“I’ve got this idea,” said chef Martin Powdrill to Matt Baker, the manager of BrewDog’s Leicester bar. “But I’ve got no money – just two grand.”
Martin was looking to move from Nottingham and the fine dining restaurant where he was working and head back home to Leicester and start his own thing. He’d heard that the kitchen above BrewDog’s bar was unoccupied.
“I went in there expecting it to be a no. But I sold the idea to Matt and for some reason he said yes!” That idea was a simple one: to use BrewDog’s beers to cure meat.
“I love curing meats and this is all food that’s very, very close to my heart,” he says. He also enjoys creating concepts for places. “The food concept depends on where you’re selling it and Cured works perfectly here. It wouldn’t make as much sense somewhere else.” They are mutually beneficial in a very specific way and part of the challenge which Martin enjoyed was going from concept to reality.
But that reality was an immediate challenge. Martin had created the concept just for BrewDog Leicester and he confesses that “I wrote a menu about stuff I didn’t really know about and then had to learn!” He may have had lots of experience with curing meats, but using beer to do it was something different and new.
“I was experimenting in the kitchen from eight in the morning until this place shut. It was the most stressful three weeks where I had to learn everything.” He read books, he tried different beers and processes, he learnt everything about using beer as an ingredient.
“Brining and curing is one of the best things to do with beer,” he says. But it’s also “so easy to go too far with beer because every beer is different.” One of Martin’s approaches is to use spices to highlight certain qualities. “I use juniper which naturally accentuates the beer flavour. I find out what’s in the beer and use spices which enhance it.” For him, stout is especially good in cooking, where he utilises BrewDog’s lush Jet Black Heart in a number of recipes.
He developed four house cures for Cured. They are Punk IPA and maple bacon, Jet Black Heart ox cheek bresaola, burnt barley and treacle brisket made with 5am Saint, and salmon pastrami cured with smoked porter. Each of them is cured for at least seven days, whether brined, dry cured or a mix of both, with all of them needing additional attention daily – it’s not done the easy way, it’s done the best way for the best taste. The resulting meat is all deeply infused with flavour, tender and savoury with an intensity of meat and subtle hints of beer and the other seasonings; they have all the best qualities of both curing and cooking with beer.
It’s in the sides where you can see Martin’s breadth of skill and attention in Cured: tiny roasted tomatoes are bursts of chewy sweetness. Something he’s brought from his fine dining background, they are effectively ‘sun-dried’ under the heat lights on the kitchen pass for 12 hours. There’s also the exceptional pickles (“I’m such a geek about pickles. I love them!”). The fried root vegetable crisps add crunch next to the soft meats. Or there’s the deep fried beer mac n’ cheese balls. Or the pretzel balls made with lager. Or the beer chutneys and sauces. And there’s even stout cream cheese to go in a bagel with beer-cured salmon – that’s so good you should ask for a bowl on the side and just eat it with a spoon (and Martin’s given his recipe for this below).
This isn’t just dirty dude food. It’s skilled, balanced and full of flavour. The combo trays of food offer so many surprises and delights with each mouthful. Martin’s clearly a great chef, creative and smart with an exceptional palate, yet he’s also self-critical and driven to improve.
“When you write a menu, or come up with a concept, there are so many ideas, and however it turns out you should always think that you can do it better,” he says. “There’s loads of things where I think that I want to stay here until midnight tonight because I want it to taste slightly better.” He’s currently working seven days a week alone in the kitchen, with just some additional help at the weekend. “I’m kind of exhausted yet still excited. I’m very, very proud of it at the minute yet I know I can take it further.” Next steps: his own cheese, homemade breads, a range of charcuterie, recipe developments and new processes.
This whole story is made even more impressive when you know that Martin is just 22-years-old and Cured only opened in September 2016. He created a concept from the knowledge of an empty kitchen, a love of curing and barbecue and a few glasses of beer, and he’s single-handedly turning that into very good food.
Better than good, in fact: Cured is the best food in any of the BrewDog bars; it’s the best food in any beer-led bar that I’ve tried. It’s the most interesting food, the most accomplished and the most fun, with everything mutually enhanced when enjoyed with the beers on tap (the Leicester BrewDog is probably my new favourite, by the way). This is also the sort of thing that can be taken into other BrewDog bars and beyond, and that’s exciting.
Cured is a great leap forward in cooking with beer in Britain.
Here’s some of Martin’s top tips for cooking and curing with beer
Choose the right beer for your dish
“It sounds really obvious but choosing the right beer for any method of cooking or preparing food is vitally important. The use of a citrusy IPA in a salad dressing could be fantastic but that same beer in a heavy sauce could be horrendous.”
Simple is often the best
“A lot of the best beer foods I've eaten have been no more than three ingredients: the base ingredient, beer and balancing ingredient. For example, one of my favourite recipes is Oatmeal Stout cream cheese, which is delicious with bagels, on toast or in a cheesecake, and it has 100g soft cream cheese as the base ingredient, 100ml Jet Black Heart Oatmeal Stout as the beer, then 30g caster sugar as the balancing ingredient.”
“Craft beers have so much going on, so many flavours packed into one small can or bottle. Classic flavour pairings are classic for a reason. If a Porter has notes of coffee and chocolate in it, put it with a dish you can naturally imagine those flavour profiles going with. Though this doesn't mean don't be adventurous, research recipes using chocolate in unusual ways. Perhaps roast venison with a chocolate porter sauce.”
Go with what you like. Just because a recipe recommends a certain beer or method doesn't necessarily mean it's right for you. Find out what you like for yourself. It might not always work out perfect, but when it does, you will feel like an utter beer God. Rules? Nah, not for you! And remember, NEVER cook with beer unless you’re drinking a beer at the same time!”