Beer and fish

Masters Table Spring 2000

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Beer and fish is that great culinary black hole and I must confess myself to have been a bit of a sceptic when considering fish and beer in the past. The ideal drink for fish and chips? Try a cup of tea, even though some concessions are made to John Barleycorn with a drop of ale in the batter. Grilled fish? A glass of dry white wine, or maybe a light red with the Gamay grape to the fore. Fillets of sole in, say, a creamy sauce. It's white wine again, though more fruity and full-bodied. It's only when we arrive at shellfish that beer is judged to have any right to make an appearance - but even then Guinness is recommended. But thanks to the imagination and efforts of brewers across the UK, and the world, the idea of matching fish with beer, and cooking with it, is no longer out of place.

For instance, last December at the Beer Banquet of the British Guild of Beer Writers I tried a Saffron Ale (5%), brewed by Sheffield's Kelham Island Brewery. It was a perfect accompaniment to the Elizabethan Trenchers - shortcrust pastry cases filled with asparagus and smoked haddock as well as the Saffron Ale - which kicked off the meal. A full-bodied ale with a bright yellow hue, the Saffron Ale gave off a fruity spiciness and muskiness of saffron in the aroma with a dryness plus a hint of almonds on the palate. The creaminess of the filling in the Trenchers was set off particularly well by the ale. Sadly, this unusual but delicious beer is a bit of a one-off, as Kelham Island's head brewer Andy Eccles explained to me.

'We first brewed the Saffron Ale to commemorate the refurbishment of our brewery. We wanted something special, we didn't just want to do another pale ale or another stout. We had experimented with herbs in beer before and saffron gave us this unusual colour and flavour. There was also another secret ingredient.

'The saffron came in shredded leaf form. Dave Wickett (the brewery's owner) knows a herbalist who said that there would be little bitterness from saffron. As for the hops we trimmed them down slightly, as too strong a hopping rate would mask the subtlety of the saffron.

'It was a one-off for two reasons. It was for something special, the reopening of the brewery, but saffron also costs an arm and a leg. If we sold it over the bar at one of our pubs a pint would cost well in excess of $3 (please add pound sign). And I don't think our regulars would go for it.'

Part of the problem in considering ale with fish is the muscular influence of hops on what is often seen as a subtle piece of flesh. The main job of the hop is to produce bitterness in beer. However, hops also give out fruity, spicy, herbal and resiny aromas and taste sensations.

Care is needed. A fillet of red mullet, haddock or hake would not take kindly to being buried beneath a cascade of Fuggles or Brambling Cross. Yet this predicament is easily remedied.

The light, sweetish taste of haddock or hake, grilled or fried, demands an equally subtle beer. Such as a Czech Pilsner, a German Kolsch, a Bavarian Weiss, or even some of the new English speciality beers such as Hop Back's Taiphoon (see tasting notes), a refreshing Lemongrass beer, or the innovative beers from St Peter's. This Suffolk brewery produces a unique range of bottled beers, including a delicious fruit beer (see tasting notes) and a wheat beer. One of my favourites with grilled fish though is Pilsner Urquell (4.4%) from Pilsen, one of the classic beers of the world. It has soft malt and hints of toffee on the nose, followed by soft malt sweetishness and tanginess on the palate and a pleasing dry finish. Fresh haddock or hake grilled is a dream combination with the sweetness of the fish being pleasantly accentuated by the maltiness of the beer - there are no uneven or unmusical notes.

But what about fish with more assertive flavours? Think of chunky steaks of swordfish or monkfish; flavoursome fillets of tuna or salmon. Here beers with more hop and malt character and greater complexity may be opened. Beers which tease out the flavours of the fish. Here I would go for the likes of the exquisite Belgian golden ale La Chouffe (see tasting notes) or Kelham Island's Pale Rider (5.2%), a pale strong ale, with plenty of body and packed with hops and fresh fruit.

Then there's shellfish. Guinness of course with oysters, or much better some of the excellent stouts and porters emerging from the UK's innovative brewers. Think Marston's bottle-conditioned Oyster Stout, King & Barnes Old Porter or Somerset brewery Oakhill's Black Magic Stout, which is fantastic. The sweet brinyness of fresh shellfish combines superbly with the dryness, roasted barley and fruit of a lot of stouts and porters.

Over in Belgium mussels are cooked in a broth of Gueuze beer, a sweetened version of the acidic lambic beer. In my recipe I have turned to Marston's Pedigree (see tasting notes), a fruity and hoppy classic from Burton-on-Trent. The broth has a mild peppery edge thanks to the hoppiness, a pleasing finish reminiscent of a nasterium leaf in a fresh green salad. Back to Belgium, acidic beers such as Belgium's vinuous Rodenbach or its Lambics can also be used in marinades, or even as cerviches. Greene King's Suffolk Strong is a must for pickled herrings, while smoked fish marries well with German Rauchbiers (smoked beers).
Beer has few boundaries in the kitchen.

Whilst writing this article I tried an experiment, which to me demonstrates the great relationship of the grain with fish. I took a piece of grilled tuna and popped it into my mouth. I then tried a swig of a strong fruity amber ale from the award-winning Cornish brewery Skinner's. The beer has the unwieldy title Who Put The Lights Out but is well worth hunting down. The match was perfect. Tuna can be cloying but there's also a sweetness in this dark-fleshed fish which this excellent ale teased out. The cloyiness also vanished and there was perfect harmony. That's how easy it is sometimes with beer and food. It doesn't need sommeliers to tell you what to do. Delicate beers for delicate fish; robust beers for more assertive fish. But experiment and find out what you like.

Finally, as if to underline the growing relationship of fish and beer, watch out for the new category in the Beauty of Hops awards: best beer to go with fish and chips. The old attitudes are taking a battering.

Tasting Notes
La Chouffe Biere D'Ardenne 750ml 8%
A delicious golden ale from brewers in the Ardennes. It's rich golden in colour with a creamy, fruity and sweetish nose. On the palete it's fruity, spicy, hoppy and citrusy with a stupendous depth of taste.
There's plenty of complexity and it goes splendidly with fish, especially the moules marinere. Bottle-conditioned. Available from Oddbins.

Hop Back Taiphoon - lemongrass beer 500ml 4.2%
This pale golden beer is full-bodied and slightly spicy on the palate with a delicious blend of malt, hop and hints of exotic fruits and lemon. Despite this, a clean and refreshing beer, which will go well with spicy fish dishes especially Thai and Indian cuisine.
Bottle-conditioned and available at selected outlets, including the brewery's seven pubs, including the latest in Bristol.

Marston's Pedigree Bitter 500ml 4.5%
Copper-coloured ale with honey and earthy hops on nose. On the palate it's smooth and refreshing with soft malt and fruit giving way to a fruity and tangy finish. Brewed in wood at Burton-on-Trent where the local water's high level of salts makes for refreshing and effervescent ales. Available widely on draught and in bottle.

St Peter's Fruit Beer 500ml 4.7%
A unique fruit beer, which is made with elderberry. There's an exquisite nose of floral fruitiness, soft malt and even a hint of resin (thanks to the hops), while on the palate hops, soft malt and fruit create a uniquely satisfying taste sensation with a prickly, tangy and dry finish, courtesy of the hops. A great depth of flavour from this moreish fruity ale. One of many interesting beers from this Suffolk brewery, others include a Golden Ale, Wheat Beer, Honey Porter, Spiced Ale, Cream Stout and an Organic Ale. The Fruit Beer is available from Tesco's and at the Brewery's two pubs, one in Suffolk, the other in Clerkenwell in London.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones