Billed as Battle of the Sexes. John Keeling vs Melissa Cole. (Or Fuller's beers vs non-Fuller's beers). Six courses, each with 2 beers matched with it - one selected by Ms Cole, the other by JK, you judge and jury - which works best? It sounded like a gastronomic delight going down at the Red Lion in Barnes on 14th October. And that was before we discovered that one of the "courses" contained 4 different charcuterie, each of which was matched with 2 different beers. Those warm up drinks suddenly started to feel like a bad idea.
Onto "Course" 2 (part 1) - smoked duck breast with cherry compote. Anchor Liberty vs Fuller's Chiswick. I'm a massive fan of Anchor beers (see Beer Fest in a box for one of my favourites). But when it came to pairing with the sweet and smoky duck the Anchor was entirely too powerful for the food, and the mellower Chiswick won out.
(Part 2) - air dried ham and fig. Honeydew vs Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted. Again, I found the Bitter and Twisted just a little overpowering for the dish, whereas the Honeydew pulled out the sweetness of the fig and exploited nicely that classic sweet and salty combination that is so moreish.
(Part 3) - salt cod brandade on ryebread. St Austells Clouded Yellow vs Fuller's Discovery. Melissa had it for me here. Clouded Yellow is a great beer, but the real secret lay in the thin layer of horseradish between the brandade and the bread. The spicy notes from the coriander in the Clouded Yellow teased this out perfectly, allowing the spicy flavour to linger on the tongue.
(Part 4) - Devils on Horseback - Chimay Blue vs HSB. This was almost too close to call. So I won't.
Main 1 - Yam Fatt Putt. OK, I'll explain it. Chinese style pork belly with sweet potatoes in a big yam doghnut. Fuller's Past Masters Strong Ale vs Thornbridge Kipling. Much as I love Thornbridge, it was way too hoppy for the sweet plum sauce of the pork belly. Past Masters XX had it for me by a country mile. Rich, sweet and mellow, I'd never have thought of pairing it with anything but a sharp cheese, but it surprised me by not being cloying with the sauce. Nice pick JK.
Main 2 - Lahmacun (AKA spicy lamb pizza - sort of) - Fuller's London Pride vs Williams Bros Grozet. For me the intensely herbal Grozet - the stuff that Williams Bros do best - was a clear winner here. London Pride is a great session beer, but it didn't add to the food, didn't detract from it. It just didn't interact. One more to Melissa.
Dessert - Pear Tart Tatin with Fuller's Double Stout Ice Cream. Dark Star Espresso against (you guessed it) Fuller's Past Masters Double Stout. I love the double stout, it's a quirky stout, with some aniseedy notes, and really does the style credit. But the espresso here with its intense coffee flavour and greater sweetness, almost like a tia maria, just toned in nicely with the dessert. I think we're about 4 - 3 to JK now.
Digsetif - Chilli salted Caramel Tart - I loved this course, sweet, salty, spicy, so hard to match! You need a BIG beer to deal with that, let alone add to it. In the red corner, Fuller's Golden Pride, in the blue corner, O' Hanlons Brewers Reserve. It could only be the bigger beer that won out in this heavyweight competition. In this case it was the fruity, mellow, marmalade mitts of Golden Pride wrestling the chili caramel down your throat.
So 3 hours later, satiated in the extreme, I left the night reminded of three things. Firstly that matching beer with food can be equally, if not more powerful than matching wine with it. Although on the flip side it can also miss the beat entirely, which I find happens less with wine. Secondly that Fuller's has a staggering range of beers. We tasted less than half their range, and no two were even a similar style. And thirdly and most importantly that experimentation is always a good thing, and life can only be the richer for it.
Many thanks to the staff of the Red Lion for the exquisite food, and Melissa and John for their careful pairings and tutelage on the night.