A foodie beer blog about the best things in life: Craft Beer, Real Ale, Food and all things tasty.

Written by a foodie-beer geek in London

The science of tasting beer

Flavour is a wonderful thing, yet an enormously complex concept to get your head around.

We all know that aroma plays a huge part in flavour, but actually it is the combination of all of our senses; sight, smell, taste, touch (mouthfeel) and even sound that make up the ‘flavour’ we perceive - try eating a crunchy tortilla chip with earplugs in and it won’t be the same experience.

Years ago we used to think that different parts of our tongue were responsible for detecting the different elements of taste – sweet at the front of the tongue, bitter at the back, sour and salt down the sides – but it has since been proven this phenomenon is more to do with how our brain processes the flood of information than it is the anatomy of the tongue.

Whilst different parts of the tongue might have tastebuds that are very slightly better at detecting sweet, salt, sour, bitter or umami, every one of them is perfectly up to the task of tasting anything, so forget that colour-coded tongue flavour map you drew in school.

But as I mentioned, flavour is about so much more than the tongue. As any lover of craft beer knows, aroma plays a huge part in our enjoyment of beer, and the aroma you detect through your nostrils (known as orthonasal olfaction) affects the way you taste the beer.

Except it’s not that simple. As well as the aroma we get through our nostrils there’s something else going on too - retronasal olfaction. This is the chemical reaction which occurs where your nose and mouth meet. Essentially this is the aroma that is created and detected inside your mouth as you drink a beer, and it plays a huge role in how you perceive flavour. In fact the combination of these two ways in which we smell contributes up to 80% of the information we perceive as flavour. Our tongue can only detect those basic five tastes, but your nose can identify thousands of different aromas.

So if our sense of smell plays such a huge role in how we perceive the flavour of a beer, what can we do to maximise the drinking experience? Well first of all, you need to use the right glass.

If the beer is the music, then the glass is the speaker – it plays a huge role in your enjoyment of the beer by changing the way in which the volatile compounds (the particles our nose detects as aroma) are directed and presented.

Try it for yourself. Grab an aromatic, hoppy beer and pour it in equal measures into a straight sided tumbler and a large red wine glass. They will smell completely different, particularly as you drink, when the aroma compounds are disturbed and projected out. You’ll get a much more pronounced aroma from the wine glass than you will the straight sided tumbler, which is why certain styles of beer glass are better for different types of beer.

That doesn’t mean every beer will taste better in a balloon or tulip shaped glass though, as not all beers are at their best with the aroma turned up to eleven. Some beers, such as a well-hopped pilsner can actually taste better in a longer, thinner glass, not only because it shows off the wonderful colour of the beer, but also because it seems to slightly mute the aroma whilst accentuating the bitterness. Leading to the perception of a crisper, drier, more refreshing beer.

The way you pour a beer can affect the flavour too. Pulling a pint through a sparkler creates extra body and a larger, creamier head, pushing more of the volatile aroma compounds into the head of the beer, but it also knocks some of the condition out of the beer itself and ultimately changes the mouthfeel and flavour. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on personal preference, but what we can all agree on is it changes the way the beer tastes.

Flavour is your brain’s attempt at decoding a flood of information from your senses into something which we can understand and react to.

So next time you try a beer and don’t like it, just remember, it’s all in your head, and you’ve only yourself to blame.

 



 

This article first appeared in Ferment Magazine

 

Culinary Acrobatics: Test your palate with these unusual beer and food combinations

Beer and food matching relies almost entirely on two simple principles – complimenting flavours or contrasting flavours.

Which is a fancy way of saying you either choose a beer which shares some similar flavours with the dish, so perhaps a rich, dark Imperial Stout with a gooey chocolate brownie, or you go in the opposite direction and pick something which contrasts the flavours in order to highlight them. So perhaps a sharp cherry kriek beer - which would work amazingly well with that same chocolate brownie, but for entirely different reasons.

