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American Beers Curry Favour
Indian food with American beer is not an obvious partnership. Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable.
At that time, there were precious few Indian restaurants in the USA. There are more now but nothing like on the scale we see in the UK.
A colonial past has endowed the British with a passion for curry that has been both recognised and fuelled by entrepreneurial immigrants from the subcontinent. In the US, the migrants with most culinary influence, to now, have been Mexican and Chinese.
Another reason American beer has seldom made it to the Indian table is that, until relatively recently, it could not – quite literally – cut the mustard.
The flavour vacuum that existed in the US beer industry for most of the 20th century is well known, with most beers having neither the depth nor the sophistication to wrestle with such a robust, yet wily, culinary opponent as curry.
Things are different today. The new generation of American brewers build such an intensity of flavour into their beers – drawing from the œuvre of world beer styles – that there is no longer need to fear for them in a food fight with our Indian friends. Their beers now have both brawn and brain so it was likely to be a fascinating face-off when East met West at Mayfair's swanky Benares restaurant.
We are not talking high-street curry house here. Benares polishes its Michelin star almost as much as its gleaming cutlery and sparkling glassware. But, at the risk stereotyping, you can't say Americans are folk to be daunted or duck a challenge.
Hoping to fight fire with fire, in strode the American beer ambassadors, headed up by Brewers Association top man Bob Pease. His measured welcome to assembled journalists and brewers underscored the uncertainty surrounding the adventurous enterprise.
First onto the immaculately-set table was a neat little prawn cocktail. No clumsy Thousand Island dressing here, just the lubrication of tangy yoghurt, the proverbial coolness of cucumber, a slight chilli kick and a warming mustard finish. What, we pondered, would the brewers place next to that?
The choice was between Flying Dog Wildeman Saison and Boulevard's Tank 7, also a saison. Well, for me the Wildeman (named after the famous bar in Amsterdam) was a bit too hop dominant. It weighed too heavily on the delicacy of the shellfish and salad.
The Tank 7, on the other hand, (which, I confess, was already one of my go-to beers) drank seamlessly with the food, quelling the warmth with its lush bed of malt and matching the spices, note for note. I cannot see any wine achieving the same synchronicity.
For the next round, Benares delivered a trio of spiced potatoes, one stuffed with beetroot, a second infused with the sweet and sour nuances of tamarind and the third royally enhanced by mint. The Americans countered with Odell 90/- and Anderson Valley Boont Amber.
Attention at this point turned to sweetness and malt. Rightly so, as a more aggressive beer would have destroyed the soft, vegetarian subtlety of the lightly fiery potato spheres. The Odell beer slipped down effortlessly with the tamarind option, the degree of sweetness in each being perfectly matched.
The other two combinations, in my view, went Anderson Valley's way. Boont Amber has a delicate hop note that does not outmanoeuvre the malt but gives it a welcome lift, and this zipped nicely alongside the herbal freshness of the minted potato and the more raised spice character of the beetroot selection.
For round three – pan-roasted sea bass in a coconut sauce – the beer choice fell between two IPAs. The more subdued of the two was Lexington's Kentucky IPA – mellow, earthy and carrying the English fingerprint. It drank nicely, but not spectacularly and, while dealing admirably with the complexity of the food on the plate, failed to take it to a new level.
The second beer, Firestone's Union Jack, on the other hand, fairly breezed along the tongue, bursting with juicy American hoppiness but remaining resolutely quaffable at all times. Its fresh citrus notes tore through the creaminess of the coconut and lifted the earthiness of the fish. They also brightened the Germanic dourness of the accompanying spiced cabbage salad.
Now we approached the main course, a pink lamb chop, served with a spinach side, a piquant curry sauce, a small pickled artichoke and a seared polenta strip. Our accompaniments fell on the dark malt side.
Left Hand's Milk Stout (unhelpfully nitrogenated, I felt) offered a complementary counterpoint to the creaminess of the spinach but was outsmarted in this round by Dogfish Head's Indian Brown, which combined a similar nutty sweetness with a tangy hop bounce.
I regretted having to skip the dessert course, which saw Maui Brewing's Coconut Porter set up to enhance a milk-poached cottage cheese dumpling and its rival, Ballast Point's Victory at Sea imperial porter – loaded with coffee and vanilla flavours – entrusted to engage with the chocolate accompaniment, but, I'm assured, each combination provided a fitting climax to the evening.
As fancifully as I might suggest so, this absorbing event was never set up as a dual. There was no intention to find winners or losers. It was, rather, a public courtship, an open examination of where, if anywhere, happy marriages – across two diverse cultures – might be found.
Despite the fact that an Indian restaurant is one of the few eating establishments where most diners order a beer over other drinks, it's really not that simple to pair beer with curry. Clearly, there are plenty of beers that can douse the heat, but to select a beer that can really sing in harmony with the food is a different matter.
The American challengers – for all their historic naivety with curry – showed us, rather brilliantly, that it can indeed be done.