Where I come from, if you suggested cooking with Stella Artois, you’d be comprehensively jeered, by both the many fans of what is probably the fourth or fifth best-selling beer in Britain, for being a pretentious twat, and by Stella’s many haters, for promoting a mega-lager seen as, at best, bland and pointless. But where I am right now is Hong Kong. Here, the entire concept of cooking with beer is still so novel, so unheard-of, so likely to send Cantonese eyebrows rocketing up Cantonese foreheads, that any attempt to promote beer cuisine has to be supported, no matter what brew is involved.
That’s why I was at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley, to watch George Reisch, fifth-generation brewer and “director of brewmaster outreach” for Anheuser-Busch InBev, preach on the joys of beer and food, and beer IN food, to an audience of Hong Kong bar owners, restaurateurs, food bloggers, magazine and newspaper journalists. Plus me, ostensibly representing the South China Morning Post, and bemusing the Hong Kong food blogging community, who had never met a beer blogger before, nor knew such a beast existed.
A-B InBev might be the Evil Empire to some, but its products are big sellers in Hong Kong. In particular Hoegaarden is hugely popular with Chinese beer drinkers, especially women. I was in a bar called the News Room in Quarry Bay drinking something pale, American and very hoppy a couple of weeks back, and of the seven nearest tables to me, six were occupied solely by Hoegaarden drinkers, all Chinese, male and female. (Of course, the theatre of the big glasses helps, but primarily they like the taste: spicy, not over-bitter.)
Stella is also in almost every bar in Hong Kong that is likely to attract expat customers, for sale to homesick Britons who react well to a familiar face met far away. If you are going to push the idea of beer with food, and beer in food, to people totally unused to the possibilities of such a pairing, it’s much better to do it (I think, and so, obviously does A-B Inbev) using beers they are familiar with. Since Hong Kong restaurateurs and bar people and beer drinkers know Hoegaarden and Stella very well, then Hoegaarden and Stella are good beers with which to introduce the concept of beery cuisine to them.
And George Reisch is a great guy to do the introducing: American beer enthusiasts know him well; he’s a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, among other high-profile activities in the North American beer world. It’s immediately clear he is hugely enthusiastic about beer and all its possibilities, which makes me like him at once. Brewing is obviously in the family DNA: his great-great grandfather founded Reisch’s brewery in Springfield, Illinois, closed 1966, and his son is currently learning the trade while working for Spaten (an A-B Inbev subsidiary) in Munich.
The resources of A-B InBev meant Reisch was able to bring to the party items no other beer presentation I’ve attended has had: he illustrated his talk, not just with the usual examples of malted grain for the audience to chew and hops for them to rub and sniff, but bottles of cold wort to sample (always fascinating: far more hop aroma than the finished beer will have, but the sweetness of the unfermented sugars hugging the hop bitterness almost to suffocation); five-day “end of alpha” beer, after fermentation, but before lagering, still green and astringent, with a “bad home-brew” taste; and 20-day “end of chips”, according to the label (a clue, perhaps, to this being A-B Budweiser), now clearly a matured, finished product. This last was, I’ll own up, actually quite pleasant, though I was tasting it right after the “green” beer.
I talked way back here about how certain beers, those light in hops and crammed with spicy, herby additions, like Williams Brother’s Fraoch, or St Austell Clouded Yellow, work really well with fish in the kitchen. So I was unstunned to find that the dish served up to show the possibilities of cooking with A-B InBev’s top-selling coriander-flavoured Belgian wheat beer was sea bass baked with Hoegaarden and fennel. I fancy trying fennel with pork and stout one day soon. But a good fillet of white fish, baked in a foil parcel with fennel and enough Hoegaarden to keep it moist, is almost a no-brainer. Did it work? Of course it did. Round one to Mr Reisch.
I certainly can’t offer enough praise for one part of the next course, rib-eye steaks marinated in Stella Artois. The dribble of deep-brown jus trailed artistically across the plates, made from a reduction of soy sauce, Worcester sauce and – really – bitter chocolate, worked brilliantly with the burnt flesh/warm blood/umami of the rare steak. Thank you, chef Claudio Dieli, chocolate, soy and steak is a combination I’m definitely going to try to work up myself. But marinating the steak in Stella for 24 hours? Don’t bother. Stella Artois is a professionally made, consistent, hugely popular beer, but it’s utterly undistinguished, and it brings nothing at all to the table.
The final course featured Leffe Brune, which for me is an “oh, well” beer – as in “Nothing really interesting in this bar? Oh, well, I’ll have a Leffe Brune, then.” There’s some good stuff going on in Brune if you look, with coffee and soft fruits hiding shyly in the darkness: certainly it’s a long chalk ahead of the Blonde. Asked beforehand, I’d have given it a good chance of working well paired alongside a chocolate mousse made with a couple of tablespoons of the Brune added to the mix, and topped with raspberries. Unfortunately, while the initial rush was good, the mousse highlighting the chocolate flavours in the Brune, the beer quickly began to taste thin and weak. Ultimately it didn’t have the weight or mouthfeel to handle cream and cocoa in bulk. Sorry, George, that one was a fail. Maybe a chocolate soufflé might have been better.
Still, overall I enjoyed the meal, I enjoyed meeting the young Hong Kong food bloggers, I enjoyed meeting Mr Reisch and watching him perform, and discovering later how many LinkedIn connections we had in common, and I hope his audience went away filled not just with fish, steak and mousse, but with at least a little of George Reisch’s enthusiasm for beer and its culinary possibilities.
Photos courtesy of GolinHarris, to whom many thanks for inviting me