So that’s the starting point, the basics. But where’s the fun in sticking to the rules all the time? Some flavour combinations sound a little bit left-field but actually work very well. Here’s my attempt to challenge your taste buds into trying something new, with a food and beer combination that you might not have given a go before.

Blue cheese, mango chutney, Double IPA

A strong, full-flavoured blue cheese such as a well aged stilton with all of its salty, tangy, umami laden flavours, might not sound like the perfect partner to mango chutney, typically the lubricant for a poppadom, but the combination really works. The sweetness of the chutney brings out the rich fruitiness of the cheese in a way that has to be tried to be believed.

Add a third dimension to that combination, with the inclusion of a fruity, hoppy American style double IPA on the side, and you’ve got flavour fireworks. American style Double IPAs share a fruity, mango-laden sweetness with the chutney, but they also bring out the best in funky cheese, and are one of the few beer styles that can handle the level of flavour going on in this combo (which is great on a burger).

Beer suggestions: Magic Rock Brewing Co - Cannonball, Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA, Brewdog Hardcore IPA, Great Divide Brewing Co – Hercules Double IPA, Stone – Ruination IPA

Strawberries, Basil, Saison

Fresh, seasonal British strawberries are something extremely special. With a much more intense, perfumed flavour than those grown in other warmer parts of the world year-round, our home-grown strawberries are well worth the wait.

One unusual but astounding combination is strawberries with fresh torn basil. The strawberry juice seems to coax the sweetness out of the fresh basil, which in turn highlights the aromatics in British strawberries beautifully. Only the tiniest touch of sugar is needed – if at all – yet this still works perfectly as a refreshing summer dessert and isn’t in the least bit ‘savoury’.

Add a crisp, fragrant saison to the mix and you’ve got something which is the perfect end to a meal. The herbaceous quality of a good saison just works amazingly well with the strawberry and basil combination. Every ingredient seems to bring out something different, surprising and delicious in the others – which is the basis of any truly amazing food and beer combination.

Beer suggestions: Brasserie Dupont – Saison Dupont, Ilkley Brewery – Siberia, Brew By Numbers – Classic Saison, The Kernel – Saison, Brasserie Fantôme - Fantôme Saison.

Lamb Rogan Josh, Porter

Indian curries that have a tomato based sauce such as Rogan Josh are rich, heavy, spicy and fragrant all at once, making them a difficult dish to pair. After trying various different pale ales, bitters, amber ales, IPAs and everything in between, it was porter that I found the surprising match for this dish.

There’s just something about a slightly smokey porter which works amazingly well with the tomatoes and spicing in the dish, but the savoury style of the beer also dovetails nicely with the slow cooked lamb too.

Whilst a lager or pale beer gets completely bowled over by a curry, leaving the beer tasting of little but carbonation and sweetness, a good porter has enough guts to stand up to the bold flavours whilst remaining refreshing and drinkable.

Beer suggestions: Anchor – Porter, Fuller’s – London Porter, The Kernel – Export India Porter, Beavertown – Smogrocket, Samuel Smith’s – Taddy Porter.

Brown Sugar, Brisket, Black Lager

Beef and brown sugar don’t on the face of it sound like happy bedfellows, but when giving that brisket a long slow barbecuing with lots of seasonings and sugar, then things start to sound a whole lot more appetising.

Start by rubbing a good sized brisket (unrolled is better) with lots of dark brown sugar, salt and black pepper. Leave this to marinade for a few hours, or overnight, before giving it a long slow roast in the oven. For an even better flavour use a smoker or a really low temp barbecue with a lid – an easy way to do this is to push the white coals to one side and add some oak chips to create smoke.

A black lager is a match made in heaven with BBQ brisket. Having the perfect balance of smoke, sweet dark malt and hop bitterness which manages to compliment and contrast with the sweet and savoury beef all at once. Astoundingly good.

Beer suggestions: Budweiser Budvar – Dark Lager, Krombacher – Dark, Primator – Premium Dark, Bernard – Dark, Full Sail Brewing Co – Session Black.

