An Afternoon with Matthew Simmonds at 21212

We’re very lucky in our line of work to have the opportunity to supply beer into some of the best bars, pubs, and restaurants in the UK. Places that share our ethos, and that we resonate with on a number of topics in the vast, varied world of food and drink. One such restaurant is Paul Kitching’s 21212 in Edinburgh. We took the time to go chat to their Head Sommelier, Matthew Simmonds, about the world of fine dining, and how they work to create one of the best dining experiences in the city.

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For context, 21212 sits on Royal Terrace in one of those beautiful streets surrounded by trees and relative quiet compared to the rest of the city. The building is a listed Gregorian townhouse, set over four floors with views of the Firth of Forth in some of its upper level rooms. The décor is modern but grand, airy yet intimate, something reflected in their menu and in the attitude of their staff. Their ethos with food is to be fresh, creative, and exciting, changing elements of their menu every week and being innovative with seasonal ingredients.
After a quick look around, we get down to business, chatting in the hotel’s drawing room. Matthew tells us that a big part of what they do here is breaking down people’s expectations of fine dining so that they can relax and have a more enjoyable experience.

“People come here with an expectation, not an unreasonable expectation, of what fine dining is. But it’s changed a lot even in the last ten years, restaurants have gone from this old fashioned service that everyone imagines with white tablecloths and tuxedoed waiters, and it has kind of gone away from that because it doesn’t need to be like that. You can be whatever you want to be as long as you’re good and it can still be fine dining.”

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We talk more about beer in the context of fine dining, something people don’t really expect when they go to a Michelin star restaurant. Most people expect wine to be served with their meal as part of the experience of fine dining, so we did find it interesting that Matthew was so keen to improve their beer range. Graeme was curious to know if he’d ever found anyone to be almost offended by the suggestion that they have a beer with their meal instead of a wine.

“Most people expect a different experience here, so they’re happy to try a beer with their dinner. You do of course get people who turn up expecting classics. They come and they want beef with claret, or fish with white burgundy because that’s what they’re used to and that’s what they want and that’s fine. So that kind of person probably wouldn’t want a beer, because that’s what they have down the pub or after a round of golf. You’ve got to break through that preconception at the top end more so than anywhere else.”

“Because most other places, people are happy to have a beer with dinner. Beer is less scary than wine, I have a list of 290 wines and that can be terrifying if you don’t know anything about wine. It’s why I’m here, to help people figure that out, but it’s complicated.
Whereas beer, as much as there is a huge amount of variation, it’s more approachable. You can see things like your pilsner, your IPA, your Pale Ales, and as much as they’re not well defined things you can go, “Well I’ve had lots of pale ale, I know what a pale ale is, I know what an IPA is, I’ll have that” You can know what a porter is, what a stout is, or a lager, and you can work through it.”

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Preconceptions are something we deal with quite frequently in the beer industry. Similarly to how Matthew says, it’s breaking down what people think they know about what beer is and opening them up to trying something totally different that they’re not expecting. Wine matching is a common practice in most restaurants, especially in the top end, but Matthew has seen more of a breakthrough in beer matching as well.

“There’s a huge demand for it. I had a gentleman last night asking for beers to match with his beef, and we gave him Unforgiven and he seemed to really enjoy it and it went well. The smoke works really well, I mean if you were having a barbecue where everything has that kind of burnt taste to it.

Beer is very versatile, it can bring out different flavours depending on what it’s paired with. You can have your wonderful mocha porter with lots of different things like with venison; venison and dark chocolate is a classic combination and it’s magic. And then if you have tiramisu, you can pick a slightly different flavour in the beer and suddenly you’ve got something that goes with both your red meat and your dessert. I would struggle to match a wine to both of those things successfully because the flavour profile is so very different.
I mean, it’s part of the wonder of wine, which is why it’s so spectacularly difficult to do, and rewarding when it’s done well. But hopefully we’ll see a surge in fine dining in people wanting to match beers and not feeling like they have to drink wine because they’re in a fine dining restaurant.”

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We spoke more about the preconceptions of fine dining, as it seems to be a big part of what they try to do with building an experience at 21212. The staff are friendly, many of the front of house staff are fairly young too, and they try to create a relaxed atmosphere to allow people to enjoy themselves instead of worrying about acting a certain way because they’re in a fine dining establishment. Matthew reckons that having a quality beer selection actually helps remove some of that worry from guests.

