“Le Gavroche used to have one beer on its list — Kronenbourg. Now they have 15,” drinks PR guru Rupert Ponsonby tells us, as we steel ourselves for a night of beer tasting with Innis & Gunn. Says it all really. I haven’t fact-checked that figure, but Rupert certainly knows his craft from his Kronie.
Yes, beer and fine dining: it’s a combo that would have elicited a haughty sniff a mere decade ago. But oh, how times have changed.
So… it comes as little surprise that the venue the Scottish craft brewers select for this tasting is not a pub, but 64 Degrees — Brighton’s first (and many would still say best) fine-dining establishment.
Slotted bang in the epicentre of the Lanes, the plaudit-collecting 64 Degrees (named after the temperature at which they cook their eggs) is headed by Michael Bremner, known to many for his appearance on the Beeb’s Great British Menu.
Innis & Gunn’s head honcho, meanwhile, is a bloke named Dougal Gunn Sharp. A formidable monicker, I’m sure you’ll agree. He sounds like he should be captaining a fleet of ships around the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones.
And it soon becomes clear that Dougal’s a straight-up guy. “Back in 2003, beer was shit,” he tells us. Don’t be shy Dougal, you can be frank here.
“So we looked to the wine and spirits industries for inspiration,” he continues. “And we realised — when you put beer in a Bourbon barrel, it tastes amazing. Now we’re the second biggest craft beer company in the UK.”
It’s one of those innovations that sounds so obvious that you wonder why nobody thought of it before. Somebody had to be first though, I guess. Hats off to them for their innovation. But they didn’t stop there…
“We found that breaking up Bourbon barrels and sticking them in a pressure cooker accentuates the flavour,” he continues. And he’s brought with him three types of wood chips, in little glasses, which I’m keen to smell.
They do smell remarkably different from each other. My favourite, the Jamaican rum barrel, is so rich and raisiny, it sends sparks of electricity across my scalp and down my spine. It reminds me of the smell of a barrel room I visited in Madeira. Dougal agrees.
“Barrel rooms are so distinctive,” he says. “Each one is different. They give you a warm hug when you walk in.”
He’s brought four beers with him for us to try, each of which is paired with at least one of the courses on the menu.
The Original (6.6% vol) is the flagship beer and “the one that started it all”. It has wonderful aromas of toffee and oak, and is used as our “base” beer for the night, because… well, it pairs with everything.
Blood Red Sky (6.8% vol) pours out, as you’d expect, a warm, vibrant orange, with caramel and tropical fruit flavours from the Jamaican oak barrels. Perfect for pirates who’ve had their fill of rum. 64 Degrees match it with butter poached market fish, and a crowd-pleasing tagliatelle with black truffle.
Gunpowder IPA (5.6% vol) adds a touch of Pouilly-Fumé-style smoke, alongside tangy citrus and notes of creamy tropical fruit. It’s paired with beef rump carpaccio with Tokyo turnip and horseradish; a prawn taco; and the stunning Roscoff onions with smoked humous. Bang!
And lastly, Vanishing Point 02 (11% vol) is a small-batch limited edition stout that’s been matured in oak for 12 months, a fact that really comes across in its flavours of marinated raisin, coffee and Christmas cake. It’s so posh it comes in a box, like a 20-year-old malt, and it pairs divinely with the dessert of pecan pie with malt ice cream.
Dougal says Vanishing Point is the best beer they do. “The name signifies the point on the horizon you’re always aiming for. Because we’re always looking for perfection.” he says. Personally, I think it’s named after the 1997 album by Primal Scream.
“British beer is the envy of the world,” Dougal tells us, proudly, as the evening draws to a close. I’ll leave you to imagine which expletive I’ve omitted from that quote, but he’s not wrong.
Next year Innis & Gunn are planning to release a five-year barrel-aged beer. I can’t wait for that one. It’s gonna be intense.
Here’s a rundown of the full menu from the night:
Soda Bread | Marmite Butter
Salmon Belly Tartare | Pastrami Spiced Brick Pastry
Beef Rump Carpaccio | Tokyo Turnip | Horseradish | Linseed Tuille
Prawn Taco | Chipotle Mayonnaise | Avocado Puree
Roscoff Onion | Smoked Humous | Miso Seeds | Creme Fraiche
Butter Poached Market Fish | Almond Crumb | Whey Butter Sauce
Fresh Tagliatelle | Black Truffle | Confit Yolk | Spenwood (I had to look this up. It’s a British cheese, made in the style of Parmesan)
Beef | Lovage Puree | Broad Beans | Pickles
Pecan Pie | Malt Ice Cream