This was my third annual trip to Taste of Dublin culinary event. Each year has seen a steady increase in the amount of beer related stalls and events, culminating this year in an event organised by the Beer Naturally Academy specifically to pair food with beer and raise the public awareness of the complexity of flavour that beer can provide. Now, this sounds grand indeed, but the Beer Naturally campaign was established by the big boy brewers who are feeling the nip at their ankles from the nascent craft beer industry in Ireland. It is therefore difficult to imagine that this concept was developed with the hope of getting more people to drink craft beer. On the contrary, the goal of this project is to sell more macro beer by dressing it up in the same way that wine is so readily pushed as a gastronomical experience. On whole this is a good thing for beer in Ireland because consumers are far more likely to listen to brands that they are already familiar with, and brand loyalty in Ireland is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, if recent research is to be believed.
Our host for the half hour session was Master Beer Sommelier Mark Stroobandt, a man I had never heard of, but he has a mighty impressive title. Some craft brewers present elsewhere in the venue told me that Mr Stroobandt was goaded for carrying out these sessions, that playing up to the likes of Diageo and Co. is no way for a beer enthusiast to go about his business, but even master beer sommeliers need to pay the bills.
The first beer for tasting was Carlsberg paired with cheddar cheese. The cheese was good, as was the idea of getting the group to spoon some foam out of the glass and taste it. It was explained that we were tasting the dry bitterness of hops when we taste foam like this and it is in this respect that bitter beer acts an excellent aperitif. An important message, I think, and one that I have espoused for quite some time. As for the pairing itself, I can't say it did a whole lot for me because the beer didn't taste of a whole lot.
Heineken was our next stop, paired with Thai chilli prawns. Heineken was described as having a sweeter maltier nose to Carlsberg, with less hop character. Sadly I couldn't eat the prawn - a pesky mild allergic reaction prohibits my enjoyment, but I listened while he talked the others through it and explained that the beer washes away the flavour of the chilli leaving an emptiness on the palate, but the chilli soon reasserts itself. I can't say this was ground breaking stuff and of the pairings on offer I imagine that lager and hot spices was the most familiar to the group.
Moving swiftly (too swiftly I thought) to Paulaner and smoked French sausage, a demonstration was given on how to pour wheat beer (very important) followed by a chastising of those who put lemon in white beer (even more important). Mr Stroobandt went so far as to say that it was often dangerous to float wax laden lemons in your beer.
Without a second to fully digest any sausage or wheat beer we were on to a 'local' beer - Swithwick's Irish Ale. Mr Stroobandt was concerned that the uninitiated among us might find this ale a little sharp because of the use of roasted barely in the grist, but a non beer geek friend of mine and a few others present seemed to really enjoy it, suggesting it was far better than they remembered. Sun dried tomato and mozzarella were paired with this, an uninspiring match - the nibbles were tasty and the beer was alright but I didn't sense any great synergy between the two.
On the table before us throughout the event was some very rich looking chocolate cake. Initially I thought it would be matched with the Smithwicks, the only beer on offer dark enough to suggest a pairing, however at the end of the other pairing we were presented with some mini glasses of Guinness to go with the cake. This proved to be the best pairing of the day by a country mile. The rich Belgian chocolate cake brought out a sweetness in the Guinness and was likely the most eye opening aspect of the day for those present. Guinness is normally seen as a heavy, bitter drink that many find hard to stomach but this pairing altered the way that Guinness was perceived by the group. The mini Guinness glasses were given to us at the end as a gift from the Beer Naturally Academy - a wise thing to do because many of us were going to nick them anyway.
Over all this was a great event that will have helped to promote beer as a complex addition to food, equalling anything that the wine world can offer. The action is aimed at more mainstream beer, but I know from personal experience that even a slight shift in attitude or perception can lead to a very enjoyable journey of beer appreciation.