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Telling Tales: Why British beer isn’t speaking food’s language (and why it doesn't need to)

There’s a lot of wine on the list at Levan, an ‘all-day bar and dining space in Peckham’ that is currently one of London’s most hyped new restaurants, but just three beers. Amidst a selection of mostly French wines in the ‘Something Before Dinner’ section, you’ll find Burning Sky Cuvée, Braybrooke Keller Lager, and Toast IPA. Good beers (well, I don’t really know Toast IPA), but, you know, just three of them. There are as many wines made in England on the same page.

Food and beer festival matching

Food and beer festival matching

Why do you think this is? I have an idea. It’s about the tale that is being told to the drinker. These beers all have a good story, particularly Toast. Its success has been largely ignored by the beer world (when did you last see it on a bar?), but it appeals to restaurants because it tells a certain story, about food waste and - crucially - how things could be done better. It lets people feel they’re doing something valuable, even though all they’re doing is selling beer. (The fact it’s beer means the restaurant doesn’t feel it’s losing too much by putting it on the menu; it’s only beer, after all.)

Cheese, the exception that proves the rule

Cheese, the exception that proves the rule

The other two beers have a strong narrative, too. I recently spoke to Anselm Chatwin, the owner of Graceland, which runs five craft-beer pubs in East and West London, for a story on the London Beer Competition website. How could new breweries appeal to him and his team? Amongst other things, he mentioned the need to tell a story, and highlighted the value of Burning Sky.

“You want to be a part of that [story] and understand that,” he said. “We don't necessarily have such a good relationship with anyone at Burning Sky, but we're all aware of it and are really keen on it.”

The other two beers have a strong narrative, too. I recently spoke to Anselm Chatwin, the owner of Graceland, which runs five craft-beer pubs in East and West London, for a story on the London Beer Competition website. How could new breweries appeal to him and his team? Amongst other things, he mentioned the need to tell a story, and highlighted the value of Burning Sky.

“You want to be a part of that [story] and understand that,” he said. “We don't necessarily have such a good relationship with anyone at Burning Sky, but we're all aware of it and are really keen on it.”

And then there’s Braybrooke, whose story involves German tradition, restaurant nous and, crucially, the involvement of a company - Biercraft - which focuses on selling beer into restaurants.

By contrast, most beer is telling a story that does not appeal to restaurant people. A lot of craft beer’s rise has been built on the idea of novelty and creativity, but there’s only so far you can take that. New things get old and creativity starts to look like gimmickry.

Wine, by contrast, has a bullet-proof tale to tell: the idea of terroir. Even the shittiest French wine can point to a dusty corner of La Hexagone and say: this is where we come from, this is who we are. It’s heritage. Restaurateurs love that. (It can work for beer, too: I was told last year by Nick Trower, owner of Biercraft, that The Kernel, which does relatively well in London restaurants, is regarded as “traditional-modern” by many of them: “It’s seen as classic.”)

French food loves wine

French food loves wine

If you’re a brewery in the UK that uses ingredients from all over the world (which is a lot of them), that makes hoppy beer because you went to America and you liked it (still quite a lot of them), that’s not very interesting. It once was - that’s Evin O'Riordain’s story, essentially - but it isn’t any more. Hops excite beer nerds, not ordinary people. They’re too obtrusive, too shouty, too gauche, and the perception is that they don’t work with food.

The best new breweries appear to have grasped this. Donzoko and Braybrooke are about proper German lager (and German beer, particularly Bavarian beer, is all about heritage). Good Things Brewing is about the environment and not wasting water; it’s no surprise it’s already appeared on television despite not yet having a brewhouse. I can see it doing well in restaurants in the same way as Toast has.

Having said all this, though, I have to admit that I’m happy with the status quo. I don’t really want to find pages and pages of beers when I go to a restaurant. Beer doesn’t need food, and wine often works better anyway. It makes more money for the restaurant, and its flavour characteristics - acidity, fruit character, tannins - work well with rich Franco-Italian food, which is what a lot of London restaurants serve. It also has a higher ABV: diners want to feel the effects without feeling bloated.

I certainly so, anyway. I’m going to Levan in a few weeks for my birthday and I’ll drink wine, preferably something made by an eighth-generation nonagenarian in an obscure part of an obscure region like the Jura. I’ll have a beer beforehand, though, probably down the road at Brew By Numbers’ new bar in Peckham. Is it such a problem that beer and wine satisfy different requirements? Can they not happily tell different stories? In this case, three might well be the perfect number.

Will Hawkes