 

 

The above first featured in the new look Ferment magazine, which this month is particularly good, including a great piece from Matt over at Total Ales.

 

Turkish delights: The launch of Tabure in St Albans

Tabure is a new modern Turkish restaurant on Spencer Street in St Albans that will officially open its doors to the public on the 27th April. I was invited, along with a number of other bloggers, to the press launch night and I can safely say this place is going to become a firm favourite.

The attention to detail was the thing that lifted the food above your average Turkish grill-house. With traditional recipes and techniques given a modern twist and executed with real care.

The sharing plates came thick and fast, with highlights including perfectly battered stuffed courgette flowers, deeply smokey roasted aubergine babganoush, juicy flame grilled lamb skewers, meaty vine leaf wrapped baked cod with tahini, and a Sac Tava – which is a simple yet delicious spiced lamb stew with sweet green peppers and tomato.


So what about the beer? Well, last week, I got one of my favourite types of emails, which roughly speaking said, “We’re opening a restaurant and we want to have some good beer, any advice?” - That restaurant was Tabure.

One of the reasons I started this blog was a frustration at the lack of respect for beer in restaurants that are otherwise doing everything right - Great food, great wine list, then one mass produced lager... It’s a frustration that is becoming more and more rare but it is still massively refreshing and promising to hear of a new restaurateur thinking about beer from day one.

After some suggestions the guys at Tabure chose to launch with four well chosen, good beers. Brewdog Punk IPA, Brooklyn Lager (one of my go-to food beers), Estrella Inedit (the wheat beer brewed with Ferran Adrià of elBulli) and Spanish (5.4% rather than 4.6%) Estrella Damm which they chose thanks to its association with tapas – something which Tabure nods towards.

They are also looking into sourcing some beers from local micro breweries and potentially adding some draught beer too. But for now I’m glad to see some quality, reliable choices have been made to launch with – good on ‘em.

The wine and cocktail menu is equally well thought out and there is a genuine attention to detail and a leaning towards quality over quantity.

I can see this place being very popular – and it wholeheartedly deserves it.

 

They haven't got a website yet so checkout their Facebook for more info: https://www.facebook.com/taburekitchen

 

Current obsession: Nduja

Nduja is a soft, spreadable, fiery Calabrian sausage that has a flavour which isn’t a million miles away from something like a chorizo picante, but with a richer, deeper flavour thanks to the combination of several different pork cuts (traditionally head meat, yum) and roasted hot red peppers.

I actually ate Nduja twice last week in two separate places, some 200 miles apart, first at Pizza Pilgrims in London – then in one of my old haunts, Friends of Ham in Leeds.

It was served very simply at Friends of Ham as Nduja Toast – which consisted of two hot toasted slices of sourdough generously spread with thick, fiery Nduja sausage, before being sprinkled with a few chopped cornichons. Simplicity itself and insanely moreish.

Give it a try with their house ‘Ham Pale Ale’, a hoppy but not overly bitter American Pale Ale, brewed by local brewery Summer Wine.

 

I’m hoping to make ‘Current obsession:’ into a bit of a recurring post, featuring short, sharp snapshots of what I’m really enjoying eating or drinking right now. But who knows, maybe I’ll forget all about it.

 

Pizza Pilgrims, Kingly Court, Carnaby Street

When it comes to simple satisfaction, nothing quite beats pizza.

But just because something is simple doesn't mean it is easy. With a pizza there's nowhere to hide, and if you want to get high praise selling tomato-topped bread, it had better be awesome.

Thankfully Pizza Pilgrims is. I'd have to visit again to see whether it can push Franco Manca from my top spot, but it's pretty damn close. Chewy, charred, hugely flavoursome base topped with sparingly used, high quality ingredients including fresh, not overly reduced tomato sauce - the sign a traditional, searingly hot wood-fired oven is in use.

A chef friend of mine tweeted a photo of the carbonara special, which was also on offer and admittedly looked great, but I opted for the Nduja, which is essentially the tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil margarita, with the addition of soft and spicy Nduja sausage.

