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Fish & Chips: The Beer Test

It’s been a big year for fish and chips. The great British take-away is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2010.

Fish and ChipsThe origins of this inspirational culinary marriage are not certain; 1860 is, as the trade itself concedes, not much more than a ‘best guess’ for when the two items came together.

But, in an increasingly tough take-away market, the fish and chip barons have latched onto the anniversary to sell their message that fish and chips is not only the oldest British convenience food, but also the best.

Part of the celebration was a fish and chips ‘masterclass’, held at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill in central London earlier this year.

Here, all aspects of the trade were covered by expert speakers, from the types of potatoes that make the best chips to the preparation of mushy peas and the nutritional value of the meal.

The part I was really there for, though, was the experiment of matching beer with fish and chips – the British national drink with the British national take-away, if you like.

This part of the proceedings was handled by Marston’s, with Director of Brewing Richard Westwood leading the debate and the choice of beers therefore largely Marston’s driven.

Received wisdom from those who have extolled the virtues of beer and food matching in the past is that fish and chips needs a beer that can cut through the oiliness of the food and offer complementary flavours – most notably a citrus edge to emulate a squeeze of fresh lemon on the batter.

The most likely contender of the beers in front of us, I felt, was Brakspear Oxford Gold, a beer that delivers a citrus fruitiness from its Golding and Target hops. It did indeed tie in rather well, but – being somewhat picky – I didn’t think it quite set the world alight.

Less impressive, however, was Coors Blue Moon, an American take on the Belgian witbier style. It’s a beer with notable orange notes and that’s where it fell down for me. Fish and lemon equals harmony; fish and orange and the flavours start to jar.

We also tried Wychwood Hobgoblin and Marston’s Oyster stout, fine beers on their own but, being dark and rich, not really a perfect pairing with fish and chips, except when used as part of the batter mix where – as we discovered through a comparative tasting – the malt notes add significantly to the character.

Also on the table was Banks’s Mild. I didn’t hold out much hope for this, as it’s only 3.6% ABV and doesn’t have the cleansing citrus qualities the fried food seems to need.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, as the deep malty flavour of the beer offered a good substitute for a sprinkling of malt vinegar – without, I hasten to add, any suggestion that the beer itself had any other vinegar-like quality.

Overall, it was a fun, informative evening, and my knowledge of fish frying was broadened no end, but I felt I needed to take the beer pairing experiment to another level to really find the perfect match.

Tasting Part II

A few months later, back in my own kitchen, I set up a selection of beers from my secret hoard, beers of various styles that I thought might do the business with a large portion of cod and chips from my local chippie.

Coniston BluebirdInitially, my money was on Coniston Bluebird, a crisp, fresh, peppery bitter with lots of citrus character but one that is also delicate enough not to overpower the flavour of the food. It did indeed hit the spot, with the added bonus of a brisk carbonation to cut through the fat.

A bottle of Shepherd Neame Late Red I thought might copy the effect of Banks’s Mild, but the malt character was just too nutty, so I soon put that one aside and opened next a weissbier, knowing that the Bavarian wheat beer style, with its low bitterness, high carbonation and complex fruit and spice flavours, is an excellent choice for a wide variety of dishes, from a Chinese take-away to a vanilla pudding.

It didn’t work out this time, however.

The beer I chose, the very good Hefe Weissbier Hell from Weltenberger, had just too much banana flavour to work with the fish. On the other hand, its creamy sweetness married supremely well with the mushy peas I had warmed up as a side, leading me to wonder just how well weissbier would go with a thick pea soup.

But that’ll be another night’s experimentation.

An obvious beer to put into the firing line is one that was specifically designed to serve with seafood. I dusted off a bottle of Chalky’s Bite, the beer that TV chef Rick Stein created in conjunction with Sharp’s to add to the drinks menu of his Padstow restaurant.

The lively natural condition was a big plus, scrubbing the palate clean between mouthfuls, and the subtle citrus fruitiness was also good news. The intriguing ingredient of the beer, however, is a little Cornish wild fennel, a herb often added to the chef’s recipes.

It’s not particularly obvious in the taste of the beer. You don’t get the aniseed notes often expected from fennel, but that touch of herbal freshness did brighten up the fish and also slotted in nicely alongside the peas.

However, the real star of the show was a Belgian wit-style beer. I resisted the temptation to go for the easy option with a bottle of Hoegaarden and instead took a chance on a Japanese beer in the same style.

The name’s a bit of a mouthful – Hitachino Nest White Ale, from the Kiuchi brewery – but so’s the beer, in the very best sense.

All you’d expect from this delicate, easy-drinking style is present and the lemon-citrus sharpness proved just perfect at slicing through the greasiness of the batter and contrasting with the earthy flesh of the flaky fish. With lots of bubbles from the heightened natural carbonation, it also cleansed and refreshed the palate admirably.

In the original tasting in London the inclusion of a witbier was obviously a sensible decision: it just happened to be the wrong beer. My home experiment confirmed that Belgian wit, with its bittersweet taste, fragrant spicing, lemon-citrus notes, and generous carbonation really can’t be beaten with our world-famous fried supper.

All chip shops should get themselves a licence and stick some bottles in the fridge.

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