So there we were on Friday night, wine in the ring with beer. An affray at the dining table perhaps: five courses, each one striding to the table like a wanna-be champ, a glass of wine and a glass of beer on each side, trainers of gastronomic ability, jabbing the air, feeling the mood, supremely confident. In the wine corner Tim Atkin, Master of Wine, author and journalist and the wine guy on Saturday Kitchen; I’m in the beer corner. The venue: the wonderful Thatchers Arms, in the middle of the north Essex countryside, a delightful centre of good food and drink (especially beer), whose young landlord Mitch had organised the bout (and let’s not forget the Don King of beer evangelicalism, Hardknott Dave Bailey, the man who set up the whole Twitter campaign that led to this evening). Fresh from winning an award at SIBA, Dave was there with Hardknott Ann, along with a glove puppet who used to be big on British TV until his star waned and he was replaced by Bob the Builder and a myriad other fantasies of the middle aged.
Enough of conflict metaphors. It’s wasn’t a battle, it wasn’t a war, it wasn’t even a fight. It was an attempt to celebrate good food, good wine and — above all from my point of view, good beer. I’ve not met Tim before and I thought him a great guy — he drinks beer as well as wine and there was none of the closed mind syndrome that I have occasionally come across with wine drinkers (admittedly of the more elderly, snobbish variety).
First up was a carpaccio of venison loin with beetroot and port and mustard vinaigrette — I chose Duchesse de Bourgogne, banking on the sour-sweet character of the beer to lift the flavour of the venison, the sourness interact with the vinaigrette and the earthiness of the beetroot. Tim chose a 2008 Casa Riva Carmenere Gran Reserva from Chile, a good red wine I seem to recall. The winner, as voted by the audience, was beer. Phew, at least I would win one round. Then we had home smoked mackerel fillet with pickled samphire and lemon dressing. I choose Adnams Explorer, though I had toyed with Pilsner Urquell — I wanted a higher level of carbonation to cut through the oiliness of the fish, but also a firm tropical fruit sweetness to counteract with what I thought would be both the salt on the fish and the brininess of the samphire. I wasn’t sure about this match, the mackerel was more smoky than I had imagined, it was delicious but I felt that the Explorer got a bit lost. Then things perked up in my mouth and the beer seemed to act like a complement to the dish, an extra ingredient. Tim chose a 2010 Telmo Rodriguez Gaba do Xil from Spain, honeyed and apple-like — the two of us had chosen similarly fruity drinks. Again beer won, though there was a sting in the tale to come.
Third course was a Sri Lankan red chicken curry with cardamon rice — IPA you might think, but I went for Schneider Weiss, thinking of carbonation cutting through the heat, and the banana and clovey notes adding their own spiciness to the dish. Tim chose a 2008 Cape Barren Estate Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre from south Australia. Beer won again and it felt like half time during an Arsenal match with the game in the bag and as a Gooner I know what that means… Mitch announced a recount of the votes for the second course, there had been a mistake and wine had actually won. So now it was 2-1.
The four course was a lemon tart with raspberry coulis and sadly Adnams’ Sole Bay was trumped by the Moscato d’Asti from Italy that just added another dimension to the dessert (even the Hardknotters agreed on this) Sole Bay is a lovely beer and we were very lucky to have some as I don’t think there is much left in the country. So that was 2-2 and the chocolates were brought on. I had originally thought of Leifmans Cuvee Brut for this finale, but for some reason, disregarding all my normal doubts about matching dark beer with chocolate, I went for Ola Dubh in a 12 year old Highland Park cask. Lovely beer but the chocolate effectively overwhelmed the notes of tobacco box, coffee, vanilla and oak that the beer has, leaving only the bitterness to stand there as naked as the Emperor with no clothes. Tim chose a Lustau San Emilion PX sherry from the Jerez region — I found it too oily and sweet, a torrent of sweetness bursting through the banks of perception and drowning the chocolate. The result, after a show of hands, was a draw for this dish, which I reckon was a good result for the dinner all round. I do believe that that the Cuvee Brut would have stormed away but on the other hand there was a conviviality about the dinner that was light ages away from the recent storms that have beset the world of beer communications. As wine writer Fiona Beckett noted on her twitter feed after the result went out, ‘good result which reflects the truth that neither beer or wine is better, just different ;-)’
Neither Tim nor myself were paid for the evening, and the drinks were provided by Adnams and Slurp, while local food producers also helped. The night raised £550 for Amnesty (Tim’s chosen charity) and Help for Heroes (my chosen one).