beer (noun): an alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt flavoured with hops.
Old English beor, of West Germanic origin, based on monastic Latin biber ‘a drink’, from Latin bibere ‘to drink’; related to Dutch bier and German Bier.
I’m no beer aficionado. It’s not something I drink a lot of. An Efes or a Kingfisher is probably as exotic as I get. Certainly pairing beer with food isn’t something I’d ever thought of beyond knowing that a beer with a curry is a match made in heaven. So when I got the chance to go to a beer tasting dinner at The Bonham in Edinburgh courtesy of 5pm.co.uk, (the online booking service for restaurants and health & beauty salons), I was delighted and more than a little intrigued.
The dinner had been organised by Edinburgh brewery Innis & Gunn as part of their 10th birthday celebrations. The story of how Innis & Gunn came to be is pretty fascinating. In 2002 a whisky distiller had approached the brewery’s now Master Brewer, Dougal, saying they were looking to season their oak casks with the character of a full-flavoured beer. Other brewers had been approached but all previous attempts failed. This time, success. After 30 days the beer was literally poured down the sink and the barrels were given back to the distillers and filled with the whisky. Now, some enterprising soul at the distillery happened to taste the beer and discovered that it actually tasted pretty good. Legend has it the beer was then being sold on the Black Market, out of the back of vans, under the counter at local pubs, and the like. Cut to some months later, the distillery contacted Dougal to let him know the beer was getting as good reviews as the whisky. Turns out the oak had transformed the beer into something quite delicious and unique. Innis & Gunn was born and the rest, as they, say, is history.
Back to the dinner. Bobert and I arrived at The Bonham not really knowing what to expect. Would we be in a room full of CAMRA members who would immediately suss out we were far from being experts and quickly show us the door? Tentatively we joined the group in the hotel’s library and were given a bottle of Innis & Gunn Original as a pre dinner aperitif. Very nice. Good start. Looking round the group it seemed to be a pretty mixed bag of both ages and sexes. Listening in to the conversation it seemed there were a couple of ‘experts’ but on the whole the chat wasn’t purely beer-based and we didn’t stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
We were then called through to dinner. There were about 20 of us including 2 representatives from the brewery. Interestingly, both women. We were given a potted history of the brewery and an explanation on how the evening would proceed. Basically the chef had paired each of the 3 courses with a particular Innis & Gunn beer and we were encouraged to first taste the beer without food, then with the food to see if we could taste any difference. I should point out at this stage that I chose not to take photographs of the food so you’ll have to rely on my descriptions of what it was like.
Starter: Summer Isle smoked salmon with haddock Scotch egg and horseradish cream. Served with Innis & Gunn Seasonal Edition Scottish Pale Ale. First taste of the beer was really pleasant and I thought it tasted quite citrusy. Now I’m not a fan of smoked salmon, or any salmon for that matter. I find it tastes fatty and I’d much rather have trout. However, this was pretty good. The salmon was sliced very thinly, which is my preference, and was dotted with the horseradish cream. I have to say I couldn’t actually taste any horseradish. The star of the show, however, was the Scotch egg. It was delicious. The yolk of the quail’s egg was still slightly runny, the breadcrumbs were crisp and the addition of haddock and herbs instead of the usual meat was fantastic. When I drank the beer with the fish I was amazed. It totally changed the flavour. What had been a fairly sharp beer now tasted much sweeter. The citrusy note was still there though. A great start.
Main: 35 days aged sirloin steak with roasted shallot puree, beer pickled onions and hand cut chips. Served with Innis & Gunn Oak Rum Finish. This was the course I was really looking forward to. I love steak but I’m also really fussy about how it’s cooked. My preference is medium verging on rare. I’d noticed that there were no steak knives on the table and we hadn’t been asked how we wanted our steak cooked. This time the beer was a deep red colour that smelled sort of sweet and spicy. There was an almost treacly taste to it, you got the hint of rum and it was certainly heavier than the Pale Ale. Very nice though. The steaks looked really good when they arrived. The beer pickled onion was, in fact, a ring as opposed to a whole onion which had a small serving of Bernaise sauce in the centre, (bizarrely not mentioned on the menu). We needn’t have worried about the lack of steak knives as the meat cut like butter and was perfectly pink inside. You could tell it was an aged piece of meat as the taste was fantastic. Properly dark and meaty. Unfortunately one of the other diners appeared to be having trouble cutting through his with a standard knife but he seemed to be the only one of us having any problems. The shallot puree was served with pieces of crispy shallot on top and was delicious. The chips were cooked and seasoned to perfection. I couldn’t taste beer in the pickled onion but that was maybe due to the addition of the sauce. Regardless, it was really tasty. There wasn’t as much of a taste change with this beer when drinking it with food. I would say in this instance the flavours were complemented as opposed to enhanced. It was a really good match though. I would have always thought about drinking red wine with beef but the beer was equally as good, if not better. This particular beer would be fantastic used in a beef and ale pie. Something I’ll definitely be trying.
Sweet: Dark chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream. Served with Melville’s Raspberry Craft Lager. I’m not much of a pudding person and I don’t like ice cream but I do like the combination of dark chocolate and raspberries so I was happy to give this a try. Melville’s is Innis & Gunn’s sister company which produces fruit lagers. I love raspberry beer and normally have the Bacchus Framboise beer. The Melville’s was less sweet than others I’ve tried but had a lovely, fruity flavour. Pure raspberries are used in this beer and the ratio is 80% beer to 20% raspberries. This was definitely my favourite of the evening. The chocolate fondant… Well, when you put your spoon into a chocolate fondant the centre should ooze out into a pool of loveliness. Unfortunately in this instance the centre had gone a bit fudgy and didn’t ooze at all. It also had that grainy texture you get when you burn chocolate when you’re trying to melt it. Not good. The bit of sponge I ate with the beer did taste good but you can’t really go wrong putting chocolate and raspberries together. This was definitely a great alternative to a dessert wine. The ice cream was flecked with vanilla seeds and the little bit I tried wasn’t unpleasant. As someone who doesn’t like ice cream even I could tell this was a good one. Luckily one of the other diners didn’t seem to mind that the fondant was overcooked and happily polished off my leftovers.
We rounded off the night with more beer chat, no coffee I’m afraid, and left clutching our Innis & Gunn beer glasses. On the whole the food at The Bonham was fantastic. I’ll happily overlook a bad pudding when I get a perfect steak. It was a really interesting event and I’m completely converted to drinking beer with food. I don’t think I’ll ever spend the night in a pub just drinking beer but, strangely, having it with food made it go down much easier. I’ve always found beer too gassy and filling before. I didn’t think it would work with food for me. I was absolutely wrong. I strongly recommend you have a look on the Innis & Gunn website and try and sample some of their beers. You won’t find them being sold out the back of a van nowadays but their legitimacy in no way detracts from how fantastic their beers are. Bottoms up!