Tracy Emin’s ‘Keep me safe’ neon sign beckons visitors through the discreet doors of Keeper’s House at the Royal Academy of Arts. Down the stairs into suitably cosy surroundings, we made our way to Peyton and Byrne’s latest supper club, based on their foodie ‘passions’. I was keen to see how they handled the burgeoning trend of beer and food pairing. Without wanting to sound like a red-nosed lush, I am a keen drinker of beer and am a lover of anything pushing the craft beer agenda.
We settled down in the basement room (crypt-like, but in a good way) to a beer cocktail, known snappily as ‘Italian Hop’. With Punt e Mes, Maraschino liqueur and lemon juice topped off with Camden Wit, the smooth, rich beer gently tempered all of the bitter spirits beautifully.
At this point we were introduced to booze queen Alison Taffs who earned her stripes for almost 20 years as a wine advisor and educator, whisky connoisseur and most recently, beer expert (she compiled the frankly dizzying beer lists for Belgo restaurants, among other beery accomplishments). Her opening speech was almost emotional for a beer hound such as myself – ‘Beer is pretty elemental stuff’, Alison said, noting the lack of (geekery alert) bottom-fermenting lagers in favour of these more unpredictable, complex ales.
First came an amuse-bouche, a small cube of chicken and foie gras with dots of silky smooth sweet corn purée. Meanwhile, we were introduced to our pieces of ‘essential kit’ for the evening as the first three beers appeared on the table: a tasting glass and a mystery teaspoon. The spoon, Alison explained, was introduced to her on her Belgian travels, to whip up the beer for a thick head which can then be tasted to judge for the bitterness of hops included.
As a roomful of teaspoons melodically clinked in glasses, out came the first course, a meltingly soft pork belly with a braised pork shoulder raviolo, fennel and crackling. Taking us through each beer – first the strongly American-hopped Pale Ale from Fourpure, then the gentle, oaty softness of Siren’s Undercurrent, and finally the old favourite, Jaipur by Thornbridge - we were encouraged to really taste each one, swirl it around, whip up that frothy head and get to grips with the drinks in front of us. Each beer worked marvellously with the dish, despite their differences – Undercurrent proving a cushion to the more punchy fennel and bitter crackling, the Fourpure pale cutting through the sticky and sweet belly and shoulder with its astringent hops, and the Jaipur tying it all together with its perfect balance of herbaceous hops. I was in food and beer heaven at this point.
While the previous beers boasted hops as their defining feature, the second course promised to show us wheat beers in various incarnations. Wheat beers - they’re not scary, are they? Well, Otley’s 09 Blonde was familiar enough, a Belgian-style wheat with the big banana aroma and added extras of clove, orange peel and coriander – a luscious, aromatic brew that purred on the palate as the second course of Soft shell crab and avocado purée was brought out. So far, so good. The beers of this course were introduced by Will Bucknell of beer merchants Kicking Horse, who quickly noticed some screwed up faces in the corner. ‘I think I know which ones you’ve just tasted’ he said and, using their pursed lips as a segue, brought the rest of our attention onto the two sour beers on the table.