Last week, I received an exciting package. Contained within was the first freebie I have accepted (alright, the first I've been offered) in association with this blog. And I wasn't offered it, actually - I specifically asked after I was sent an intriguing press release. The contents of that package were three large bags of crisps, sent to me by a PR company on behalf of Walkers.
What caught my eye was the suggestion that these crisps - three flavours under the Walkers Max Strong brand - have been designed specifically to pair with beer. The email reads as follows;
"Walkers has specifically designed its new range to be a strong, spicy accompaniment to a refreshing pint; so whether you're enjoying a craft ale, a pint of pilsner or a can of cold lager - Walkers Max Strong has you covered."
We could pick that apart, but that's not my intention. I'm mainly interested in the idea that Walkers needs to pointedly market their crisps as an accompaniment to beer.
Beer and crisps belong together. They just do. In this sense, the suggestion of pairing crisps with beer seems an odd thing to hang a marketing campaign around. I can't image a biscuit manufacturer emblazoning the words 'try me with a cup of tea!' across their packaging, though it would be a similarly obvious, common sense, automatic association to make. Pubs sell crisps, and if you're ever peckish in a pub, you're likely to buy a packet without a second thought.
So what might this branding exercise tell us about the state of beer and potato snacks in 2018? Well, perhaps that an increasing interest in the artisanal credentials of the beer we're drinking might extend to the way we snack. Pubs and bars that sell beer from small, like-minded breweries might well extend that principle to the rest of their offering, crisps included. If a craft beer bar sells crisps at all, you might find the words 'hand-cooked' on the packet; cheese and onion crisps that proudly name the specific cheddar in their recipe. Whether Walkers (part of the Pepsi conglomerate) actually feel the loss of this relatively small corner of the market I don't know, but the launch of the Walkers Max Strong brand does suggest that they might want a piece of it.
But, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know how well they actually went with beer. Sadly, I'll never know the answer when it comes to the Jalapeno & Cheese flavour, since they contain rennet and so are not suitable for vegetarians. At least I appreciate the clear labelling me to tell me so. Oddly, the Hot Chicken Wings flavour are, as are Chilli & Lime.
Alarm bells rang immediately at the focus on chilli heat - the crisps are labelled for their fieriness on a scale ranging from medium to extra hot. Beer (lager, at least) is often thrown at spicy food arbitrarily, presumably because it's served cold and chilli is hot, and perhaps because both constituent parts are generally thought to be good for the soul. Once a significant hop profile is involved, this pairing generally falters, with fiery chilli either obliterating the subtleties of the beer or, even worse, the beer's bitterness accentuating the scoville effect rather than calming it.
My road-test involved nothing more scientific that munching on a small handful of each flavour whilst drinking whatever happened to be in my fridge over the course of a weekend. The chilli and lime flavour is merely medium on the heat scale, but plenty hot by my standards. The citrus element gives a bit of zingy life to the peppery paprika depth. Brasserie de la Senne's Zinnebir was a surprisingly good companion here; though significantly bitter in a grassy, European way, if anything the beer tames the heat a little. The pairing doesn't particularly add anything to either the beer or the crisps, but they get along well enough. Burning Sky's Grisette didn't fare so well; it's a delicate beer with floral and herbal notes from additions of marigold and chamomile, with a gentle lemon note and a peppery finish. The heat in the crisps treads all over it, and I might as well have washed them down with a glass of sparkling water. Grand Imperial Porter, from Poland's Browar Amber went the other way, the big beer wiping out the lime and curry-like spicing of the crisps but gelling surprisingly well with the lingering heat for a kind of chilli and chocolate sensation.
I expected the spicy seasoning would be the dominant flavour in the Hot Chicken Wings crisps, but they taste very much like I remember roast chicken tasting (or, at least, they taste like existing roast chicken flavour crisps). The heat comes late but is fairly intense, reminding you that you've gone up a notch on the fiery scale as it pokes at the tongue and perhaps leaves a slight sting on the lips. Again, Zinnebir stood up to the plate, holding its own against the fire. The Grisette didn't have a chance - it's delicious, by the way, in other circumstances. The umami meatiness didn't gel with the Grand Imperial Porter, sitting uncomfortably alongside the beer's desert-like richness. One better suited to the 'cold can of lager' end of the spectrum, I think.
The trouble is, I think, that I thought too hard about all this. We don't need to think about what crisps we chomp on in the pub. The correct beer and crisp pairing is, within reason, any beer with any crisps. Because it just is.