Matching beer and food has become established with the growth in popularity of craft beer over the last few decades, however at the tiny Elbow Lane Smokehouse Restaurant & Brewery on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork city centre (possibly the smallest brewery in the country) the beer has become an integral part of the kitchen operation and as a result, the customer experience.
The brewery is overseen by Head Brewer Russell Garret along with his apprentice, David Marcos. Between them, they produce a core range of five beers and a summer ale which changes annually. As well as Elbow Lager, the brewery produces Angel Stout, Arrow Weisse, Wisdom Ale and Jawbone Pale Ale.
Every beer is produced specifically to work with the food that is served in the Market Lane Group’s four restaurants, of which Elbow Lane is one. Angel stout, for example, is recommended to pair with robust dishes like steak, stews and curries, and strong cheeses like vintage cheddar and blue cheese. The kitchen team recently developed a dish to compliment the stout – steamed celeriac and scallion cake with Cashel Blue cheese, apple ketchup, toasted buckwheat and kale.
It is one of the few Irish breweries that strictly adheres to the principles of the ancient German Purity Law, “Reinheitsgebot”, which means that only four ingredients are used; malted barley, hops, yeast and water. There are no additives, the fermentation of the beer is not artificially accelerated, nor is it filtered – so it is all totally natural.
The spent grain from the brewery goes to Caherbeg Free Range Pork Products to feed their herd of prized Saddleback cross pigs in Rosscarbery, which is also served in the restaurant.
“At Elbow we do tend to focus on as broad a range of aromas and flavours as the malt hops and yeast can provide. A firm backbone of malt flavours can accompany smokier dishes and Crystal malt, which is used in the Wisdom Ale, is particularly suited to grilled meats,” said Head Brewer Russell.
As well as overseeing production at the brewery, Russell also spends time training colleagues in the wider Market Lane Group on the basics of beer and brewing and then, alongside the chefs, on the principles of matching beers with food.
David has been assisting Russell for almost three years. His love of beer took him from his Spanish homeland of Avila, where he had studied chemistry, to working with the Market Lane Group where he started as a kitchen porter and worked his way up. Market Lane funded his professional qualifications both from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, as well as his recent qualification in Brewing & Distilling Operations from Cork Institute of Technology.
This unified circle approach to customer service allows staff at all the restaurants to any answer questions diners may have, and to accurately suggest beers to pair with dishes.
The brewery and restaurant work in synergy with each other. As Russell put it, “The choice of beer styles we brew is very much dictated by the style of our menu”.
In addition to pairing beers with various dishes, the beer is also used in marinades, sauces and dressings. Head chef, Aishling Moore, creates dishes with the beers in mind and has more recently used them to make vinegars and a house mead, which is so popular that it is now a fixture on the menu. Aishling, at 24, is one of the youngest head chefs in Ireland, and is known for her eclectic cooking.
“I love working with beer, which I think is just as versatile as wine,” said Aishling. “It can complement, cut and bridge flavours in the food. Being effervescent it really compliments food, and is actually easier to pair with food as its base flavour is malt.”
This summer Aishling created a Crystal malt chocolate ice cream sandwich, where the ice cream base was infused with the deep caramel flavours of Crystal malt that had been left over from brewing Wisdom Ale.
For those who can’t get a reservation at Elbow Lane (the interior seats just a couple dozen), the beers are also sold in a limited number of pubs and off licences, by mail order from the brewery, and at the city’s online artisan food market www.neighbourfood.ie.
For Conrad Howard, CEO of the Market Lane Group, the decision to only produce beers for his group of restaurants is a continuation of their locally minded policy. “During the planning for the brewery we looked into selling our beer in various retail outlets and pubs, but quickly realised that we didn’t want to compete for shelf space with 80 other breweries,” he said.
“Because we don’t add enzymes or stabilisers to our beers and brew strictly to the principles of Reinheitsgebot, our beers have a shelf life of three months and so are unsuitable to sit on off licence shelves or travel in great pallets around Europe,” explained Conrad.
The whole operation works, said Howard, “Because people are able to see the brewery where the product is made and get to taste it with great food”.