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Treating Beer like Wine - When is a beer a beer?

Beer has long come with its own preconceptions about where and how it should be consumed. Breaking those prepossessions has created many movements between industry folk, including that which I assume we are calling the wineification of beer. This mostly relates to those that want to see beer on equal footing with its grape counterpart, especially amongst the café and restaurant business. This could include better choices, better presentation and a focus on matching beer with food. For a while I thought I was in favour of this.

Then I actually experienced where we are up to in beer’s wineification on my last two visits to Edinburgh.

I am in favour of using wine in the conversation as an example of how we shouldn’t prejudge high ABVs or how we look at a fair price in better beer. I’m also quite happy with beer and food pairing as a concept, though it is not something I do within my own home. These recent experiences north of the border though made me rethink the way I want beer used in restaurant environments.  

For clarification, I must confess that my current usual restaurant practice, which will not be everybody’s, is to ask for a beer whilst I peruse the menu. When I know what I’m actually eating, I can then order wine for the courses accordingly. I like wine, not as much as I like beer of course, and it is usually my drink of choice in a fitting restaurant.

My first experience came in Restaurant Mark Greenaway on North Castle Street, Edinburgh. Alongside our meal, we’d already requested the course by course tutored wine tasting, and so the usual beer whilst food menu perusing seemed appropriate to begin with.

A choice of three beers from nearby Stewart Brewing was the choice  – I plumped for the Black IPA,. That will do the job nicely whilst we make food choices and discuss the options.

Not here though. Two minutes after ordering my beer the conversation is stopped by the server whilst I am kindly shown the front of this 330ml bottle, held facing me as a 750ml wine bottle will be held. “So what we have here is a Black IPA brewed just 7 miles away...” Wait, what? What are they saying? What did I order? Where do I look? Why isn’t there beer in my glass? “...So you’ll still have this rather tropical and citrus flavour, but nicely balanced by a roasting in the finish...” My glass is still empty at this point. “Would you like to taste it?”

Would I like to taste it? I wasn’t going to wash my hands in it.

One hand placed smartly behind his back, a thimble sized pour of dark beer is poured into my glass. I’m supposed to drink this in front of him. Did I mention my anxiety problems? My palms are sweating. I’m using two hands to get the beer to my mouth. Oh God, I didn’t even clock how it tastes.

Mmmm, yes. Yes, very nice,” was about all I muttered and satisfied I got around a 150ml pour of the beer into my glass. I wasn’t to touch the bottle to top it up. I didn’t dare peel off the label for one of my collages. That was not the done thing.

Experience number two came just around the corner from Restaurant Mark Greenaway at The Honours. After being seated I did my usual immediate look at the beer menu and spotted Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club as the best of a slightly poor bunch. That would do fine whilst I drooled over the food options.

Can I get a Dead Pony Club, please?” It was only as the three words came off my tongue that my surroundings, environment and the stupidity of the words I was saying really became apparent. The server even smirked fleetingly, the only time all evening they broke from their smart and attentive character. “Of course.”

Whilst I was thankfully spared a tasting lesson of the beer here, I was still not allowed to pour the beer myself. Any time I reached for the bottle, a server would appear from nowhere, shaking their hands before returning one to their back whilst the other poured from a cloth laden arm with a neat bow. Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club - served like a 1947 Cheval Blanc.  I couldn’t enjoy it. The beer lasted the whole evening whilst I hastily ordered wines instead.  

Fans of beer’s wineification will certainly wonder what my problem is here. Some are practically campaigning for this sort of service and serious approach to drinking beer. I thought I was. It turns out, I strongly dislike it.

Perhaps if the offering was a larger bottle of a Barleywine or Gueze cellared for varying years then everything from the introduction to the pouring would have been welcome. There are plenty of beers out there that it is easy to say “treat it like a good wine.” Not all beers are for that approach..

This is also not the place for names such as Dead Pony Club, nor Stupid Sexy Flanders, Intergalactic Spacehopper or even Gamma Ray. Sorry, but in this environment such names feel infantile, though this hardly limits the thousands of options with anything from Calico, Jaipur or 10/05 easily fitting the bill.

For those promoting the pairing of beer with food then this may feel like a step in the right direction. Perhaps we need to go through this phase before restaurants become a little savvier as to how to treat beer. A return to these places in a few years may reveal an expertly picked beer menu alongside food pairing recommendations. Yet even with a perfectly formed beer cellar menu I'll still want a simple beer to sup whilst reading the menu. We can keep encouraging others to treat beer like wine but there are still plenty of occasions when it would be nice to treat beer like, y’know, beer.

It should be noted that I enjoyed both my meals and experiences in Restaurant Mark Greenaway and The Honours. If I were a food blogger then both would be getting great reviews. I would happily return to both. Oh and the wines were excellent.  


robracing said…
Very entertaining post! I squirmed along with you through the Black IPA experience.

However, on reflection, I would prefer the "poncification" of a decent selection of craft beers, to the old-school alternative of a choice between Carlsberg and Heineken!
Kieran Lyons said…
I think your experiences may say more about the places you went to than any overall trend. Sounds well posh innit.

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