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It's quite an amusing little ale, sir

Will it be a Bishop's Tipple or Pete's Wicked Ale? Michael Jackson pores over restaurant beer lists and finds many offerings that are a match for wine.

When he arrived from San Francisco and established a country house hotel in Devon, Paul Henderson became one of the pioneers - of Californian wines in Britain, but that was only the beginning. Sixteen years ago, he began to champion rhine wines, too. Then he extolled Alsace, most recently the great dry Riesling Cbs Ste Hune, of which he has nine vintages. What now for Henderson the enthusiast? Now for beer.

Having won a justifiable reputation for its devotion to the grape, Mr. Henderson's hotel, Gidleigh Park, at Chagford, near Exeter, is also embracing the grain. He offers more than 500 wines on a list running to more than 30 pages. When the list was updated a few weeks ago, Mr. Henderson added a preface drawing attention to new sections on Cbs Ste Hune - and on beer.

Diners find beers listed, sensibly, not by the hundred, but by the score (about 19 more than most serious restaurants offer).

Diners find beers listed, sensibly, not by the hundred, but by the score (about 19 more than most serious restaurants offer). Just as the wines are divided according to grape and place of origin, the beers are set out by style. There are only two lagers, both from Bohemia, but they have a department of their own on the list. The Bavarian style of wheat beer is segregated from the spontaneously-fermenting type made around the town of Lembeek, in the Zenne valley of Belgium. The ales of the Rhineland and Wallonia have their own place, distinct from the pales, browns, "barley wines", porters and stouts of Britain and the US.

Each beer has a short taste description. Diebels Altbier, from the Rhineland, is "malty and sweet". The piquantly-named Fruit Defendu ("Forbidden Fruit") from Belgium, is "more bitter and acidic" (didn't Mr. Henderson notice the touch of coriander?). The Bishop's Tipple, from Wiltshire, is "rich and fruity." Pete's Wicked Ale, from the United States, is "chocolatey and vinous." Other brews win comment for their "refreshing attack" or "good balance", their aroma or finish.

In the US, where beer lists are more widely seen, they sometimes suggest pairings between brews and dishes: a dry stout with the clams or Maine lobster; a wheat beer from Texas with the chili; a Belgian dark ale with the chocolate dessert. I wonder how Le Fruit Defendu would perform with the sauted scallops on the menu at Gidleigh Park (they come with a coriander sauce).

I'm very tempted to try the liquorice-tinged Shepherd Neame porter with the Brixham crab and herb mayonnaise, and how could I resist an Old Speckled Hen beer with the Aylesbury duckling or roast pheasant?

But doesn't Mr. Henderson stand to earn less by offering his guests the beer option with their lunch or dinner? The most modestly priced wine at Gidleigh Park is a Chardonnay from the Languiedoc, at £17.50. The most expensive is Chateau Latour at £105. The beers range from £2 to £3.50 per bottle. Some have an alcohol content as high as 9 per cent, which takes them into the potency range of wines, and attracts taxes and duties to match.

In theory, Mr Henderson applies a multiplier in marking up his wines. In practice, he slides the scale so that the great vintages do not reach astronomic prices, while more heavily loading those in the lower price range. Beers are yet more heavily loaded, but no amount of marking-up will make them as profitable.

His view is that he earns his money by making his guests happy.

His view is that he earns his money by making his guests happy. "Almost all restaurants provide at least one beer," he observes, "and I have come to realise that places like mine should offer something more than the ubiquitous Heineken or Carlsberg." He is right. Several customers, noticing the beers now on the list, have commented on their favourites. The Belgian Trappist ale Chimay is one of the most popular.

Whatever the value of the experience, people do not go to Gidleigh Park for a cheap weekend. Typically, guests might pay £235-£350 for a double room with board, and splash out a further £75-£100 for a couple of bottles of wine with dinner. One guest went for a walk in the hills next morning, returned, and fancied a glass of champagne before lunch. Mr. Henderson suggested he tried a Bavarian wheat beer instead. The next day, the guest did not even consider the champagne option. "I would like to convert a couple of guests each month," says Mr Henderson, with the dedication of a man determined to share his discoveries.

And interest is growing. Debates have even broken out among guests over such questions as the merits of tipping in, or holding back, the yeast in sedimented Bavarian wheat beer. Like the Bavarians, Mr. Henderson enjoys the sediment. "This style of beer is just so refreshing, and I love the yeast character." Same of his customers are not convinced.

Having turned a guest from champagne to its beery counterpart, what miracle will Mr. Henderson perform next? I have always felt that lovers of burgundy might be equally receptive on occasion to a good Belgian ale. Mr. Henderson sees them enjoying Adnams' Broadside, a strong ale from Suffolk. "With its fruitiness, that reminds me of a burgundy - well, a good vintage burgundy." His current passion in the wine world, Cbs Ste Hune, he compares to a Worthington White Shield: "Wonderful balance, cleans the mouth, lingering flavours ..." A Theakston's Old Peculiar, on the other hand, is a rhine wine, or a Northern Italian: "Rich, almost treacly, ideal with a daub..." He enjoys the intensely floral character of Anchor Liberty Ale, from San Francisco, but some guests find it too piney. Liberty AIe is made from the American Cascade hop and is for people who enjoy California's oakiest Chardonnays.

Mr Henderson realises that his staff may need several tutored tastings before they are ready to pass on such explanations to diners. All the same, sommeliers may soon need more than a corkscrew. A bottle-opener, perhaps.

I know of no other restaurant in Britain ambitious enough to leaven its wine-list with so many beers, but the idea does promise to spread. At Hambleton Hall, near Oakham, in the former Rutland, the proprietor, Tim Hart, offers the local Ruddle's as his house ale, and the original Pilsner Urquell from Bohemia as his lager. Sounding only half joking, he says he is "slightly ashamed" not to be offering more beers: "I am attracted by the idea." Mr Hart also owns the Ram Jam, between Stamford and Grantham, at Stretton, on the old A1. This inn, which took its name from a beer in the 18th century, offers such British classics as Marston's, Timothy Taylor's and Samuel Smith's. "It is easier for restaurants now that British brewers are beginning to put their best products in attractively labelled and handsomely designed bottles," adds Mr Hart.

It is also easier to offer beers in a restaurant with an unstuffy ambience and eclectic menu. Classic French cuisine may demand wines to match, but northerly kitchens are more beer-friendly. A good example is the Market Restaurant in Manchester. This pioneering establishment offers beers from Germany, Belgium and Britain to accompany such dishes as potted smoked venison and salmon in a horseradish crust. With dessert, there might be a raspberry beer from Belgium or a damson brew from Windermere.

Perhaps the most eclectic of restaurants is The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow. There, the cod in roasted peppers might be accompanied by a Forstenberg Pilsner made at a royal palace in Baden-Worttexnberg, and the Scottish cheese by a Traquair House Ale from a castle in the Borders. The Scottish section of the beer list is particularly good, ranging from Maclays Oat Malt Stout through Heather Ale to Orkney Skullsplitter.

Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, TQ13 8HH (0647 432367).

Hambleton Hall, Oakham, Leicestershire LElS 8TH (0572 756991).

Ram Jam Inn, Great North Road, Stretton, Leicestershire (0780 410776).

The Market Restaurant, Edge Street, 104 High Street, Manchester M4 1HQ (061- 834 3743).

The Ubiquitous Chip, 12 Ashton Lane, įGlagsow, G12 85J (041-334 5007).

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: APR 16, 1994
In: The Independent

Food/Pairings - Editorial

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