Simple, glorious, and perfect with a beer. Which by the way was a rather good one.

A number of micro-brewed London beers were on offer but I opted to stick Italian, with a bottle of Birra del Borgo's ReAle - which tastes a bit like a smoother, more Tripel-like American pale ale. Which is another way of saying it is very good indeed, and a perfectly bittersweet, citrusy and balanced accompaniment to the rich and spicy pizza.

Pizza Pilgrims have got a few spots around London and are well worth seeking out.

 

What are the classic beers that are yet to be bettered?

I wrote another piece for Ferment Magazine recently on beers which have really stood the test of time, and which, to my mind at least, are still yet to be bettered. Beers like Orval, Cantillon Gueuze and Meine Hopfenweisse, which have nailed a style to such an extent that it is difficult to see them ever being improved upon.

But did I miss some beers from the list? Certainly this post over on Fuggled had me thinking Pilsner Urquell (at least the unpasteurised, unfiltered version) deserves a place. The pints of Tankovna PU I’ve drank in the Sloaney Pony, aka The White Horse on Parson’s Green, have done nothing but reaffirm my thought that this really is a special beer (I can only imagine how good the tank beer round the corner from the brewery tastes). Rounded with malt and caramel from the direct flame coppers, yet with a punchy, herby, bracing bitterness from all that saaz. A pint disappears before your eyes at an alarming rate.

When writing the article – reproduced below for those that are interested – I was certainly mindful of the fact I hadn’t included any British beers. The only beer which I think has achieved such legendary, unbeatabler status – in my beer cupboard at least – is Fuller’s Vintage Ale. In the end I decided it wasn’t specific enough for the article, but maybe I was wrong. I’m yet to taste a British beer that ages better than Vintage Ale, though Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout comes a close second – though for very different reasons, with all it’s brett-like funk.

So my question is simple. What did I miss out of the below? What classic beers are yet to be bettered within their style?

 

World-beaters: The classic beers that are yet to be bettered

I was genuinely excited to try Mikkeller’s “It’s Alive” - a sour and funky Belgian style pale ale fermented with brett and aged in white wine barrels – but my enjoyment of it was hampered by one single niggle in the back of my mind. In hearing about the beer I read somewhere that It’s Alive was essentially the brewer’s homage to Orval, one of my favourite beers of any style and still one of the greatest brett beers in the world (though Evil Twin’s Femme Fatale all brett IPA is pretty special).

So when I tried it the question in the back of my mind was constantly, but is it better than Orval?

The simple answer, is no. Despite the fact it is brewed by a newer, very well respected brewery, undergoes some long and complex ageing, it isn’t as good as Orval - the sole beer brewed by a gaggle of trappist monks.

The experience got me thinking. Which other beers are yet to be beaten? Which breweries have really nailed a certain beer to such an extent that despite their relative ubiquity, they are still seen as the pinnacle of the style? Here’s a few of my suggestions.

Aecht Schlenkerla - Rauchbier Märzen

When it comes to smoked beers there is only one brewery that comes to mind: Aecht Schlenkerla in Bamberg. What is so fantastic about the Marzen in particular is not only the full, savoury, smokey-sweetness of the beer, but also its perfect body and balance. Underneath all that smoke there is a beautifully brewed marzen lager that is drinkable, smooth and surprisingly balanced. After half a glass your palate adjusts to the smoke and the beer really starts to shine through and the whole thing just integrates perfectly – genuinely world class and still the best smoked beer out there.

Schneider Weisse - Tap 5 Meine Hopfen-Weisse

Originally brewed with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn brewery, this beer was one of the first collaborations I ever drank, and is still the standard to which all other hoppy wheat beers are compared. The clove, banana, orange, spice and funk of the wheat beer base is all there to be enjoyed, but it’s given a boost by orangey, fruity, citrusy hops which combine to create a fruit salad affect that is as enjoyable as it is effortless. A true class act that is pretty much flawless.

