Food and wine pairings are a dime a dozen these days. What’s fashionable now is matching food with beer, a drink that can be just as complex and varied as wine, but doesn’t always receive the same respect. Thanks to breweries rediscovering old techniques and experimenting with new methods, the world of beer has seen some serious diversification in recent years.
“There’s so much variety in beer. There’s such a huge range of flavours, aromas, texture and levels of effervescence; the spectrum is even broader than wine,” says James Ling, general manager of Mong Kok bar, TAP – The Ale Project, and the new Tai Hang gastropub, Second Draft.
Philip Hafstad, a certified cicerone, beer trainer and beer sommelier at longstanding pub The Globe, says, “Beer can range from 2 per cent alcohol up to 15 per cent alcohol, from the palest white beers to the darkest ink-black beers. Flavours can be sweet, bitter, sour, fruity, nutty, toasty, smoky and funky, for example, giving you so many options to pair beer with food. Some food that beer can handle exceptionally well where wine falls short are spicy foods from around Asia and desserts.”
When pairing, he advises, “Look at the intensity of the food and try to choose a beer with similar intensity level based on alcohol, bitterness, sweetness and so on. You don’t want to pair a light Belgian witbier with smoky ribs, for example. See if you can find any flavours in the beer that might match some in your food.”
Tracy Gan, originally from Malaysia and now director of The Bottle Shop Central, a café-bar and craft beer shop, thinks that beer is especially appropriate with spicy foods, which are usually harder to match with wine. “In Malaysia, hawkers have fizzy drinks or really light beers with curries. I think the carbonation helps to cut through all that spice. The flavours are very much complimentary,” she says.
The Singapore chilli softshell crab at The Bottle Shop Central is Gan’s own recipe, and she recommends serving it with a sour pale ale. “Sourness in an ale is amazing, because it cuts through the grease so well. It’s a bit like an aperitif; it cleanses the palate and helps you go onto the next dish.”
Second Draft isn’t short of spicy dishes, such as fries topped with Sichuan pepper, and buffalo wontons – Shanghainese-style wonton coated in a buffalo wings-inspired sauce of Yu Kwan Yick chilli sauce, butter and white vinegar. “The tingling feeling you get on your tongue from the spices is best countered with darker beers. The complex, chocolatey notes, richness and roundedness balance it out. We discovered this when we brought chocolate stouts to mala chicken pot for after-work team suppers.“There’s a smokiness to the buffalo sauce too, so a smoked porter would work nicely,” he says.
Gan says, “A good rule of thumb is that white meats pair with light beers and sours, the stronger ales pair with greasy fried foods, and stouts are very good for desserts. We have a few fried foods on the menu because people sort of expect that in a bar.”
Second Draft chef May Chow has also created a few fried dishes. “Everyone knows the concept of fried chicken and beer, so we knew we’d be playing around with that theme,” she says.
For instance, there are inked croquettes, little golden deep-fried nuggets that look like run-of-the-mill pub food, but they’re stuffed with squid ink and dried oysters, an ingredient often used in Chinese food.
Second Draft has a rotating selection of 24 beers on tap, many from local brewers like Moonzen and Young Master Ales. To suit the beer selection, Chow, who is also behind modern Chinese diner, Little Bao, has designed a food menu that revisits flavours that drawheavily on local tastes and familiar dishes.
Her Shanghai dip is a sandwich filled with Gruyere and pork leg that’s been braised in dark soy sauce and sugar. It is served with a dipping sauce made from the braising liquid. “It’s modelled after the French dip, a classic American diner sandwich,” says Chow. Ling says that it would work with beer that has more barley and is malty, and less hoppy, such as a strong Scotch ale, which is full-bodied but not too strong in flavour, so as not to compete with the sweetness of the pork and sauce.
Chow recommends that customers consult the servers for pairing selections as it can be hard to judge from the menu descriptions, which are quite simple.
Gan says, “Customers will ask us if they want to be sure about a pairing. We offer tastings, and anyone is free to taste anything from the taps. We’re trying to push the boundaries. The first thing people usually order is fries, because everyone knows what fries are. They don’t want to second guess the food, but then we try and explain things a little more.” To make it even easier, the menu also lists suggested pairings with dishes in one column and beers in the other, with lines drawn between the recommended pairs of dishes and beers.
At Little Creatures, the Australian brewery that recently opened a microbrewery and restaurant in Kennedy Town, executive chef Krzysztof Bandel doesn’t always work towards specific pairings. Of course, he has his recommendations, such as the barbecued grass-fed Australian rib eye with the IPA, saying, “It’s dark and charred and the stronger beefy flavours go well with the bitter notes”. But he’s not too precious about them. “We want lots of different products to go with beer. The menu is simple and doesn’t overwhelm people. Our overall concept is to be approachable and be a place where people can relax. People should be able to play around with the pairings. [All the food is] freshly made, and made to match with beer. We don’t want to complicate things.”
Whether it’s a casual dinner or Sunday brunch, suffice to say that craft beer, and food designed to go with it, are here to stay. “Gone are the days when restaurants would offer three pale lagers,” says Hafstad. “Consumers know there is a big world of beer outside pale lagers. Once you started drinking craft beer it is very difficult going back to drinking lager.”
Where to pair
TAP – The Ale Project
15 Hak Po Street, Mong Kok, tel: 2468 2010
98 Tung Lo Wan Road, Tai Hang, tel: 2656 0232
Garley Building, 45-53 Graham Street, Central, tel: 2543 1941
The Bottle Shop Central
15 Bridges Street, Central, tel: 2799 4899
New Fortune House, 5A New Praya Kennedy Town, Kennedy Town, tel: 2833 5611