes with what”, a spin-off from the same discussion in wine circles.
Yet, wine and food are boon companions in a way beer and food are not.
I approach beer primarily from a sensory standpoint. Not political. Not big business vs. small. Not old school vs. new. And not its place at the dinner-table, as eating changes the taste of beer in a way different from wine.
To maximise this way of liking beer, taste and nose are primordial, the object being to appreciate nuances of flavour and find exceptional examples. I taste for other reasons too (eg. historical, nostalgic), but am mainly interested in an optimal sensory experience.
Indeed beer by its heft, quantity, and calories is a type of food itself. Hence, normal food is, at best, optional with it in a way that does not apply to wines, dry wines at any rate.
I cannot properly appreciate – taste – a beer with strong food odours in the room, or when I eat anything with it except dry, bland crackers or bread, perhaps. To accompany a meal, beer is fine, but then the meal is the main object, it`s not tasting.
The fine English beer pictured below preceded a Chinese meal. I`m sure they would go together well – it`s hard to see how things could go wrong – but to appreciate this fine example of the brewer`s art, I drank the beer first and ate after.
Traditional British places to drink beer did not stress food: U.K. beer writers since the 1970s have made much of the improvement in food quality in pubs. Yet, there was a logic to the old system.
The old pub did not simply facilitate people ingesting alcohol, but afforded them the opportunity to enjoy their preferred beverage on its full merits, without a passing plate of french fries or stew to compete with the beer. The banning of smoking in pubs had the side effect of enhancing this experience.
I will admit that probably most pub-goers don`t really care – after all a majority now drinks fizzy cold lager, some 65% as reported in James Beeson`s article from last May, here.
Had they been such connoisseurs, that shift would not have occurred and cask ales would still enjoy the 90% of the market they had before 1970. The shift from the old-established ales and, earlier, porter, occurred for reasons of fashion, business efficiency, and greater international travel.
Since drinkers did not tarry over the fine points of their brew, they were able to accept (British-made) lager in place of the old and stronger-tasting cask beers.
(In turn, the earlier palate of beer was likely largely the result of prevailing technologies as applied to available materials more than a specific epicurean choice. By largely, I mean for the majority of drinkers. Of course too fashion and trends played a certain role, eg., to expand the use of porter outside its cradle of London).
Today, craft beer in Britain is gaining on British lager, but even though it tastes quite different, the underlying reasons are similar to what spurred lager.
Those drinkers will drink craft beer with their meals, or on its own, just as they did the lager – the beer has a different function here, and tends to be fungible, to borrow from the economists.
But a minority of imbibers has always viewed what`s in the glass in a special way: a stand-alone datum of gastronomy capable of infinite perfection. They are epicureans.
Food is all very well, we enjoy it greatly, and its history, no less than beer, but the two are best kept separate except where beer is an ingredient in cooking. Our beer or two a day usually precedes dinner or lunch. A meal always follows, but usually without amphibious help, maybe water, or diet soda.