If beer be the food of love, drink on
PUBLISHED: 11:04 30 May 2013 | UPDATED: 11:04 30 May 2013
Two urban myths about beer: it’s a quick refresher, lacking the depth and complexity of wine. And it’s not a good companion at the dining table.
These notions are challenged by a brewery in London that stages monthly “beer dinners”, with each course matched with a carefully chosen selection of beers.
The dinners are hosted by the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich, which has a second venue, the Old Brewery, in the Old Royal Naval College, the architectural masterpiece designed by Sir Christopher Wren that’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Old Brewery is in the Pepys Building, just a few yards from the restored Cutty Sark sailing clipper. It’s a fast and easy journey by Jubilee Line, DLR or trains from London Bridge.
The main Meantime Brewery, close to the O2, is a remarkable success story. It was founded in 2000 by master brewer Alastair Hook, who trained at both the Heriot-Watt School of Brewing & Distilling in Edinburgh and Munich Technical University in southern Germany.
His skills enable him to brew both lager – that’s proper lager, not Euro fizz – and ale. He’s brewing 32,000 barrels of beer a year and is growing at such a fast pace that he will need bigger premises in three years’ time.
The Old Brewery allows Alastair to develop experimental and short-run beers. These include beers that are aged in wood, with casks obtained from the Scottish whisky industry.
He also recreates old styles of beer, including Porter, an 18th-Century forerunner of Stout that was served to sick and injured sailors in the hospital wing of the naval college. The walls of the restaurant adjoining the brewery are decorated by a time line of London’s brewing history, a history Alastair is keen to stress to visitors.
His London Porter (6.5 per cent) was one of the beers served at his May Beer Dinner, where I was the guest speaker. Alastair also served his India Pale Ale (7.5 per cent) with the main course.
IPA was first brewed in London at the end of the 18th Century and was fashioned for export to India to meet the clamour of “the Raj” for a pale and refreshing beer. It had high levels of both alcohol and hops to keep it in good condition during a sea journey from the East India Docks to Bombay and Calcutta that could last as long as six months.
IPA achieved great success when it was taken up by brewers in Burton-on-Trent. London remained a city where the main styles of beer were dark: Mild, Porter and Stout. Alastair recalls those beers not only with his Porter but also Old Brewery Brown Ale, with a strength of 6.2 per cent.
Brown Ale was used as an aperitif for the dinner. The menu comprised Rockefeller Oysters with London Porter; salt beef braised in London Porter with beetroot horseradish, with Pale Ale from another south London brewery, Kernel; battered fillet of turbot, crispy potatoes and pea puree with IPA; Meantime’s Raspberry Wheat Beer with wheat beer jelly and summer fruits; and a selection of British and continental cheeses with Courage Imperial Russian Stout. Vegetarian options were available.
The beer and food matches worked superbly well and the evening ended on a high note with the tasting of Imperial Russian Stout. This is a beer with more than its fair share of history – and a St Albans connection. The beer, designed for export to Russia and the Baltic, was first brewed at the Anchor Brewery in Southwark on the site of the original Globe Theatre.
In 1693 it was bought by Edmund Halsey, a miller from Hertfordshire, who took on a relation, Ralph Thrale from St Albans. A branch of the Thrale family ran a celebrated tea rooms a few doors from the Herts Advertiser offices. The brewery passed to Ralph Thrale’s son Henry, who turned it into a highly successful business. When he died in 1781 the brewery was bought by two partners, Barclay and Perkins, who continued Thrale’s policy of exporting strong stout to Russia. The beer was so popular at the court of Catherine the Great that she awarded the brewery a royal warrant: hence Imperial Russian Stout.
In the 1950s, Barclay Perkins merged with its near neighbour Courage, who continued to brew the beer. The beer went out of production when Courage closed but it’s now been revived by Charles Wells in Bedford.
Jim Robertson, head brewer at Charles Wells, had to rewrite all his computer software to cope with a beer that uses twice the amount of malt and hops of his regular brews. It’s 10 per cent alcohol and has a massive aroma and palate of liquorice, molasses, burnt fruits, roasted grain, coffee and chocolate.
It was a brilliant companion for the tangy blue cheeses at the Meantime dinner. Jim Robertson says the beer will age and improve for 13 years – rather like fine wine.
*The Old Brewery restaurant opens for dinner 6-11pm, while a café is open 10am-5pm – www.oldbrewerygreenwich.com.
*Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.
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