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”.

Roast pork and Guinness soy sauce with glutinous rice balls and stir-fried broccoli, pak choy, mushrooms and Chinese chives

Of course, “Chinese food” is about as misleadingly general an expression as “European food” would be: Cantonese cooking is as different from eg Szechuan as Greek from Scandinavian. But you can still put down some general rules. Roast pork is an excellent match for stouts in any cuisine, and perhaps even more so in Chinese traditions, with the flavours of soy sauce in particular chiming very well. I just marinaded a small piece of pork in the local version of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (6.8 per cent abv) with a dessertspoonful of soy, a splash of anchovy sauce and a good shot of five-spice powder, then, while the pork was roasting, turned the marinade into a thick sauce. Sliced the pork and spooned the sauce over it, alongside glutinous rice balls and stir-fried pak choi, broccoli, mushrooms and Chinese chives.

Authentically Chinese? Not at all, but delicious: there was a surprising sweetness in the sauce. Beers to go with: Prize Old Ale (the sherry of beers, its sweet/sharp flavours and its depth of finish complement Chinese sauces brilliantly) and Samuel Adams Boston Lager: any malty darker lager would do well with dark-meat Chinese dishes. I haven’t tried a Vienna-style lager with Chinese roast duck yet, but I’d be confident that would work: better than stout, maybe even better than POA. Although for Peking duck, I think it would have to be the Gale’s. A funky Belgian abbey beer, such as Orval, would also work with roast duck: and if I ever get the courage to eat conch meat or cuttlefish (available still swimming about at the fish stalls down by the piers in HK), it will be Orval or Chimay I’ll be looking to partner it.

Cuttlefish: not just for budgies

Also on my wish-to-try list: tangerine beef and something like Fuller’s Vintage Ale, or ESB, both with that marmalade-y “house” character that should fit well with such a dish; Chinese steamed fish with St Austell Clouded Yellow; and a match suggested to me by Marc Chung, assistant manager at the Hong Kong beer and wine importer Bacchus in Sheung Wan, chicken with lemon sauce paired with a Belgian cassis beer.

Talking of Belgian brews, one of the most popular draught beers in HK is Hoegaarden, particularly, apparently, among Chinese women: I’m not sure if they’re drinking it with food, but they should. Cantonese food is not over-spicy, and a beer that brings its own spicy flavours to the table is a great match, while the “mildness” of wheat beers also suits the local cuisine. Bavarian wheat beers, in particular, with those banana and clove flavours, and good grease-cutting ability, match very well alongside spring rolls.

You can also go in completely the other direction and line up a good hop-stuffed American double IPA with rice-based, quite bland dishes, such as Hainan chicken (which is boiled whole in a pot), where the floral, citrusy flavours of the beer are going to be the dominant partner over the food – but in a good way.

Much authentic Chinese food is what might be called, in the European tradition, broth-based, and right now (this being Chinese New Year) a huge number of families will be sitting down to a traditional New Year dish known as hot-pot, or steamboat, which is a bit like fondue without the cheese: each diner has a selection of raw food which is dipped into a boiling pot of broth in the middle of the table to cook. This is where you DO need lighter beers: malt-forward British-style pale ales, for example.

Blue chicken: tastier than it looks

One of the people who helped me put together a piece on Chinese food and beer for the South China Morning Post last week was Annie Lam, a former metals trader who has been importing British beers to Hong Kong for 10 years via her company The Beer Bay. She recommends straight pale ales with Chinese chicken and fish dishes (you certainly don’t want anything too hoppy or assertive with the often delicate flavours of, eg, fish ball soup, but if you’re roasting one of the local blue chickens, more properly called black-bone chicken, they’ll take something more powerful), and IPAs with stronger-tasting dishes such as smoked duck or barbecued pig with hoisin sauce (smoked duck – there’s a dish I might be persuaded to break a habit and try a Rauchbier with, and a whisky-barrel-aged stout would be an interesting, if perhaps too combative a combination). Stronger, darker, more malt-oriented ales – we’re talking Adnam’s Broadside, Fuller’s XX – “these beers would be fantastic with all kinds of red meat, with strong flavours, like beef, lamb: they would really bring the flavours out with oyster sauce, soy sauce, every kind of sauce, Peking-style, Shanghai-style, even Szechuan style food,” she says. And I’m not going to disagree.

I also went to Bacchus, which specialises in Belgian imports, where Marc Cheung quickly matched a list of Chinese dishes with beers. Roast pork with plum sauce, he suggested, paired well with Gulden Draak or a similar dark tripel (although I’d like to try Rodenbach Grand Cru: sadly, I’ve not seen this in Hong Kong); beef with hot chilli pepper Marc matched with a couple of strong Belgian ales, Dulle Teve and Lucifer; and for stir-fry clams with garlic and black bean sauce he lined up the Belgian “champagne beer” Deus: at HK$250 a bottle (£21/US$32 currently) this would not be my immediate first choice, on cost grounds, and I think I’d rather try Deus with those fish balls. For spicy/garlicky food, FI suggests to me a good abbey triple. Finally, for the typical Chinese dessert of deep-fried egg whites with red bean paste filling, Marc shoved forward what I always think of as the red-nosed, baggy-trousered clowns of the beer world, Mongozo Banana and Mongozo Coconut. Don’t know about those two: but Wells Banana Bread Beer might be an interesting pairing.

* Not a lot, but a porter or stout with liquorice as one of the ingredients would be an interesting match.

19 thoughts on “Matching Chinese food and beer

  1. some nice thoughts there on FI, since your in China I highly recomend giving Peeking Duck and a good Wizenbock a go, excellent combination. The richness and sweetness of both go all so well together

  2. One year we launched the Mild in May campaign in a pub which was also having a curry night and it was an absolute revelation how well the milds went with spicy foods.Since when I’ve come to realise just what a versatile and wonderful accompaniment that milds offer to food in general and spicy foods-normally difficult to match- in particular.It sits brilliantly with oriental cuisine , it enhances the experience without imposing itself.

    1. I really like IPAs (American – west coast) with spicy food, especially thai or buffalo wings.

      If I could get a decent mild, I would give it a try too.

  3. Interesting piece. I like the concept of FI, though I believe it’s a huge portion of knowledge and training, and a small degree of talent. If you have a solid knowledge of the beers of the world, and read The Brewmasters Table cover to cover (once you get started, that’s the only way to read it), you can fake a whole lot of FI – even if you have never had beer at your dinner table. But aren’t most forms of talent made up of 90% practice…

  4. Instead of the usual stronger pale beer or robust white wine that I usually drink with spicy food I decided to have a bottle of Thwaite’s bottle-conditioned Nutty Black with (very) spicy chicken a few nights ago and it went very well.

  5. Stop, stop, I’m so hungry now I could eat a blue duck. But probably not a cuttlefish (too cute, it would be like tucking into Pikachu).


  6. You made my mouth water with the description of your Guinness sauce, from a self-confessed Guinness girl. I might also try that Blue Girl-Blue chicken combo when I’m feeling a little… green.

  7. Thanks for sharing! I’m just a young lady from St. Louis, MO, US, who has a classic case of the lazies because she works too hard every day except Sundays, so she’s in the mood for Chinese late at night & wants a beer that would pair well. Though I really hope to travel one day & spend money on the authentic stuff instead of the stuff down the street. Cheers!

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