Orval Brewery – Orval

I’ll never forget the look of shock on Matt - the manager of the excellent North Bar in Leeds’ - face when I told him many years ago I’d never tried Orval. It was, and still is, his favourite beer. We spent the next few hours drinking bottles of various ages and I was instantly hooked on the combination of bright palma violet hop flavours in the fresh beer and barnyard funk in the aged beer (blending an old and young bottle is also well worth a try). Still shockingly strange and eccentric, it’s one of the few genuinely unique beers in the world.

Brasserie Dupont - Saison Dupont

At their best, saison’s combine huge complexity with infinite drinkability, and none nail that better than Saison Dupont. Dry, herby and prickly, yet somehow smooth, yeasty and bready at the same time, there’s just something so refined about the way the Dupont saison tastes - with no one element dominating. It is a beer that can be quaffed in the sun or dissected with a note pad, depending on your mood.

Cantillon Brewery – Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio

You wouldn’t think it now - with sour beers being brewed all over the place - but at one point this most unusual of styles was very nearly wiped out altogether, with just Cantillon keeping the traditional methods alive in the face of mounting pressure and changing tastes. You can taste that commitment in the fiercely tart, lemon-pith-like gueuze brewed by Cantillon, which is still one of the finest sour beers in the world.



Read more from Ferment magazine here: http://issuu.com/fermentmag

Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Marzen

This blog comes just in time for you to go and grab this Oktoberfest Special at Honest Burger!

Well, no actually I'm about 4 months too late... But it's a great beer and I've no idea why I haven't written this up sooner, so it seemed a shame to leave it in the notes folder.

Plus Honest Burger really deserve the credit for offering seasonal beers, something I wish more restaurants did.

Anyway here's what I thought of this beer, brewed in the classic Oktoberfest Marzen style (if you're unfamiliar, it's a slightly stronger, more full flavoured lager traditionally served at the huge Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich).

The beer pours a perfect light caramel-brown colour with a foamy white head which sticks around. The aroma is an inviting combination of spicy, slightly vegetive (celery to be precise) noble hops and bready, lightly sweet malt.

The flavour is a balancing act of sweet bready malts, a touch of crisp grain husk and a nice bittersweet finish. Refreshing and smooth, yet with plenty going on. I could easily drink a stein of this, which is the benchmark for a marzen.

Oh, and fantastic with an Honest Burger - still one of the best burger places in London despite increased competition and rapid expansion.

 

Mikkeller Black 黑

Some beers eyeball you every time you open the beer cupboard, stare you down, almost dare you to take the risk. Not today you think, another few months and it will be perfect.

A bottle of Mikkeller Black (aka 黑) Imperial Stout has been doing just that since I bought it at a beer warehouse in Ghent, Belgium, around three years ago. Not only is it an intimidating 17.5%, but it's a beer that has a reputation as weighty as its abv, and a 'best before' that stretches into the decades.

Thankfully it didn't dissapoint.

As you would expect, this pours an inky, syrupy black. Not overly thick but certainly sticky and oily with very low carbonation and little in the way of a head. So far, so intimidating.

The aroma is pencil lead, sake, boiling sugar, ash, and hot alcohol (sherried whisky if I was pushed).

The flavour is initially a rush of sweet sherry and red current jelly, before a rich, strong espresso flavour jumps in, spiked with two teaspoons of brown sugar. In the finish there's chocolate syrup and just a hint of bitterness (the hops have long since left the party).

Lush, decadent, HUGE, yet surprisingly soft edged.

It seems that despite first impressions, the years have mellowed this monster


 

Chop Chop, Edinburgh

Nearly all of the Chinese food we eat in England is Cantonese in origin and doesn’t fully represent the kind of food that is actually eaten by millions of people on mainland China every day. Cheap, tasty, varied dishes served in small portions and shared between whoever is eating – communal and informal is the name of the game, and it’s one which Chop Chop in Edinburgh have got down to a fine art.

