Brew Wharf, the recently opened restaurant with its own micro-brewery, seemed the most appropriate place to catch up with Rupert Ponsonby, the leading light behind the emergence of beer lists alongside wine lists in a growing number of restaurants in the UK, a movement that is simultaneously gathering force in the US.
Brew Wharf is a particularly interesting place for food and beer lovers. One of its founders is Trevor Gulliver of St John and as a result, the restaurant's approach is straightforward, direct and authentic. It has been carved out of three enormous arches formerly part of the Vinopolis tour giving it a sense of space rare in London restaurants with the brewery, operated by The Meantime Brewery Company of Greenwich, producing six beers on site including their own raspberry, pilsner and wheat beers. Alongside the beer and wine lists is an extensive, reasonably priced menu from which all we ate was good: mussels in a creamy beer sauce; whitebait; smoked haddock with bubble and squeak; and crisp pork belly with lentils.
As a guest, Ponsonby is just as interesting. After an initial career in scrap metal trading (which, incidentally, I share), he had an abortive time running Starchi & Starchi of London and Parsons Green, his own dry cleaning business, before falling into restaurant PR and then the drinks business. He now runs his own PR company, R&R Teamwork, which acts on behalf of numerous wine and beer clients.
He has, perhaps most uncharacteristically, also put his money where his palate is. Ponsonby is a shareholder in The Meantime Brewery Company and farms 50 acres of malting barley for sale to the brewing industry. He is not interested in the indiscriminate dissemination of beer for beer's sake but rather its restoration to what he believes is its rightful place alongside the most suitable food. When I asked him whether he wanted to see a beer list in every restaurant he replied emphatically, "No, only every restaurant that is interested in serving good food."
His crusade to this effect has been fought on several fronts, with consumers, brewers, the media, restaurateurs and chefs but a turning point came four years ago when he organised a beer tasting for 20 sommeliers at Aubergine restaurant which today he thinks has an exemplary beer list. "They loved the beers and were extremely positive about the range of flavours but they all voiced the same concern. How could they make the same margin on beer as they did on wine? They were used to multiplying the cost price of any wine by three but they felt that they couldn't do this with beer," Ponsonby explained.
"My initial response was that they didn't make any margin on their bread or butter and perhaps if they showed some initiative on this front it would be rewarded. Once this initial enthusiasm was rewarded with sales, the most conscientious sommeliers have not only put on a range of different beers at different prices but also found particularly esoteric beers such as Deus, brewed in Belgium and fermented with a champagne yeast which costs £32 for a 75cl bottle. There is also the added bonus for the customer that even if they have a different beer with every course they are likely to end up with a lower bill than if they had had a couple of bottles of wine."
The line of attack he has used most successfully subsequently to chefs, restaurateurs and consumers is the one which involves beer's rich range of flavours. "Most people used to believe that beer was simply a banal drink but I believe that it can not only match so many dishes on today's menus but it can also be explained and sold in so many different ways: by colour, alcohol level, style, texture and provenance."
"All of this gives the restaurateur a great opportunity to excite and educate the customer and be different. And the key for the customer is quite simply to think of the weight of the dish that he is going to eat and choose a beer of the same intensity. So with this rich pork belly I've ordered a bottle of the yeasty Goose Island IPA brewed in Chicago but with the fishcakes or the pint of prawns I would have had a lighter beer, a wheat beer or a hoppy Pale Ale perhaps. Porter goes very well with scallops, oysters and chocolate. It really isn't difficult and it's great fun. I really hope to see the day when a customer says to a sommelier 'This is the food I am having – which beers would you recommend?'
Ponsonby is only too aware that the educational process he has helped initiate has a long way to go. "When I began I realised that the brewers, mostly male it has to be said, were simply too modest, that they were not being passionate enough about their product. I am trying to change that by borrowing the language that until now the winemakers seem to have had a monopoly on. There is plenty for the brewers and the beer companies to work on and it can all make choosing the beers more fun for the restaurant goer. Hops have very different flavour characteristics. Golding is like Chablis, light and delicate; challenger is more zesty; and fuggles I always think of as more earthy and sensuous. Then there is the whole issue of 'terroir' which the French wine industry tries to monopolise but relates equally in my opinion to beer and depends on whether the hops were grown on clay or limestone or near the sea. They are all very different."
Ponsonby's biggest single initiative in education and conversion has been the Beer Academy, a 'virtual organisation' backed by over 50 breweries which holds courses around the UK teaching anyone who wants to learn more about beer and particularly how it relates to food. "I have copied its approach pretty comprehensively from the highly successful Wine & Spirit Education Trust and it's the first generic, non-partisan beer organisation of its kind in the world. It may sound serious but its jolly good fun," Ponsonby added as he drained his glass of Goose Island IPA.
www.beeracademy.co.uk for anyone who wants to learn more about beer.
Restaurants with exceptionally good beer lists
In the UK
Brew Wharf, 1 Stoney Street, SE1, 020-7378 6601
Aubergine, 11 Park Walk, SW10, 020-7352 3449
Quilon, St James's Court, 41 Buckingham Gate, SW1, 020-7821 1899
The White Horse, 1-3 Parsons Green, London DW6 020-7736 2115
Anthony's, 19 Boar Lane, Leeds, 0113-245 5922
And any branch of Belgo.
In the US
Higgins, 1239 SW Broadway, Portland, Oregon, 503-222 907
Per Se, Time Warner Center, New York 212-823 9335
Gramercy Tavern, 42 E 20th Street, New York 212-277 0777
Hearth, 403 E12th Street at First Avenue, New York 646-602 1300