"Is it the sun, the soil or the sea air that makes Jersey Royals taste so good?" Posed by the ad on the Tube for the eponymous potato, it's the sort of question you might expect to be asked about a wine rather than a spud. But then, as our choice of fruit and veg in supermarkets increases, so too does the choice of olive oils, coffee and chocolate. And the latest product to be given the gourmet makeover is our very own national beverage, beer. So when I was invited by Beautiful Beer's Ros Shiel ( www.beautifulbeer.com) to mix the grape and the grain with a tasting menu at Pearl Restaurant in Holborn, central London, it was my clear duty to see if "beer's quest for parity with wine at the dining table" stacked up.
My first impression on arrival was that I was in the wrong place: most of the dinner guests hailed from lifestyle and fashion magazines such as Glamour. Each course was accompanied by one glass for the beer, another for the wine, but of the five courses, only one beer was served in a beer glass, and even that was a rather elegant tapered glass and not the chunky tankard of pub notoriety. The other "beer" glasses were either wine or cocktail glasses, inviting us to sip our beer elegantly. Nice idea, but I am programmed to drink it rather than sip it.
After making an effort to sip the extraordinary Deus 2006 Cuvée Prestige Brut de Flandres, a beer in a champagne bottle made with champagne yeast, it was on to the business of the evening and a first course of caramelised scallops and herb crusted frogs' legs. The Badger's Blandford Fly was chosen, as were all the beers, by Rupert Ponsonby of the Beer Academy, and a 2006 Gavi di Gavi, La Giustiniana, selected, as were all the wines, by Pearl's sommelier, Michael Davis. The citrusy wine refreshed, the beer, like ginger beer for grown-ups, was delicious and mouthcoatingly sweet. With the smoked duck and beetroot, walnut and goat's cheese salad came Liefmans Frambozen, a Belgian raspberry beer whose sour raspberry and fresh spritz were as refreshingly close to wine as you could get. But the smoky, cassisy Yalumba 2001 The Signature Cabernet Shiraz also chimed well.
With the delicate John Dory and fish cake that followed, I preferred the spicy Grolsch Weizen to an anodyne 2005 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Faced next with a char-grilled fillet of black pig, chorizo and lentil salsa with red pepper purée and roasted langoustine (don't worry, it was a tasting plate), the 2000 Finca Valpiedra Rioja Reserva coped, just, but still made a better fist of it than the caramel-dominated flavours of the Fuller's ESB, a delicious beer in its own right. And so to pud: a chocolate and orange walnut brownie, chocolate mousse and passion fruit jelly, another ambitious dish that the 2006 Brown Brothers Orange Muscat also just about handled; but a dark and bitter Old Tom (in a brandy glass) was just too burnt.
All the beers had been good, some delicious, and I would happily drink any of them (with the possible exception of the Old Tom) on their own or with a pub lunch. But while beer writers such as Michael Jackson have argued persuasively that there's as much complexity to beer as wine, my feeling is that a large part of what the beers lacked with food of this class was the acidity that underlies wine's unique capacity to refresh. Second, that in its aroma, flavour and texture, fine wine better reflects its specific location. I may be the odd one out, though. As I left, many of the evening's guests were uttering words of approval, so don't be surprised if you open your Glamour or Grazia to find Prada-clad models sipping designer beers with their salad and tuna carpaccio.