Having read various reports of how good their dumplings were it was these that we gravitated towards on the dizzyingly broad menu, though on the recommendation of our waiter we in the end opted for an Unlimited Banquet for two. Essentially a selection of dishes are brought out for you to try at a fixed price per person (£20.50 per head), with no limit on re-orders. So if you try a dish and really love it, feel free to order another portion for no further charge.

The dishes we found ourselves re-ordering were the deliciously delicate pork and prawn dumplings – chewy, substantial dumpling giving way to light and flavoursome meat – plus the expertly fried squid and aubergine dishes. Crispy squid is always a winner but it was the aubergine that really surprised me. Firm and meaty, it is apparently twice cooked to draw as much moisture out as possible, and the second quick frying with spices and garlic creates a dish of infinite snackability. Addictive to say the least.

A simple cucumber salad with lots of sugar and vinegar was also a nice touch as it really helped to counteract the rich spiciness of other dishes such as the spicy chilli beef. The make-your-own dipping sauce is a nice idea too, allowing you to tailor the amount of chilli, soy or garlic to your tastes.

If you’re looking for great value, wholesome, traditional Chinese family cooking, then Chop Chop is a sure fire hit.

 

Chop Chop, 248 Morrison Street, Edinburgh, EH3 8DT

 

Beer in Brussels: Nuetnigenough

I honestly can’t say why it has taken me so long to write up my visit to Nuetnigenough in Brussels, because honestly it was one of the best places I visited whilst there.

Too good, in fact, to let this post fall by the wayside and my brief notes slip into the limbo of ‘I really must write that up’ pile.

Nuetnigenough is the kind of restaurant you dream of having at the end of your street. A genuinely warm, welcoming neighbourhood restaurant with a brasserie feel, that encourages elbows on the table and the dunking of bread into sauces.

It also has probably the best bottled beer menu of any restaurant I’ve ever visited, alongside a short, sharp (literally if you wisely order Cantillon as I did) draft menu which would leave most fully fledged beer bars quaking in defeat.

Having been warned reservations were not possible we arrived early for dinner, around 6pm, but were faced with a short wait of 30 minutes. Thankfully there were some unused tables outside and the weather was just this side of chilly to make the wait – enjoyed alongside a glass of palate-spankingly good Saison Dupont – a pleasure rather than a chore.

In 20 minutes we were inside and ordering, greeted by a din of conversation, sloshing glasses and a beer menu that took more time to peruse than the food did.

Some sharing starters of excellent Duck pate, olives and Brussels black pudding were passed around the table and spread across hunks of baguette as we started to really get stuck into that beer list.

I started with Cantillon Fou’foune, a sour yet surprisingly fruity Lambic which is possibly the best amuse bouche you could hope for. Each part of the abundant apricots used in the brew seemed to add their own flavour – the furry skins adding extra mouth drying fuzziness and the flesh giving a background sweetness and unexpected fruitiness. One of the best Cantillon’s I’ve ever tasted and one which wasn’t available at the brewery when I visited. An unexpected treat.

For my main I opted for a Belgian classic, the beef braised in Rochefort (the beer not the cheese), with frites. Comforting, well seasoned, meltingly tender meat in a richly flavoured gravy, accompanied by crispy, salty frites – what more could a Yorkshireman ask for than gourmet chips and gravy?

Other dishes ordered around the table were as well executed as they were simple. Veal in a white beer sauce being another highlight that sticks in my mind, and one which went particularly well with the Reinaert Triple I later ordered - with the yeasty, fruity, lemony Tripel having an effervescence and sharpness that perfectly cut through the richly flavoured, creamy sauce.

I ate and drank so well I didn't waste my time making notes, so only the very best of what was consumed has stuck in my memory and can be mulled over here. This is a place to enjoy beers, not tick them off your list.

Nuetnigenough excels in cooking dishes laced with beer and then serves fantastic beer alongside them – all in an environment with a cosy atmosphere and lack of pretense.

In short, if you’re eating and drinking in Brussels, then this place is a must visit.