Beer or wine?

news-20130206“Beer remains a virgin territory that still needs exploring.”

What is doubly special about Belgians is that they are at the same time beer and wine lovers. They are even world leaders. But even though they produce the former in large quantities and very little of the latter, wine still wins over in the restaurant.

A story explains this Belgian paradox very well, according to Anthony R. Martin, who owns the John Martin Brewery, which is over a century old: “ During the Tokyo food exhibition I was attending with all of the Belgian brewers, the organisation that presided over us organised a tasting of French wines in the middle of our stands!

Which just goes to prove that hops are still struggling to get onto maps and into inaugurations, in spite of a few timid steps forward. According to Carlo De Pascale, who founded the “Mmmh!" cooking classes and discusses food and drink on the RTBF and in Le Soir Mag , this shyness of beer is born of three factors. “I have to say that I only started enjoying a good beer when I was in my forties!”

The first hurdle is the consumer. “They have been used to drinking wine in restaurants for many years. Even in Wallonia, where drinking beer is associated with a festive, popular, convivial and local atmosphere . And even gastronomic societies like the Tarte al’Djote (a savoury cheese tart) in Nivelles and the Dinant Flamiche (another savoury cheese tart) drink wine such as Burgundy wine with the food, and rarely a nice beer…”

The second problem has to do with gastronomic arguments. “ Yet there are excellent arguments in favour of beer. First of all: the alcohol content. Volume for volume, you are far less likely to go over the proverbial limit of 0.5 with beer than with wine, which is an important factor. Also, beer often goes better with certain dishes… precisely because it contains less alcohol, and it keeps the meal lighter. Take Belgium’s much-loved “Américain” (raw minced beef) and fries. Nothing goes better with that than an acidic Gueuze . It ideally balances out the dish’s fattiness.”

Anthony R. Martin couldn’t agree more: “It’s very natural to associate beer rather than wine with dishes to evoke new flavour sensations. In fact, we’ve produced no less than six recipe booklets associating gastronomy with special beers, and we know that beers combine harmoniously with fish, sea food, poultry, pasta, fruit and vegetables… Also, the main reason for launching the 75 cl bottle is of course the link between gastronomy and beer!”

And finally, the third obstacle is the price! “Our third concern is with restaurateurs. Beer annoys them because even if they triple the price of a bottle of beer, like they do with wine, the margin in euros remains far lower. A good wine will sell for 45 euros, for example, with a margin of 30 euros. With a good beer, that’ll only be 15 euros... i.e. a margin of just 10 euros. It doesn’t take them long to work it out… So it’s not easy to convince them.”

Nevertheless, Anthony R. Martin thinks that the current economic situation might turn out to be an opportunity for special beers, and he stresses that certain restaurateurs are starting to catch on: For one thing, the bill will be lower and the guest will easily be able to combine a different beer with each dish without breaking the bank. Our tasting packs are ideal in this respect: 18 cl bottles mean people can taste six different beers along with matching dishes without overdoing it . More generally speaking, our range of special beers is broad enough to accompany a gastronomic discovery menu, and it also guarantees authenticity brought about by the quality of the locality, not to mention the fact that, being a local product, it is better from an ecological point of view." »

With regard to the choice of beer, Carlo De Pascale and Anthony R. Martin reject the pils. “With stoofvlees/carbonnades, it would be a shame," says Carlo De Pascale. “It’s still an industrial beer, and even younger consumers want more pronounced flavours,” Anthony R. Martin comments.

According to the tasting expert: “ Let’s also avoid beers that we are already using as an ingredient in the dish. Beer has to magnify the meal. Lambic, for example, is ideal with fish and creamy sauces. Its acidity clean your palate after you’ve eaten slightly greasy sauces.

So there is still great potential to be exploited here, even if some breweries in the Brussels area are making an effort. “Restaurateurs have to make a move and put beers on their menus, which will help their customers to not feel guilty. Beer bars can also do something by offering dishes that go well with one of the beers on their list. And finally, consumers need to be a little bit daring. For instance, we very often suggest Gueuze with the starter in our Belgian cooking courses. And our participants are very positively surprised…