Restaurants have always been fixated with wine. Perhaps they should be. There’s a healthy mark-up, almost everyone appreciates it, and it provides a comfortable match with food. But here’s the thing – increasingly, people don’t want comfortable. They want something unique. It’s well documented that millennials are more likely than previous generations to order or experience something adventurous. Although that’s not to say their elders don’t want something different from the usual mould either.
I’m at Alyn Williams’ restaurant at The Westbury hotel in Mayfair. It’s well known for its wine – something quite evident to the casual diner, who’s surrounded by floor-to-ceiling wine ‘coolers’. It’s a temple to the grape, and almost feels blasphemous to put your hand up and say ‘I think I’ll have a beer.’
But, like a true millennial, I’m not here for the usual. Here we have one of the small handful of fine dining restaurants offering an unusually wide selection of beers. Beer, in its various guises – from the tart Belgian lambics and the sweet Czech pilsners to the bitter British ales and the hoppy American West Coast pale ales – affords an array of styles and versatility not as readily available in wine. Cheaper unit prices mean considerable mark-ups can still be applied, but the price is as, if not more, attractive to the customer. And, the experience befits a fine dining restaurant – there’s nothing to suggest beer can be any less sophisticated than wine.
According to head sommelier Sabrina, the beer pairing menu was introduced gradually at Alyn Williams at the Westbury, and quite tentatively, when the restaurant first opened in 2011. Things started with a beer brought out to introduce diners to a wine-led menu, before the restaurant decided to move to a more comprehensive beer pairing. ‘It was Alyn’s idea,’ says Sabrina. ‘It wasn’t a jump everyone appreciated at first, but it’s grown very well.’
Sabrina points out England has a longstanding history of beer – something it can’t attest to with its wine. In food – and particularly with sourcing – there’s an increasing demand for products closer to home. The same is happening, albeit at a slower rate, with drink. This is clearly something the restaurant has picked up on, so why haven’t others too?
‘It’s because of the style of the chef, his cuisine, and his approach to food and drink. We taste the beer together with the chef. We follow our palette, and we do what we like most. If my assistant prefers one lager over another, then he’ll serve what he likes at that moment. We’ll still stick with the pairings, but with more freedom to mix and match.’
As for the pairing itself, it’s a bit of a tour around the globe – almost a who’s who of the beer world – from a Munich wheat beer, to a New York saison, to a Brussels lambic. There’s a classic Belgian wit, the lightness of which is in harmony with a delicate roasted monkfish. A Weihenstephaner weissbier is well rounded and easy on the palate – complementing a suckling pig and white asparagus dish just as well as the Meyer lemon and white chocolate dish succeeding it.
The pairing may seem like a breeze on the outside, but to any restaurants interested, placing more of an emphasis on your beer offering might not be as easy as it sounds. Serving temperatures are just as influential on the taste of beer as with wine, and fluctuate more between styles; almost each style of beer has its own glassware to succinctly show off colour and aroma; and many beers nowadays are unfiltered, meaning they should be stored upright and poured with care. These might seem like minor details, but details any self-respecting restaurant would take into account all the same.
Of course, it’s unlikely beer is ever going to supplant wine as the go-to drink of fine dining restaurants. But that’s not to say it should be forgotten entirely – at a time when there’s a lust for the new and different, and unique ways to please millennials are constantly sought, it could be just the tonic the industry needs.
Beer pairing menu at Alyn Williams at the Westbury
Lobster taco/chipotle mayo/dirty guacamole/green gazpacho
Sorachi Ace Saison, Brooklyn Brewery, USA
Roasted monkfish/fennel/cashew/coconut/roche carré
Blanche de Bruxelles Wit, Brasserie Lefebvre, Belgium
Suckling pig/walnut gnocchi/white asparagus/honey & mustard
Weihenstephaner’s Kristall Weissbier, Germany
Meyer lemon/espresso/white chocolate/melilot
English strawberries/pavlova/sweet cicely
Kriek Boon Lambic, Belgium
Photos courtesy of Alyn Williams at The Westbury