Hop Harvest Dinner @ Circa

March 29, 2014

2 Acland Street, St Kilda

A little while ago I was invited to celebrate the Hop Harvest 2014 with a degustation dinner at Circa, the Prince in St Kilda. The invitation, printed on paper made from excess beer-making materials, and ink injected with James Squire Pale Ale, was enough alone to get me really excited about the dinner.

The idea for the dinner came from head brewer at Lion Nathan, Peter David, in collaboration with The Beer Pilgrim (aka Tim Charody) and Head Chef at Circa, Ashley Hicks: a bespoke menu of local produce designed to match a range of beers. In much the same was as many restaurants offer wine matchings, here Peter was attempting to instil in all of us an understanding that beer, despite being made from only four ingredients (water, hops, yeast and barley) can be just as diverse and sophisticated as wine.

When I arrived the private room at Circa had been beautifully decorated, with each table sporting a garland of greens (including fresh hops straight from Tasmania!) on the ceiling. It made for a very special setting.

As Peter explained to us, the timing of the dinner matched with the annual hop harvest in Tasmania, Australia’s only commercial source of fresh hops. His passion for beer was both obvious and infectious.

Presently, Australia produces some 1% of the global hop harvest, but 60% of what we grow is exported overseas, mainly to the US. Even though we’re quite a small contributor to global hop production, the quality and taste of Australian hops is increasingly being recognised. Peter says this is because of the climate here, particularly in Tasmania: very cold but with a long twilight. This makes it a particularly good location for growing hops – in the summer, a hops plant can grow over 6 inches in one night!

We then heard from Tim ‘Beer Pilgrim’ Charody, who spoke a little about his programme, and his travels around the world tasting beer. He had most recently been to Tasmania for the hop harvest, where he was able to harvest, brew, cook with and even taste raw hops (don’t try this at home – he had a bitter aftertaste for weeks following!) Like David, Tim had a genuine enthusiasm about beer that was really admirable.

Needless to say, by this point I was really excited to begin the dinner! I’d never thought to match beer with fine food before. Certainly I love a beer with pub food, BBQs or any spicy Thai or Indian food, but beyond that I was completely unaware of how a menu could be tailored to suit a particular beer.

The first two beers were Beck’s and Pilsner Urquell, both light and fresh in taste. They were the least bitter of the beers we tried, so matched quite well with our beetroot starter.

Head chef Ashley Hicks had done a marvellous job using hops as an ingredient in all of the dishes he served (not a mean feat, considering how bitter and overpowering hops can be!) Here, heritage beetroots had been roasted in hops and served with barley curd and malted onions. The hops gave the earthy beetroot a bitter twinge, which contrasted nicely with the sweet onions. The malted vinegar had me reminiscing about fish and chips with malted vinegar, so drinking beer seemed like the most natural of pairings!

With our second course came another pair of beers, James Squire The Constable Copper Ale, and a Spitfire Kentish Ale (in a brilliantly British bottle). Both beers were dry-hopped in the English Ale style, and we were invited to try them first without food to see how the taste altered with the pairing.

The Constable tasted quite floral to me, slightly malty, but overall I thought it a bit weak and boring. The Spitfire, however, fared much better with a wonderful maple/toffee nose to it, and a bitter finish to keep it crisp. A very peaty and earthy beer, and one of my favourites from the evening – shall certainly be looking for this in the future!

Our (very generously sized) entree was blue cod with summer leeks, truffle and a roasted hop broth. The cod was cooked to perfection: the sweet and firm flesh brought onto another level entirely by the smokey hops broth and a grassy chervil dressing. A king brown mushroom topped off an already wonderful dish.

All the courses we enjoyed here were fantastic, but this one has to be the winner in my opinion. Not only was the fish beautiful of its own accord, but what it did to the flavour of the beer was magical. The Constable, which I’d thought was overly watery when drunk by itself, was transformed into a golden, caramel dream. The Spitfire similarly came alive when paired with the fish. The cod really managed to deepen and bring out the savoury notes in both beers: it was remarkable.

Here is Peter again, taking us through the stages of a beer tasting. He says he judges a beer 80% based on smell, swirling the beer in a stemmed glass to release CO2 and liberate the hops before inhaling. Then, he’ll check the colour and clarity of the brew, as below. Finally, he’ll taste the beer. And the key difference between wine tasters and brewers? Brewers never spit.

The main course was a hanger steak (Wagyu from Robbins Island), served with a mustard and marrow cream and onion juice. Absolutely knock-your-socks-off delicious! A classic pairing of flavours that was appreciated by the entire table, it worked surprisingly well with the paired beers.

The matching beers were one of my old favourites, Little Creatures Pale Ale, and a beer I’d never tasted before, Knappstein Reserve, made with New Zealand Nelson hops. The Knappstein, which Peter described as having a sauvignon blanc nose, had been used in the onion jus, enhancing the earthy flavour.

Then it was time for dessert, something that, if matched with beer, is typically matched with a dark chocolatey stout or porter. Instead, Peter and Tim had taken a gamble and picked out two very hoppy, bitter beers to match with the dish: the Seven Sheds St Ella IPA and the Feral Hop Hog. I think it’s fair to say that the gamble paid off!

The bitter beers contrasted nicely with our sweet and rich dessert: chocolate mousse with cherries, 64% cocoa and shortbread. Beautifully plated, it was a sweet mess of textures and flavours, and the beers were a refreshing contrast.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’d never done a beer match with fine food before. The closest I can think is when a truffled onion soup was matched with Murray’s Whale Ale at Vue de Monde, and at the time I remember thinking how revolutionary it was. This dinner was even more enlightening, and I am eager to try my own beer matching at home!

It’s clear that Peter and Tim are trying to break new ground here. They’re working to remove suspicions and have beer considered seriously as a match for fine food. It’s a campaign to get people listening. Well, I’m all ears.

Blogger’s note: A big THANK YOU to the lovely folks at Res Publica for inviting me to the event.

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Filed under: Brewery, Modern, St Kilda