Cooking with beer: Adding delicate sourness and subtle smokiness to a range of dishes

​Adding wine to a dish is nothing new. But what about pouring in half a pint of ale? A growing gang of beer-loving cooks want us to hop to it, as Jamie Waters discovers

Jamie Waters
Tuesday 06 October 2015 17:55 BST

Cooking a dish that is spiked with the flavour of your favourite beer is a tantalising thought – and one that has surely crossed the mind of many a home cook while stirring a pot with one hand and swigging from a bottle of choice brew with the other. This is how it started for the beer and food writer Mark Dredge, who would find himself standing in the kitchen thinking: “Why don't I just put some of this beer in the pan and see what happens? You think, 'well, this is my favourite beer, I might drink a bottle of it a week; how can I use it in a different way that's also delicious?'”

Dredge, whose books include Beer and Food (2014), is one of several British cooks who have recently taken their love of beer to the kitchen. In an innovative adjunct to the craft-beer boom currently engulfing the food and drink world, these enthusiasts have taken advantage of the increasing range of quality beers by sprouting everything from YouTube cooking channels and blogs to cookbooks and restaurants.

The newest kid on the block is Wahleeah, a London restaurant with a beer-based menu, which opened this month. Co-founder Dave Ahern's dishes include a nod to London with an oxtail and stout stew, to Brooklyn with chicken meatballs and a blonde beer gravy, and desserts such as a chocolate stout brownie with beer ice cream. Some, like the stew, focus on the “overall” flavour of the beer (here, rich and full‑bodied); others pick out specific notes: the “bitter chocolatey-ness” of stout in the brownie or the intense, fruity sweetness of the banana beer in the ice cream.

Ahern began cooking with beer because of his belief that in many countries, including in the UK, “the palate for food developed alongside the palate for beer and not for wine”. He says that “the everyday people are the ones who develop a country's cuisine. And the majority of British people in the last several hundred years drank beer. Alec Fleming, marketing manager at London's Meantime Brewing Company, says it wasn't until about the 1970s (others even say the late 1980s) that Brits started drinking wine with food. As with Ahern, it is this historical pairing of food with beer that has motivated Meantime to try ”putting beer on the dining table“, Fleming says.

Meantime is one of the few places in the beer-in-food world to have bridged the gap between bricks-and-mortar restaurant and online presence: the brewery has long served dishes laced with beer at its Old Brewery restaurant but, earlier this year, it created a YouTube series, “Dine with Meantime”, in collaboration with the Great British Chefs. The four slick videos, which show chefs including Steve Drake cooking dishes such as IPA-braised chicory with pickled peach, seemed to “strike a chord” with a modern, urban male demographic, Fleming says. The series adds to the colourful online canon of beer-based cooking videos. Few are as prominent as the Craft Beer Channel, a branch of Jamie Oliver's Food Tube channel presented by Jonny Garrett and Brad Evans. Garrett and Evans are a likeable duo whose comforting British and American-style dishes resonate with a mostly young, male audience. But despite the success of their cooking videos, they weren't initially sure whether food would be a mainstay on their channel (which features a range of beer-related videos): their first culinary video, showing them cooking clams in wheat beer in 2013, was made as a tester to see how it was received. It “absolutely flew”, Garrett says.

The reason they made that video in the first place was because “we saw food as this brilliant way into beer”, Garrett says. It was a way of tapping into our everyman foodie society. “Everybody knows a certain amount about food – they know what they love, they know what their kind of food is. So if you present that food to them and say 'look, you can make it with beer,' it's a way of educating people,” says Garrett. “It's sort of a gateway drug, if you will, for people who don't know much about beer but kind of want to know more.”

Their videos proves Garrett correct. In their stout sausage roll episode, for instance, we are shown the black pepper stout and are told about the flavour notes it will bring (a “dark sticky sweetness” and a “bit of heat”) to the meat. In many we are also given a beer match to drink alongside the dish. Garrett explains the takeaway: “We get two beers in there that people may not have heard of – so they learn something and they get a recipe.”

These YouTube videos are proof of how far beer-based cooking has come. Melissa Cole, a beer writer, recalls reading recipes seven years ago and finding an overwhelming number simply calling for a nondescript “beer”. “I thought: 'Well, what beer?'” Cole says. “Because I could use a kölsch or an imperial stout or a traditional English bitter … what beer do you want me to use here?”

It was this “astonishing laziness” of recipe-makers – who failed even to mention the colour of the beer required – that prompted Cole to take matters into her own hands. She cooked four casseroles using the same ingredients save for the beer, and found that barley wines resulted in a tastier dish than stouts. Her experiment proved that even in a stew, where flavours meld into one and you may not be able to pinpoint specific beer notes, the type of beer used does indeed make a difference.

These recipes also failed to specify when the “beer” should be added – an oversight that ignored the fact that beer can be added at several stages in the cooking process. Most logically, it can be used as an alternative to stock, water or milk. Here, Dredge says, beer brings “that classic depth that you get from alcohol – a unique depth, like a warming richness”, as well as a sweet-and-savoury quality from the malt that can't be replicated by other alcohols. Often, it is this depth of flavour that is perceivable in the final dish rather than an actual beer taste. (As Dredge explains, “I don't think you necessarily want explicit, in-your-face beer flavour in food; it could be too overpowering or unusual.”)

More surprisingly, beer can be added as a “seasoning” at the end of the cooking process, a use that enables it to maintain its distinctive flavour rather than being cooked down. “It should be used as a herb, as a spice,” says Cole. For Dredge, this works well in Asian food, where a splash of saison or witbier over a laksa operates in a similar way to a squeeze of lime. These beers, aromatic and often with notes of coriander, work to “pull out the extra bits of flavour that are naturally in the dish”, Dredge says.

Many of the aficionados cite “fun” as being a bedrock of beer-based cooking, but this belies its tricky complexity as an ingredient. Bitterness is its kryptonite: the hops present in all beers – but especially IPAs – mean that, if cooked for too long or in the wrong style of dish, they can produce inedible results.

The glorious flip side of this complexity is that there's an array of flavour notes to be explored. With four ingredients (malt, hops, water and yeast) as opposed to one, beer has a wider spectrum of flavours and is consequently more exciting to cook with than wine, say Cole, Garrett, Fleming and Ahern. “There's no liquid in the world that's as diverse as beer,” adds Garrett, with flavours including delicate sourness, sweet banana fruitiness, dark coffee or liquorice notes, and subtle smokiness.

The culinary possibilities offered by beer accord with what Garrett calls our current “era of experimentation”. Beer aligns with recent interests in anti-pretentious cooking and “dude food” and, Garrett says, “it's something new, something exciting – flavours that people didn't even know existed. So people want to see what they can do with it.” Beer is an ingredient with a history in British cooking harking back hundreds of years. But now, it seems, it is thoroughly modern.


* Choose a beer: Garrett suggests a simple test when deciding which beer to use in a dish: match like colours (so a light beer will normally work in a light-coloured dish). With this in mind:

* Use stout in beef stew instead of stock for a rich, sticky sweetness.

* Season with beer: splash saison over laksa or Thai curry at the end of cooking to accentuate aromatic notes.

* Use beer in desserts: make tiramisu (“beeramisu”) using a coffee stout instead of espresso; or follow the Craft Beer boys' lead and make a “beer float” by pouring a bourbon-aged imperial stout over vanilla ice cream.

* Be cautious: beware of cooking with particularly hoppy beers such as IPAs unless you know what you're doing or are following a recipe (such as chef Drake's in “Dine with Meantime”)!

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