Should beer be taken as seriously as wine? Can it match well with food? And do women even like it? I arrived at The White Horse in Parson's Green (or the Sloaney Pony as it's affectionately known) a Doubting Thomas.
I'd been invited along to a 'girlie beer evening' by the grandiosely-titled Rupert Ponsonby, founder of The Beer Academy and the man single handedly responsible for getting beer lists into a number of London's top restaurants. Under his duress, Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon serves every beer on its list in a different glass.
What Ponsonby doesn't know about hops and barely isn't worth knowing, and tonight was a brazen attempt to convert our cherry picked group into lifelong beer sippers – an educational device to begin filling a colossal gap in the market: 80% of UK women currently steer clear of beer. 'Beer is a disparate creature, which is wild, whacky and to be loved', Ponsonby begins.
While the mini burger canapés do the rounds, Ponsonby cleverly moves on to dispelling some popular beer myths, such as the idea that beer makes you fat. In fact, beer is made up of 95% water and contains 0% fat, 0% cholesterol and far fewer calories than the average glass of wine due to its low alcohol content, so a large glass of Zinfandel will do your waistline considerably more damage than a cheeky half pint of lager.
We sit down to eat and our first beer flight is ceremoniously poured in elaborate glassware. Ponsonby is big on serving beer in appropriate vessels. And there are many, from flutes and tulips to the amusingly monikered snifter. Only in Britain is the pint glass rife – in Belgium, where beer is treated with near beatific reverence, there are as many different beer glasses as there are Riedels for wine. I rather like the idea of the Belgian beer waiter scuttling around his cellar desperately searching for a specific receptacle to do justice to an obscure brew.
Paired with a gargantuan squash and quails egg tartlet, we imbibe a trio of beers: Innis & Gunn Blonde, Schneider Weiss and Goose Island 312. I'm charmed by the Innis & Gunn, which has changed my opinion of beer for life. Soft, creamy and mellow with a strong vanilla backbone from the American oak ageing, it slips down like silk. The Goose Island is intensely aromatic, with strong floral and honey aromas recalling Gewurztraminer and Torrontes, while the Schneider Weiss is rounded and sweet with a tropical banana edge.
While neither of the three are a divine pairing for the tartlet, they in no way jar with the flavour profile of the dish. Before beginning the second flight and main course, Ponsonby moves on to stress the importance of serving beer at the correct temperature - a rule all wine lovers will appreciate. Like white wine, most beer is best served chilled, as the delicate brews loose some of their aromas when exposed to heat. Darker beers can get away with being served Beaujolais style – lightly chilled.
On to the main event: a mammoth skate wing with hand cut chips, served alongside Belgian beer Duvel and Goose Island IPA. Smooth and creamy, the Duvel works incredibly well with the skate, while the Indian Pale Ale glints like a new penny in the glass, and has a distinctly hoppy finish. Desert is an exciting affair – chocolate truffle torte with lashings of double cream served with a duo of sweet beers: Liefmans Cuvée Brut and Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Finish.
The former looks and sounds more like a Champagne than a beer. Wrapped in red paper and sealed with a cork, the beer is only brewed once a year and fermented antique open vessels enriched with morello cherries. Aged for up to three years, different vintages are blended into what becomes the unique 'master blend'. The result is a curiously confected, slightly effervescent, intoxicatingly fruity, tooth-tinglingly sweet beer that tastes like cherry cola. The latter confirmed my love for all things Innis & Gunn. Like the Blonde before it, the Rum Cask hit the target with its voluptuous full body, rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious, rum-like vanilla spice. Both, admittedly, were incredibly good matches for the torte.
With 60 different styles to choose from, it's easy to find a beer to suit your palate - you just need to be open minded enough to experiment. Women's palates differ very little from men, and the idea that bitterness is not suited to female palates is a fallacy. But even if you're not big on bitter, there are plenty of easy going fruit beers, golden ales and wheat beers to explore. Whilst wine will always remain my first love, I've very much enjoyed my flirtation with beer. Dirt cheep and deliciously refreshing, it more than merits a second sip.