A Food Pairing Journey

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Award-winning food writer Cate Devine discovers a new taste sensation when pairing beer with fine-dining food for the very first time

It’s with some trepidation that I embark on a new type of gastronomic journey: pairing beer with food. And this was not just any food; this was restaurant fine-dining food. It’s to prove a learning experience for me as I’m more familiar with wine, whisky, gin, cocktail and even tea food pairings. Wasn’t it a bit old-fashioned to drink beer with food?

As I’m about to discover, the ‘eat local’ movement is growing legs - or should that be kegs?! - to embrace Scottish-brewed beer too.

“There’s no reason you can’t drink beer with food, and it’s not more difficult to pair food with beer than it is to match it with wine,” begins George Alexakis, head brewer at Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar, whose beers we are tasting. “There are three main factors involved: the flavour intensity, the acidity and the aromatics profile.”

George adds that the yeast used uniquely at Belhaven – at over 300 years old and one of the oldest breweries in Scotland – is a very old strain with different substances and with a very specific character. The water he uses runs under the distillery - once a monastery - which, he believes, also has unique properties.

He has a Masters in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University as well as being a fully qualified winemaker (oenologist), having run a winery in Crete prior to his switch into beer. He has experience of developing wine lists with restaurateurs, and especially for Taste Magazine Scotland, he’s adapted this experience to talk about pairing Belhaven beers with food.

He refutes the suggestion that Belhaven ales, heavy and stouts tend towards the heavier side, saying instead that traditional ales have more flavour than weight. “Scottish ales impart more malty flavours,” he says. “Yet there is a huge range of complexity in each one.”

He says that traditional ales such as Belhaven go extremely well with locally sourced produce. Depending on how they are prepared, venison and beef are delicious with a 7% stout or 5% ale as they enhance onion and pepper notes, and are strong enough in flavour to match chilli and garlic.

“As a stout drinker, I like the Oat Stout with a Beef Wellington too.” He adds that it is good with Scottish game, meat and charcuterie but it, too, pairs well with dessert such as tiramisu due to its Espresso notes.

On the other hand, the Craft Pilsner, with its lighter profile, is well suited to “everyday comfort foods” such as pasta, lasagne and pizza. His own favourite topping is mushroom with thyme because those flavours match the hoppy profile of the Pilsner. Steamed mussels, smoked trout and prawns would also go well with this, he suggests. I’m advised that the fruitiness of the Pilsner and the 80/- works really well with hot-smoked rainbow trout from Belhaven Smokehouse - which supplies top Scots restaurants including Neil Forbes’ Café St Honore in Edinburgh, and Derek Johnstone at the Rusacks Hotel in St Andrews.

As for the 90/- Wee Heavy, he says: “To me, it is Christmas pudding in a glass. It would also go well with a Black Forest type dessert or – my favourite – sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream.” I express some surprise at this but he counters that while the Wee Heavy may have a strong flavour, it also has sweet characteristics due to the roasted malts imparting dark fruit notes.

The Wee Heavy is similar to a sweet dessert wine made with dried grapes to intensify the aromatics. “Even the colour of both is similar: rich chestnut brown.”

So, suitably armed with inspiration, I head over to Glasgow, where bespoke beer-paired dishes are being put together especially for Taste Magazine Scotland.

“This is not your traditional pie and pint,” says Colin Clydesdale, patron of award-winning Glasgow restaurants Ubiquitous Chip and Stravaigin as he sips on a 7% Belhaven Oat Stout. “This is absolutely delicious, deep and nuanced, and goes brilliantly with our take on boeuf bourguignon.

“It’s really not surprising when you take into account the artistry that goes into making a stout like this.”

Senior sous-chef Jamie Miller, 25, has prepared a stunning modern Scottish take on the French classic, using slow-cooked Borders beef ox cheek and tongue with duck fat shallot confit topped with shaved king oyster mushrooms, and served with a rich glossy velvety red wine gravy. A side dish of truffled mash with tongue and heritage carrots adds to the rather sophisticated, refined, flavour-layered dish.

We sip a glass of Belhaven Oat Stout as we taste. “Ah, this is a perfect match,” says Chef. “The chocolatey, almost treacly, notes really stand up to the beef. This is a new taste sensation for me and it is quite a thrill to discover.”

Jamie, who worked with Paul Kitching at 21212 in Edinburgh before coming to Stravaigin, says his cooking is mostly influenced by trips to South-East Asia and he’d normally drink wine or a light lager. “My father is a wine lover and I am more familiar with French and Italian wines than I am with stout and ale,” he says. “It’s interesting for me to pair traditional Scottish beers with our modern Scottish cuisine. It’s new and a lot of fun and now I’m excited to think about trying out new pairings with it.”

A glass of Belhaven 80/- with his Belhaven Smokehouse hot-smoked rainbow trout dish was also, quite literally, sensational. Jamie created a sharing plate of trout flakes with smoked caviar, scorched beer-pickled shallot shells (for fruitiness) and julienned Granny Smiths (for sharpness) on a bed of buttermilk puree with lemon and fresh butter, all drizzled with bright-green, house tarragon oil and topped with microgreens. “The robust fruity smoothness of the 80/- instantly brings out the flavours of the onion and the apple, and is sturdy enough to enhance the smokiness of the trout,” he said. “There’s no bitterness there; it’s really, really good.

“Being a chef is all about developing new taste sensations and I think we’ll be doing more with this beer and our modern Scottish food.”

Traditional Scottish ales such as Belhaven are up against fierce competition from larger global brands which, in the quest for the ever-important younger demographic, are able to launch new lighter brews with a variety of different flavours, colours, aromatics – and quirky names.

Are Belhaven looking to the future too?

“Yes. A key characteristic of Belhaven is its history and tradition,” replies George. “If we were to move forward with a new beer to accommodate new younger generations it would be with new flavours and new ingredients.”

The brewery has just opened a visitor shop and is now looking to restore and recultivate the ancient walled garden attached to it.

“The garden will give us scope to grow a variety of herbs and aromatics for new brews,” says George. “It would be really amazing to see how, for example, homegrown thyme would go with a new beer. We don’t use it in any brew we currently make. With strong provenance a huge part of our story, this could be really, really exciting.”

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