JOSEPH THEOBALD hooks up with a crafty crew of hop connoisseurs for a beer and food tasting

BEER is the Jeff Bridges of the beverage world: Gin and tonic makes for a damn fine aperitif and rum brings back happy Cuban memories, but it’s versatile range makes beer a great casting choice for most appearances, whether a lazy Sunday matinee session, post-dinner melodrama, mid-week bowling noir, or as an accompaniment to good food.

One of my ‘death row final meal’ top contenders is a pint or two of creamy Irish Guinness stouts with a few dozen oysters. It’s a perfect example of two distinct flavours that were made for marriage. So good even, that it forces me to reconsider my atheism.

And then there’s pizza and beer – possibly the single greatest source of culinary happiness the universe has ever known (another green mile contender).

So when I was invited along to join the Crafty Swines, a beer club dedicated to the great cause of hop based beverages, for an evening of beer tasting that would encompass a selection of carefully-curated food pairings, I was as reluctant as a sailor in a bordello.

The venue was Old Town’s Royal Oak; the host a man called Henry with an unquenchable thirst for beer-trivia; the libations a summer ale, a Spanish pilsner and a Brooklyn saison.

Crafty Swines was set up over the summer by a couple of bearded hip-cats called Matt and James.

“Being beer lovers ourselves and craving some decent events revolving around this, we decided to set up Crafty, a social membership that offers a chance to meet like-minded people, and taste beers that may not normally be available,” said Matt.

“We are trying to come up with some events that are that little bit different, from food pairing, to home brewing itself... personally we are currently loving the sour trend - not to everyone’s taste though! We are quite lucky to have a few venues/outlets especially in Old Town where you can get these.”

Our first course consisted of a Summer Ale from one of the giants of US craft brewing, Brooklyn Brewery. This five per cent ABV pale ale was soft and subtle, with a nice clarity and medium carbonation. It’s brewed using four hop varieties and there were a few subtle floral aromas and fruity flavours (melon, raspberry) but I wasn’t blown away by the beer itself.

When Dan, the owner of The Royal Oak, brought out a large plate of shrimp tacos – jammed with succulent king prawns and thick cuts of avocado – the summer ale was emboldened, a good demonstration of the reciprocity between liquid and literal bread.

After some form filling, we were each supplied with a sheet to guide us through the process of tasting a beer – look, smell, drink... scrutinise... drink more – with Henry patiently fielding answers to the same question. As the room echoed and reverberated with the clamour of ‘What is/are esters???’, the second round came in to land on a big round tray - golden-amber pint-size tulips of the Spanish pilsner, Mahou Cinco Estrellas (5 Stars).

The beers were presented to us in frozen glasses, a measure that Dan insisted is key to accentuating certain flavours. Along with the fluffy white heads, it also made for an extra-frosty and refreshing impact.

Our Spanish lager was accompanied by small dishes of cubed potato, skin intact, boiled then fried to perfection and coated in a rich, piquant, garlicky tomato sauce with a hint of smokey paprika. A delicate sprinkle of parsley and some handy tooth picks made for the perfect partner to our crisp Mahous.

Unlike the shrimp tacos, the patatas bravas are a permanent fixture on The Royal Oak’s menu at £6.25 and were the best I’ve had in a long time.

Our final combination was a show stealer, another beer from Brooklyn Brewery, their Sorachi Ace Saison, and a goat cheese omelette that had the beer club bleating in approval.

I’m a sucker for a saison, a style of farmhouse ale originating in Wallonia, the Francophile end of Belgium.

Sorachi Ace has a relatively high ABV for the style at 7.2 per cent, is hazy blonde in colour with a medium, stark white fluffy head and you get a nice aroma of citrus and spice, with a herbal, crisp taste. The beer is made with its rare namesake Sorachi Ace hops, fermented with Brooklyn’s Belgian ale yeast and then refermented in the bottle with Champagne yeast.

The floral, dry and crisp beer was really great, but the culinary accompaniment dialled things up to 11 – a light, folded omelette with a liberal, creamy goat cheese filling. The addition of thinly sliced sautéed apples, sugar and lemon juice achieved a savoury dish with just a hint of sweetness. Quality cooking that accentuated the depth of flavour in the saison.

The evening cost £17.50 and you must be a member of Crafty Swines Beer Club to attend their monthly events. It’s £15 for a year-long membership and that also gets you a nice IPA glass and discounts and deals at Baila, Longs, McKenzie’s, The Tuppeny, Magnum Wine Shop and Popup Pizza.

Everyone who attended also received a complimentary hardback book on craft beers and ciders, courtesy of Carlsberg UK.

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