Revolution is brewing: 'Niche' beers are making a name for themselves

Fancy a lager with your langoustines? 'Niche' beers are refreshing, flavoursome – and perfect for drinking with food. Jamie Merrill reports on a revolution that's brewing

Fancy supping on a Village Bike, Kwak, or Centurion's Ghost during dinner or washing down your lunch with a Rutland Panther, Chalky's Bite, or Old Tongham Tasty? A Village Bike or Old Tongham Tasty might not sound as appetising as a fine Merlot or claret with your meal but these eccentrically named beers and speciality ales are just some of those proving increasingly popular as an accompaniment to food.

Breaking beer away from its staid reputation as the drink of choice for blokey pub-goers, a band of beer-drinking revolutionaries and brewers are quietly transforming British beer tastes, as they produce increasing numbers of niche beers, re-launch long-dead ale types, experiment with flavours from the Continent, serve beer as an aperitif and drink it with food.

The pint may never have been closely associated with gastronomy or fine cuisine, but, in a trend that echoes the British adoption of wine in the 1970s, we're waking up to the fact that the amber nectar no longer starts and stops with a ploughman's lunch and a pint or a curry and a bottle of lager.

With countless flavour profiles from various varieties of malted barley, hops and yeast, beer is attracting new converts and is, at least according to some beer aficionados, a more versatile and varied drink than wine. Its flavour profiles and taste range from dark beer, heavy in toasted malts, evoking memories of anything from nut and toffee through to coffee and chocolate, to light and palate-refreshing golden ales. And they complement everything from oysters and duck to blue cheese.

And now, heavily influenced by beers from the Continent, and particularly Belgium, British brewers are producing an ever-increasing number of niche beers. Brewed to a higher strength and crafted to be consumed with food, these brews, which are often organic, include wheat beers, blond beers, pale ales, stouts and even fruit beers. Also, they are generally served in smaller quantities from speciality glassware, making them, their brewers hope, more attractive to new drinkers and women.

The restaurateur and television presenter Rick Stein is among those who have been converted to serving beer with food. "Most people have always assumed that wine is the natural choice of drink to serve with food. But there is no reason why it always should be and there is often a good reason why beer is the better choice. Beer is often associated with public bars and fags, which makes it hard for people to take the idea that it complements food on board. But, in fact, there are so many beers out there to choose from to match with food, and their complexity is just enormous."

With the support of restaurateurs, including the likes of Stein and Raymond Blanc, sales of niche beers are booming. In fact, there are now almost 400 microbreweries operating across Britain, many of which use only locally sourced ingredients and restrict their delivery areas in order to limit their products' "beer miles".

So while lager and beer sales generally have declined in recent years – up to 35 pubs a week are closing, and beer drinking is at its lowest level since the Depression – more discerning consumers have fuelled an increase in ale and speciality-beer sales. Tesco alone now stocks more than 300 bottled ales and 50 niche beers, including fruit and wheat beers, while Waitrose has seen a 30 per cent growth in the category since 2006.

It is not just bottled ale and British niche beers that are doing well, however. Ian Clay, of James Clay & Sons in Leeds, which supplies more than 200 imported speciality beers to wholesalers, has seen an increase in the popularity of imported beers. "We've seen steady and strong growth in speciality beers since as early as the late 1990s, with almost 20 per cent growth each year, and we are seeing a real growing interest in speciality beers to be served with food."

Jeff Evans, the author of A Beer a Day, is delighted to see beer back on the dining table, where it belongs. "It is what people used to drink over the centuries in Britain. And in fact it was not until the 19th century, with the introduction of wine, that drinking habits began to move away from beer. Beers and ales have such diversity and are really very versatile drinks, especially when served with food. You see, wine, in effect, is just made from grapes and there isn't such a diversity of flavours – you get fruit, you get sweetness and dryness, maybe some oak ageing, but you've got much more to play with in matching beer to food."

Wine lovers may disagree with Evans, but he says you have only to look at the ingredients in beer. "The principal ingredient for most beers is malted barley, and to create the malt, it's toasted and roasted to different degrees. So you can have very light-coloured malts, which produce the light, golden beers, or for dark beers you add in more toasted malt to give flavours from nuts and toffee to coffee and chocolate. So you can see from the start that the brewer's got a lot of flavour to play with just from the malt.

"On top of that, you can also add in fermentation flavours, which are the things the yeast does as it's fermenting the beer. Particularly with stronger beers, you get chemical compounds called esters being created, and these bring tropical-fruit flavours to the beer – banana, mango, papaya and pear-drop.

"So with all the flavours from the malt, hops and fermentation, you can see how there's such a wide choice of beer, and if you can marry up all those different flavour components with the different flavours of food, you can see how you can have a much better mix-and-match potential than you have with wine," he says.

Restaurants, bars and gastropubs are now catching on and are grasping the significance of food and beer pairings, often producing their own brews to tempt new consumers. Stein, for example, who owns four seafood restaurants in Padstow, Cornwall, has joined forces with Sharp's Brewery in nearby Rock to produce a bottled niche beer, named after his much-loved Jack Russell, Chalky, to be served with seafood in all his restaurants and his fish-and-chip shop.

"The idea behind Chalky's Bite came about after I heard that fellow chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was lending his name and reputation to champion local producers, in his case a yoghurt. I've always been partial to a pint of draught Sharp's so I decided to approach them to see if they would produce a beer for me that would go well with seafood. I wanted a beer that would be locally produced and have a distinctive English character but at the same time stand up against the Belgium greats.

"I love fennel and it works really well with seafood, so in keeping with using local produce I asked if they'd put some wild Cornish fennel into the brew, and Chalky's Bite grew from there.

"The name came about because it's a strong beer and Chalky was always known for nipping people. The idea behind it is that Chalky's bite was much worse than his bark. It's all a bit silly but he was a very-well-liked dog, and I think to have his face on the bottle is a fitting tribute to him," says Stein.

Made for each other: Choosing your beer

* While stout and oysters is the most well known food and beer combination, other great partnerships include lamb with a spicy ale or wheat beer; duck and a Trappist ale; poultry or fish with a wheat beer; beef with a high-alcohol ale; Italian pizza with a brown or amber ale; and Christmas pudding with porter (a blend of three beers: hopped, unhopped and strong ales).

* Richer foods will be best suited to ales, fruit beers and darker beers, while lighter foods will be complemented by lager, wheat beers or light bitter.

* Wheat beers, such as those produced by Batemans of Lincolnshire, boast a low bitterness, making them excellent partners to fish, while fruit beers, such as Meantime's Raspberry Grand Cru, are excellent served with desserts because their refreshing, acidic taste ideally complement the chocolate.

* The combination of beer and curry is a classic one, but an India Pale Ale (IPA) works equally as well. Originally brewed for export to expatriates in India, IPA was made to a higher strength to help withstand the long, hot journey.

* Brew Wharf, located next door to London's Borough Market, is dedicated to serving beer with food. Its open-plan kitchen and beer hall-style dining area play host to brewmaster Christopher Kay who produces two ales on site. "You must remember that beer flavours can both complement and contrast with the food they are served with. At Brew Wharf, our own best bitter brew goes brilliantly with strong cheddar cheese. But, equally, the rich fattiness of pork belly contrasts wonderfully with Boon Kriek, a sour cherry beer," says Kay.

Additional reporting by Simon Jablonksi

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