Beer is made of only four ingredients - water, hops, yeast and barley. And yet with just only this quartet of ingredients there can be almost any number of beers (with varying tastes and textures) that can be made from it.
A few nights ago, I was invited to attend a degustation dinner at Circa The Prince as part of the Hop Harvest 2014. Hop Harvest 2014 is to celebrate this year's harvest of hops and also to discover the beauty of hops in beer and food. It was an enlightening and gourmet experience as I got to learn a lot more about beer from Peter David, master brewer at Lion, and Tim Charody, who has the lucky job of being the Beer Pilgrim.
It's obvious that these guys love their beers (even the paper and ink that were used for my invitation was made from beer). But what impressed me the most was their genuine enthusiasm to teach others how to enjoy beer in a fun and non-preachy way. Upon arrival, we were led into a beautiful room where it was decorated with hops (brought in from Tasmania), dahlias and eucalyptus leaves that were hanging from the ceiling, which gave a gentle scent to the room. It felt like I was in the middle of A Midsummer's Night Dream.
A glass of James Squire 150 Lashes Pale Ale and a sprig of Tasmanian hops.
We were welcomed with a glass of James Squire 150 Lashes Pale Ale to go with canapes of spanner crab cracker w avocado and crayfish emulsion (a lovely crisp cracker packed with lots of sweet tender crab) and duck parfait w brioche and pepper gel.
Cheers to Tim Charody the Beer Pilgrim (L) and Master Brewer, Peter David (R).
To kick things off, Tim the Beer Pilgrim, shared with us his journey to Tasmania for the annual hop harvest. Australia produces such excellent hops that 60% of the harvest is exported to overseas markets. Peter David, the master brewer, explained that tonight's dinner was to change people's attitude towards beer and for us to experience a dinner where the menu has been designed to complement the beer - rather than the other way around.
For each course, we had two types of beer to taste. That way, we could not only contrast the different flavours, textures and aromas of the beers but also to see how each beer would complement or contrast with the dishes. For the starter, we had Beck's Pilsner and Pilsner Urquell. The Beck's had a herbaceous flavour while the Urquell had a caramelly tone to it. As with all the beers that were served, these were served in what Peter David described as stemmed wine goblets. As with wine, Peter said it's important to serve beer in glasses but not fill it up to the top so as to allow the aromas and flavour to come through the head of foam and to let some of the carbonation out.
The starter was an unusual but tasty heritage beets roasted in hops w barley curd and malted onions. It was served with this chocolately brown roll that I suspect had some hops or beer in it too. The earthy beetroot and onions were strong enough to hold up against the bitter, astringent-y flavour of the hops. I also loved the toasted rice that further emphasised the smoky, earthy flavours. The barley curd was lovely as it added a creamy richness to the dish. It was an unusual combination of flavours but worked really well - a very sophisticated dish. I preferred the Urquell with this dish as it had a deeper flavour (whereas I felt the Beck's was a tad too light in flavour).
For the entree, we had the James Squire The Constable Copper Ale and Spitfire Kentish Ale. The Spitfire was my favourite beer of the night. It has a very strong malt flavour and mouthfeel. It's also quite bitter, plus I liked the shape and branding of the bottle (I'm a sucker for nice packaging!). The Constable is an English-style ale and was also bitter in flavour, although not as much as the Spitfire.
The dish was blue cod w summer leeks, truffle and roasted hop broth. The cod was a great choice of fish, as it's meaty flesh can withstand the strong ales. Lots of umami flavours from the dish - from the coal-roasted cod, the grilled mushroom, toasted sesame seeds and the broth which was made from roasting the cod bones and hops.
Peter David (L) and Executive Chef Ashly Hicks (R).
During the course of the dinner, we got to hear from Executive Chef, Ashly Hicks. Ashly explained how he also loves beer and the experience of cooking with hops as an ingredient. He said that his favourite dish for the night was the cod and also said that they would consider having a beer-matched and hop/beer-based dishes as part of their regular menu at Circa.
For the main dish, we had Robbins Island wagyu w mustard, marrow and onion jus. To go with it, we had Little Creatures Pale Ale and Knappstein Reserve Lager. The Knappstein had sauvignon blanc notes, so it was a bit fruity in flavour; while the Little Creatures was more crisp and fresh in flavour. The buttery, beefy wagyu and the sultry mellow heat of the mustard was wonderful. Once again, the sharp, strong flavours from the dish (e.g., the green leaves and onion) were a perfect backdrop for the beers. For this dish, I preferred the Knappstein.
We were all interested to see how dessert would be like. Peter observed that for Aussies, we tend to drink beer as a refreshment (usually straight from the bottle or can) and not so much as part of a meal - served in glasses and matched to the meal (as we would do with wine). Over the course of his life as a master brewer, he has seen the Australian palate change and become a bit more sophisticated. As part of this trend, he hopes to see beer served with dessert.
For dessert, we had the very punchy Seven Sheds St Ella IPA and the rather fruity but also bitter Feral Hop Hog. Both beers were chosen for its bitterness to contrast the sweetness of the dessert.
A dark chocolate mousse w cherries, cocao and shortbread would be the backdrop for these two beers. I found the Seven Sheds too in-your-face for the dessert and just generally as a beer. After I took a sip, the aftertaste mouth-feel lingered... and lingered, and lingered some more. While the mousse was made from dark chocolate, I didn't feel that it was strong enough to match or temper the heavy Seven Sheds beer. I did, however, enjoy the Hop Hog, which I felt went really well with the dessert. The fruits in the dessert (cherries, raspbs, strawbs and blackberries) complemented the fruity tones in the Hop Hog.
Food and Beer – 9.5
Ambiance – 8.5
Service – 9.5*
Price – 7.5*
*Prices are notional as I was a guest of Hop Harvest 2014 and Circa The Prince.
My goodness - this experience has totally changed the way I feel about beer! Up until this dinner, I've also thought beer was that bloaty drink that was only drunk by two types of people - frat boys and booze hounds (think Barney Gumble). I've learnt that it's much, much more than that; and that the rather unsophisticated way in which beer is consumed in Australia is quite possibly the reason why I haven't considered beer to be my preferred alcoholic drink.
I was amazed that by serving the beer not too cold, in a stemmed goblet (aka, a wine glass) which is not filled to the brim brings out the different aromas and flavours that you wouldn't otherwise get if you were drinking straight from the can or tin.
I can't wait for the next time I'm at a bar or restaurant so that I can ask to them to serve me a glass of beer in a stemmed goblet - here's to new experiences! Thank you to Peter, Tim and Ashly for an enlightening and gourmet night out.
To learn more about Hop Harvest 2014 and the Beer Pilgrim's journey visit www.facebook.com/TheBeerPilgrim.
Circa The Prince
2 Acland Street
St Kilda 3182
Telephone: 9536 1122