Beer’s not my usual breakfast tipple, though I’d agree with Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain in the UK, that Abbot Ale is an excellent accompaniment to the traditional Full English. But I couldn’t keep away from an invitation to “brunch” with Bryan Baird, the American founder of the eponymous brewery in Numazu, 80 or so miles west of Tokyo.
The event was organised by the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong and featured six different Baird beers, all paired with different dishes and introduced by Bryan Baird himself. Like all brewers, Bryan is hugely enthusiastic about his trade, and he was well served by the Globe, which delivered some excellent matches to his beers, to go with a six-course breakfast.
We kicked off with cured ocean trout, cream cheese and cucumber, served with Baird’s Single-Take Session Ale: a fine pairing, a little more classy than the traditional breakfast kipper, the only problem here being that I really, really wanted a whole pint of Single-Take, rather than a small glass. It’s a Belgian-style beer, according to Bryan, made with Belgian yeast, but “inverted” – low-alcohol, high-hop, rather than the other way round, 4.7 per cent abv and plenty of hop flavour from dry-hopping. The hops are whole-hop Tettnanger and New Zealand varieties, and the name and label are inspired by Neil “single take” Young: the label is meant to show young Mr Young performing “Rocking’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989. And if you look at that video, you can see the woman who designs Baird’s woodcut-style labels has indeed captured a clip from the show.
“Single-Take”, Bryan says, reflects Baird’s philosophy towards brewing: simplicity and minimal processing: “The more you process, the more you strip out.” Baird’s beers are all unfiltered and all are bottle-fermented. The malt is mostly floor-malted Maris Otter, from Crisp Malting Group in the UK (“we like tradition” – Bryan), and if it seems economically insane to bring malt from the UK to Japan, Bryan told me that he manages to get a reasonable deal by piggy-backing his own orders alongside those from some of Japan’s giant brewers, who import a very considerable amount of British malt themselves. (Incidentally, just to show that you should never assume too much about your audience, one of the people on the table behind me at the brunch stuck his hand up as Bryan was talking about floor malting and asked: “What is malting?” If you don’t know, do ask.)
Next was French toast and bacon, or rather, eggy bread with crisp pancetta, pomegranate and eucalyptus honey, served with Baird’s Rising Sun pale ale. This is Bryan’s take on an American IPA, but considerably more subtle than American IPAs normally are, Cascade and Ahtanum hops used with care, so that the sweetness of the malt is still apparent: another winning combination, the beer and the sharp honey shaking hands and slapping each other on the back.
Number three was a very Chinese breakfast dish, steamed bun with sugar-braised pork and hoisin sauce, paired with Red Rose amber ale. Red Rose is Baird’s take on the “Californian steam” style, which would be low on my list of favourite beer types: I like malty beers with pork, but this wasn’t a combination that made much impact on me. Again, it’s a reversal: while Steam Beer is usually a lager yeast fermenting at ale yeast temperatures, Baird uses a Scottish ale yeast at lager temperatures to make Red Rose. The name here comes from Bryan’s grandfather’s animal feed company, the inheritance from which enabled him to start the brewery: his grandfather’s company’s trade name was Red Rose.
I was happier with the Angry Boy brown ale, rightly one of Baird’s most popular beers, which came with a Cumberland sausage and cheddar roll. It is, Bryan says, his autobiographical beer: “My mom used to call me Angry Boy,” not least, apparently, because he used to smash up the family home after his favourite (American) football team, the Cincinnati Bengals, had managed to lose again. The label today, he says, is a “blue-eyed samurai”, and the “anger” now is meant to reflect passion and drive. It’s an “American” brown ale, Bryan says, taking it on from the British original, plenty of malt sweetness, but with brown sugar to add more alcohol (6.5 per cent abv) and hopped “almost like an IPA”, with dry hops as well, to give a beer that’s “placid on the surface, but with a lot going on at a lower level”.
Baird’s Imperial IPA is called Suruga Bay, after the large bay that the brewery’s home town, Numazu, stands at the head of. It was served at the Globe brunch with a “mini-burger”: hoppy IPAs are a good match with burgers, cutting through and clearing the grease (this is the reason Tim Martin is so right about Abbot and the traditional English heart-jolter). Bryan confesses to being inspired by Russian River’s pioneering Pliny the Elder: Suruga Bay is double-dry hopped with American and New Zealand hops: Columbus, Nelson Sauvin, Simcoe and Cascade. Ten years ago, he says, he was told the Japanese would never drink really hoppy beers: today Suruga Bay is, with Rising Sun, one of his best-sellers: “We just can’t make enough of it.”
The final dish was called “Chocolate and Caramel Beignets”, a fabulous frenchification of that Scottish classic – deep-fried Mars bars. Yes, these little, sweet puffy balls were sliced Mars bars, dipped in a beery batter, deep-fried and served with vanilla ice-cream. It was a great joke, though, um, not actually that terrific as an experience: cheap chocolate is cheap chocolate, even when pimped up by the excellent chef the Globe employs. The beer was good, though: Baird’s Kurofune Porter, 6 per cent abv, which Bryan calls a “robust porter” – don’t let’s start having an argument about whether that is in any way a valid category, this is a fine beer and an excellent choice with ice-cream. Kurofune means “black ships”, and refers to the ships that Commander Perry arrived in back in 1854 to open up Japan fully to Western trade.
Overall it was an excellent lunchtime, my one difficulty being that, these days, drinking quantities of strong beer before 2pm means I then have to take an extended nap, wiping out my afternoon. Still, many thanks to Bryan, the Globe, and the guys from Hop Leaf, the beer importers, who organised it all.