“Sorry I’ve come so formal”, said Simon, removing his tie. Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I had no idea what to wear, myself. I also had no idea who else was going to be there. Everybody else was in the dark-grey suit. Nice that somebody should care to dress for dinner, but all I cared about was it was a beer dinner given by Brains Brewery and I wanted to know what the menu was and how a range of thoroughly British beers would cope. Especially with dessert.
Simon wasn’t a solicitor, but Mark was. I told them I wrote about beer, they looked quizzical as I confessed my curiosity about what the choice of dessert beer would be. “Dessert beer?” I could see flit momentarily across their consciousnesses before they moved on to the more pressing subject of by how many points Wales would beat England by at Twickenham on Saturday. This was, after all, a dinner for The Wales in London club.
We finished our welcome drink of bottled SA Gold, and followed it with a half of the cask version. (They preferred the bottled.) Before we could discuss the finer points of spear tackling or American craft brewing, we were called in to dinner. I found myself next to Bill Dobson, head brewer at Brains. Briefly, ex-Wales international centre and British Lion Tom Shanklin joined us, until he realised he wasn’t Beer Magazine editor Tom Stainer and went to find where he was supposed to be sitting.Tom Shanklin’s seat was taken by Melissa Cole, beer writer and tonight’s beer co-MC with Bill Dobson. Melissa was also responsible for choosing the beers to go with each course. Something of a relief I’ll admit. You see, as much as I love and champion beer with food, I’m more used to a wider variety of styles than is usually available from a large-ish British regional brewer. Bill and Melissa guide us through each course pairing throughout the evening. However, a quick straw poll of the assembled diners revealed that beer dinners were not the norm for the Wales in London members, unless several pints of Kingfisher were the chosen accompaniment to a chicken Madras. Best not to freak people out with a Rosé de Gambrinus lambic, then. Here is the non-vegetarian menu and its chosen beer.STARTER
Ham hock, Pommery mustard, and parsley terrine with homemade piccalilli.
Brains MilkwoodMAIN COURSE
Confit leg of Gressingham duck, fondant potato, aromatic red cabbage & sherry vinegar jus
Brains Bread of HeavenDESSERT
Chocolate and raspberry mousse with berry coulis
Brains Original StoutBrains Beers with Posh Dinner: The Verdict
The Milkwood was new to me, and the nutty and slightly spicy maltiness (from rye crystal malt), was a good match for the ham terrine. The beer has another slightly unusual ingredient in malted oats, which I imagine, contributed to making it feel a bigger beer than its 4.3% ABV might suggest. A touch of sweetness too, as a go-between for the piccalilli, which was refined and tart, but not like the famous jarred version that resembles toxic waste. Would a touch more complexity from a heavier hand with the hops been even better? Duck confit just seems like perfect pub food. It’s slightly salty richness needs a beer to lighten the palate and quench the thirst. Melissa pointed out the cherry(stone?) note in the Bread of Heaven was a much better idea than overwhelming the meat with actual cherries. She was right. The red cabbage was a bit too much for it, but the oddly, the sweetness in sherry vinegar jus found the fruit in the beer, picked up the ball and ran.
“Bread of Heaven, feed me ’til I want no more! (Respons-i-blyyyy)”… And so to dessert. I had almost guessed it would be a dark beer with chocolate, but I hadn’t guessed that Brains Original Stout was a mere 4.1%. Half the strength of the Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter I go on about in these pages (and as I did to Simon and Mark). Sensibly, the chocolate mousse with which it was paired was not so intense as to smother the beer, and I was so glad to see it served in a goblet rather than a boring beer glass. All the better to show off the coffee and chocolate aromas in the beer. It worked then, I’m pleased to report. Not that I managed any kind of scientific survey, but from comments made during after-dinner speeches from honoured rugby guests Tom (Not Stainer) and Robert Jones for Wales, and ex-England full-back, now orthopaedic surgeon Jonathan Webb, I’d have thought this evening resulted in 100 or so more converts to the cause that drinking good beer with good food is a great idea. You don’t have to have outrageous beers, and you don’t have to wear a tie.