Matching Chinese food and beer

One of the opportunities I was looking forward to in Hong Kong was the chance to match beer with Chinese food, a surprisingly under-explored area. I believe strongly that most beers go with most foods: but that doesn’t mean some pairings cannot be particularly felicitous, and that’s especially true with Chinese cuisine.

China is easily the biggest beer market in the world, almost twice as large as the US, the next largest, and in 2010 China drank very nearly a quarter of all the world’s beer. But annual consumption per head, at around 30 litres, while rising at some five per cent a year, is still almost a third of the US figure (81 litres). In addition, most of that consumption is of pale, undemanding lager.

What that means is that the Chinese DO drink beer with food, but it will be Tsingtao, or Blue Girl (from South Korea) or something equally bland and dull. Fortunately, Hong Kong takes advantage of its position as one of the biggest trading centres in Asia by importing good beer from all over the world: you won’t find Gale’s Prize Old Ale in Chiswick right now, for example (there’s none in stock in the Fuller’s brewery shop and I bought the last two bottles they had in the Mawson Arms next door back in October) but you WILL find it in stock in Hong Kong bars run by the El Grande group, such as the Happy Valley Bar and Grill – or at least you will until I buy up their complete current holding and the 2012 version gets shipped out. And, amazingly, Prize Old Ale is a beer that goes fantastically well with Chinese food, so well it could almost have been brewed for it.

There is probably a proper expression for this, but I don’t know it, so let’s call it “food imagination”, or “food intelligence”: the ability to summon up in the mind two different tastes and decide how they would go together, even if you have never actually matched or paired them in life. I’m sure it’s possible to test “FI”, with questions like: “what beer would you recommend with fennel?”* Good chefs need “FI”: good brewers, too. Great chefs (and brewers) have “food imagination” in wagons. You need to have at least a little “food imagination” to match beer with food, to even be able to write about beer and food matching: someone like Garrett Oliver obviously has “high FI”, and I think I have a reasonable “FI quotent”, or I wouldn’t dare write about beer and food together myself. So some of this is based on experience, some on speaking to Chinese beer lovers in Hong Kong, and some on “FI”. Continue reading Matching Chinese food and beer

The most notorious brewer in history

Antoine-Joseph Santerre

In the autumn of 1775, Henry Thrale, owner of one of the biggest porter breweries in London, took his family on a trip across the English Channel to Paris. With them went Dr Samuel Johnson, the dictionary-writer and author, and one of the great literary figures of 18th-century England, who had been good friends with Thrale and his wife Hester for 10 years. In Paris the Thrales and Johnson toured the sights, visited palaces, churches and gardens, and educated themselves with a trip to a manufacturer of mirrors. Henry Thrale also called in on Paris’s biggest brewer, a man called Antoine-Joseph Santerre, taking Johnson with him.

Johnson’s notes of the visit say that Santerre’s Hortensia brewery, in the Rue de Reuilly, part of the Faubourg St Antoine, although the largest of 17 brewing establishments in the city, brewed just 4,000 barrels a year. This was barely a 20th of the annual output at the time of Thrale’s own Anchor brewery in Southwark. Johnson also recorded that Santerre made his own malt, and used about as much malt per barrel as Thrale did; and he sold his beer for the same price as Thrale, though he paid no malt tax, and only half as much beer tax.

Johnson – an oak-hard Tory, who had recently produced a pamphlet attacking the American colonists for their rebelliousness against the British crown – would have been horrified to learn that he was shaking hands with a man who, 14 years later, would aid the mobs of the Faubourg St Antoine in their successful assault of July 14 on the Bastille, and who, four and a half years after that, would escort the King of France, Louis XVI, from his prison to the guillotine.

Johnson was five years dead when the French Revolution broke out, but Hester Thrale remembered Santerre, and suggested after the Parisian brewer became notorious that he had become a revolutionary because of an incident that happened around the time the Thrales were in Paris. A fine horse belonging to Santerre got in the way of a royal procession and an officer in the army drew out his pistol and shot the animal dead, an act that, according to Hester, filled Santerre with anger.

Continue reading The most notorious brewer in history

Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

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Guidance for 2012

It’s 2012 here in Hong Kong, and has been for some hours. My resolution for this year is not to be such a grumpily aggressive bastard online, although I have at least one rant to get out of the way first. However, I have tried to put together a list of precepts to blog by over the coming 12 months, rules I hope we can all agree on. There are, in fact, just three:

1) It’s only beer.

2) It’s all about the taste.

3) You like what you like. I like what I like.

There: who could possibly object to any of that? You agree? Excellent. Now I’m going to test you. Have a brown paper bag handy, and read this, which is a genuine comment grabbed from the web during 2011:

So, under the recommendation of a few people online, I bought myself a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. And I have to say… It’s one of the best beers I’ve ever had. Normally I stuck to more mainstream pale lagers, such as Corona Extra, Budweiser and Peroni, so was a bit cautious about trying this, and as I opened it up, the rich beer smell really hit me, and I was expecting a bitter, overpowering flavour. Nevertheless, I tried a gulp of it… And it went down like water! Yet, the flavour was there, and strong, but not overpowering by any means. It’s fairly refreshing, although I will say you should only drink it when it’s cold, it tastes much better to me.

OK, blow into the brown paper bag and place it over your nose and mouth … breathe in and out slowly … repeat after me: “It’s only beer … It’s all about the taste … You like what you like. I like what I like.” Feeling better now? Good.

Really, if people like things you don’t like, it doesn’t matter. And nor does it matter if they don’t like things that you adore. There are, in fact, amazingly few things a majority of people can agree on, and almost none that everybody votes for: we live in a world of pluralities and minorities. You can live with that, or you can drive up your blood pressure. If you enjoy something that someone else doesn’t, well, just enjoy your enjoyment. And if they enjoy something you can’t see the point of, that’s really not your problem. Have a good year.