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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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