“We don’t want people to feel like they have to do anything because they are in a fine dining restaurant. You’ll never enjoy yourself if you’re worried about matching and behaviour, it’s complete anti-enjoyment and a lot of people think that’s what fine dining is. It’s what I thought fine dining was when I went to my first Michelin star restaurant and you know it’s terrifying so you want to remove that by having more beer. Having the waiter actively upselling beer as something to have with their dinner instead of wine helps to stop people feeling like they don’t know what they’re doing because they’re choosing to have a beer.

It’s important to us as a business, it’s very much what Chef wants, he wants everyone to be relaxed and comfortable. There’s no joy in my job, if you’re not enjoying yourself. If you want a beer to go with your food we will certainly try our best to match that and you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t normally drink wine you’ll probably enjoy your food even more. It will be wonderful to have the level of people interested and comfortable with it, having a more common product that people know.”

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Of course, we’re now at the stage where Scotland has so many good breweries – not even just us! With our history with Gavin having worked as a chef for so many years, we’re very used to thinking about food in relation to beer, and knowing that we need to be making high quality beer to match the high standards in food many of our customers are serving.
21212 relates to this, knowing that serving good wine is important so beer is treated the same.

“If we didn’t have a quality beer selection, people would complain. Beer has got to this point where we can’t justify us as a business not having quality selections of beer. It’s astonishing, some places serving some of the best food in the country with some of the worst beer in the country.

People expect quality, same with cider and spirits. People expect to have something very good, and with the focus now on things having to be local as well, when I started we had ale not from Scotland, and I said that it didn’t make sense because we have so much good beer in Scotland. We’ve got so many breweries, if you can serve that then why not?”

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Another aspect of 21212 that makes it unique is its ever changing menu. You can go one month to the next, and never have the same dish. And, surprisingly, this was something we were again able to relate to. The more we spoke, the more we seen so many parallels between Tempest and Paul Kitching’s cooking.

“If you’re always doing something new, you’re always giving people something to try. People get bored very quickly. We want shiny new things. People come back because they’re always going to try something new. We’re not the kind of place you come back once every week, but you’ll maybe come once every couple months and try a completely different menu and that’s great. That’s exactly what we want, it’s good for me from a wine point of view I get to think of something new every week but that again keeps my job interesting.

Same with Tempest; having something new, you’re keeping interest in the brewery because people keep coming back to you. I think it’ll be the same for you too, we’ve got to keep the challenge there and keep things exciting, and the new things have to be just as good as the things they tried the first time.”

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Thinking more about trying new things and introducing people to new experiences, Graeme spoke about the challenge we face when attending tasting events or festivals, in getting people to try things and people being afraid to just go for something. Our most frequently asked question at events are “What’s your favourite?”, and as Graeme said, you don’t want to know what we like!

“It’s the same with the food, people ask me “What dish would you have?” and I’m like, “Well this is the kind of thing I like, and it’s wonderful however it might not be to your tastes” . It’s so important that people understand it’s okay not to like stuff, and not think it’s bad. It’s really difficult to get over that hurdle as a person because your instant reaction is if you don’t like it, it’s bad. It’s really hard to instead go “Oh I really don’t like that, but maybe it’s just not my kind of thing”

Which is again great with your beers bringing out new things because it means people will consistently maybe find something new that they do like. There’s a beer for everyone, Charlie MacLean one of the great whisky men of Scotland  who said that if someone said to him they don’t like whisky, that “no no, you just haven’t tried the correct whisky”. Same with wine, beer, everything, there is a beer for everyone.”

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We also face the problem at events where people are simply unwilling to try the beer, because they “don’t drink beer”. This is an issue Matthew commonly faces with wine, with people unwilling to drink certain styles or even simply they “don’t drink red wine”. It’s something that as a person who tries his best to facilitate a new, exciting experience for guests, he can’t wrap his head around.

“I don’t understand people’s unwillingness to try things, it’s one of the great joys of having choice. If you have more things you enjoy, the easier your life becomes.  You’re sitting at the table of life, the cornucopia of all the masses of things in front of you, the great buffet of food and beer and wine of life and you’re saying, “I want one thing and nothing else”, and it’s a shame.

You’re missing out on something so good, you’re denying yourself with your own preconceptions of what beer is. Life is too short to only drink one thing!”

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Thank you from the team to Matthew at 21212 for letting us come in and chat, the chat we had was much longer but a six page transcript would be far too long! You can find out more about 21212’s menu, and bedrooms on their website.

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