A few weeks ago I received an invitation to something called a “Hop Inspired Degustation Dinner.” My first reading of these words actually conjured a mental image of a group of chefs carefully observing a man hopping on one leg and designing dishes based on this unsteady athletic display.
As you may have guessed from this idiotic interpretation, I’m not a big beer fan. So when I realised ‘Hop Inspired” referred to the key flavouring ingredient in beer I was much less excited for the event than when I had fleetingly imagined the hopping muse.
The event was taking place in honour of the annual hop harvest which is going on in Tasmania at the moment. The harvest is kind of like Christmas for beer brewers around Australia as they gather the precious green vines which yield the sacred hop. The hops are like the herbs and spices of the beer, they give each beer its unique flavour, so they are the most important ingredient for beer brewers. The hop is actually one of Australia’s most successful crops and Aussie hops have a unique flavour profile which is highly sought after all over the world, with about 60% of the years harvest being exported overseas. It’s little wonder Aussie brewers are so proud and excited to spread the news about the well respected Aussie hop.
The hop harvest provides an occasion for beer lovers to celebrate their favourite drink, and with the rise of craft beers and new uses of hops cropping up, it also provides an occasion for non beer drinkers (like me) to become properly acquainted with their nation’s favourite beverage.
I’ve never really understood why beer is so popular, as I’ve never liked it myself. The reasons for this being that it tastes yuck (although I’m drawing most of my beer tasting experience from one ill-fated night where I drank 8 Toohey’s New at a high school party) and it’s unhealthy for you. Needless to say I arrived at the event hoping they would also be offering more sophisticated beverage options(aka wine) for us discerning and health conscious women.
There was nothing to do but commit to a long night of beer drinking. Luckily for me the event was hosted by the infallible Chiswick restaurant, so at the very least I knew I was guaranteed a delicious dinner. Despite being strongly predisposed to dislike beer, my inherent nerdy nature forced me to take the opportunity to learn as much as I could. Plus I couldn’t help being drawn in by the passion and excitement of master brewer Peter David and The Beer Pilgrim Tim Charody as they guided us through our journey of flavour. So let me share with you what I learned on my beer drenched night.
1. Beer is arguably healthier than wine.
As a loyal and dedicated wine drinker and health enthusiast this statement shook me to the core. I knew in my heart it couldn’t be true, we all associate beer drinking with bulging bellies, broken capillaries, failing livers and so on. Whereas wine is so civilised, the caviar of the alcohol world, we all know drinking red wine has manifold health benefits. However I certainly have never researched the cold hard facts of wine vs. beer. Until now. So let me lay them out for you.
Beer has fewer calories than Wine
The reason the opposite is widely believed is because a standard serving of wine is just 175mls whereas a standard bottle of beer is usually about 375mls. So yes it is true there are fewer calories in a (tiny) glass of wine than in a bottle of beer, but litre for litre there are almost double the calories in wine. In fact there is no scientific evidence to suggest a ‘beer belly’ is actually the result of beer drinking at all. Having excess fat is simply a case of over consumption of calories and can definitely not be attributed solely to the moderate intake of beer.
Beer has less sugar than Wine
As somebody who tries to avoid sugar as much as possible I couldn’t believe this fact had eluded me for so long. When you think about it, it’s obvious; wine is sweet, beer is not. Wine contains more residual sugar than beer. In fact most beer contains basically no sugar whatsoever. Oh and for those cider drinkers out there, cider contains about 12979461923 times more sugar than beer and wine. So if you’re trying to be healthy, don’t even think about it.
Beer has more nutritional value than wine
Sure, wine contains antioxidants but so does beer, and what’s more, beer contains B vitamins such as niacin and folic acid as well as significant amounts of magnesium, selenium, potassium, phosphorus, biotin, chromium and fibre. As well as these unique (and superior?!) health attributes, beer also carries the benefits common to all alcohol, namely a lower risk of heart disease, longer life and less cognitive degeneration.
Aaaaaand, at the risk of sounding like a government disclaimer I feel obliged to add that all of these benefits become detriments when consumption is excessive. Additionally, no alcohol should really be drunk for its health benefits, however if you are going to have a drink, it’s wise to consider the differences in health values.
2. Beer tastes good
Now I can’t really convince you about the taste of beer with a list of facts.The simple reality is that you can’t read a glass of beer. However I will say that if you are strongly adverse to beer (like I was) you may not have really allowed yourself to consider the amazing variation that exists in beer. When imagining the taste I’ve always conjured up some kind of insanely bitter, one dimensional flavour like VB or XXXX Gold. But when you really think about it that’s kind of the same thing as tarring all wines with the same brush as a box of cooking wine. What really amazed me about the night was the discovery of the complex flavours present in good quality beer. When you really stop and taste properly, there is so much going on in the way of flavour. And as I heard a beer enthusiast saying on the night ‘Saying you don’t like beer is as nonsensical as saying you don’t like TV. Which beer don’t you like? Which T.V show?’ It’s impossible to put all that amazing diversity into one category and although its perfectly likely that there are some beers you won’t like, it’s also very likely that there are some that you’d really enjoy if only you explored the possibility.
Whats more, the dedicated foodies out there might have to get used to drinking beer if they want to keep up with the changes occurring in restaurants. There’s a total revolution in the restaurant industry underway at the moment involving beer matching and beer degustations. It’s generally expected that many of the nicer restaurants will provide matching wines to complement their food, but restaurateurs are facing up to the fact that wine matching is getting a little boring and there’s an even more complex beverage that’s been under our noses all along which can also match and complement food.I was amazed to read the extensive tasting notes on each beer and understand how it complemented each dish presented to us. The food industry is always looking for something new and fresh and beer matching is emerging as a major new trend.
3. Hops is a flavour sensation
My last beer epiphany was the fact that hops (the plant which gives beer its flavour) can be used as an ingredient in food. The custom-designed menu designed by the chefs at Chiswick for the event used hops and beer in the most imaginative ways to create completely new flavours.
This may sound hard to believe but the hops flavoured icecream we had for dessert was by far the best icecream I’ve ever tasted. Before I read the menu I assumed it was vanilla and was surprised by the subtle and sophisticated flavour that reached my taste buds. I couldn’t understand how it could taste so subtle and complex, I had clearly underestimated the magic of the hop!
I’m always excited by new food trends and innovative cooking ideas (if you don’t believe me, see my post about eating bugs). So now that I’m convinced that beer isn’t the health liability it is made out to be, I feel excited to explore the whole new domain of beer matching and cooking with hops.
After my night of epiphanies, it seems to me that the noble and ancient beer has been sorely misrepresented for years as an unhealthy beverage for the undiscerning masses. And meanwhile, snobby wine has strutted around acting like it was the only beverage worth any serious attention. The hop harvest provides a pretty good reason to step back and appreciate this iconic beverage and give it the respect it deserves.
I never in a million years thought I would be expounding the benefits of beer unless somebody was paying me (which they’re not by the way!) But my beer epiphany has expanded my culinary horizons and if I can help in expanding anybody else’s, then my work here is done. So for those avowed beer haters, next time you’re offered a drink just try one glass of beer and shove your negative expectations or traumatic past experience to the side and really give it a chance to show you what it’s got. You might be pleasantly surprised..
Images courtesy of Dominic Loneragan Photography
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