Macau, today, is dedicated to the excellent pursuit of separating idiots from their money. This little peninsula on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, not even three miles long, and the two islands to its south that make up the Macau Special Administrative Region, both part and not-part of the Peoples’ Republic of China, now pull in annual gambling revenues of US$38 billion: bigger than the whole United States gambling industry and four times the turnover of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined.
But if hundreds of thousands – many from across the border in China “proper”, where organised gambling is illegal – now come to Macau to throw away their cash, does anyone ever go there for the beer? Well, I did – but then, I’m a different sort of idiot.
Actually, Macau is worth visiting for its own sake, not just if you’ve got too much money and can’t think how to get rid of it quickly. Its history – the Portuguese persuaded the Chinese to let them establish a permanent settlement there in 1557, and never gave the place back until 1999 – means that you can find old Chinese temples, pastel-coloured Roman Catholic churches and monuments to sheer over-the-top worship of money all within one 10-minute taxi ride. The food, as you would expect, is a cross between Cantonese/Chinese and Portuguese-colonial, which means Hainan chicken AND chicken piri-piri. Every Macan bakery supplies the lovely Portuguese egg custard tarts, of which I am very fond, hot and nommy. And the wildly bonkers casino architecture is entertaining in itself, even if you don’t put a single pataca in a slot-machine (not that you can: Macau’s own currency isn’t accepted in the casinos, only Hong Kong dollars). A replica of St Mark’s Square, Venice, with canals and gondolas? An 856-feet-tall tower modelled after a lotus flower? A 140-foot-tall fake volcano that “erupts” every evening? Come to Macau.
It’s one of the puzzles of Macau: do the people who visit it to gamble not look around and realise that the spectacular buildings, the rampant showing-off that, for example, filled in the sea between the islands of Coloane and Taipa to make the 250-acre Cotai Strip to provide land to build more casinos (and hotels to provide places for the gamblers in the casinos to sleep when they’re not gambling), the hotels and casinos themselves, each complex costing a couple of billion dollars or so, is all paid for out of their pockets? That however much they dream of winning, the number one rule in gambling is: “In the long run, you’ll never beat the house”, and that everything they see around them is a monument, literally, to that rule?
Still, there are other ways of gambling. A man called Mark Myrick gambled in 1996 on opening Macau’s first ever brewery, the Macau Brewing Company, in its entire 440-year history as a place of European settlement. It produced three different beers in bottles and kegs from an industrial building about halfway between the ferry terminal and the border with China proper, but was sold to local investors in 1999. They in turn sold the brewery, and all its kit to Kirin, the Japanese brewer, in 2002. The brewery equipment stayed where it was until 2011, when it was removed, but most, if not all, of what Kirin marketed as “Macau Beer” (with a picture of Macau’s most famous landmark, the ruined façade of St Paul’s Cathedral, on the label) was brewed at Kirin’s brewery in Zhuhai, across the border. Certainly today the “Macau Beer” you can buy in Macau – when you can find it – is almost definitely from Zhuhai.
When you CAN find it, it’s a pleasant enough mid-gold beer at the malty end of the rainbow, refreshing cold on a day when the temperature is in the 30s centigrade and you’ve been slogging the streets of Macau trying to discover a bar that offers more than the unholy quartet of Carlsberg, Heineken, Tsingtao and San Miguel. I don’t know why I thought the drinking places in Macau’s casino complexes might offer gamblers wanting a respite from throwing their capital away across the green baize something decent to drink, but clearly gamblers don’t care about what it is they wash away the sorrows of losing with. Hey, Steve Wynn, your Wynn Macau resort may be spectacular (the “Tree of Prosperity”, which rises periodically from the floor in one of the lobbies, is a full 15-minute light-and-sound show), but for a former drinks importer, the beer selection in your casino’s bars is rubbish.
And that’s true of almost everywhere else in Macau. There are some great bars: I’m a pubs man, really, but I do have a secret love for those “ultra-high-end” designer bars, all chrome, marble and dark glass, that became particularly popular in the 1990s, and there is an excellent example in the Mandarin Oriental complex in Macau, the Vida Rica (“Rich Life”) bar: hugely tall ceilings, marbled floor, methuselahs of champagne, an impressively wide range of spirits. But even in the Vida Rica, with its view of the giant Macau Tower, home to the longest bungee jump drop in the world, the beer choice is limited to CHTS, the “S” in this case standing for Super Bock, Portugual’s favourite beer, and, strangely, the only Portuguese beer I recall seeing in this former Portuguese colony.. I went for a bottle of Superbock as, actually, the least offensive of the four, and was hit for 75 patacas – £6.14.
When I worked, years back, for a company that produced a glossy trade magazine for the hotels business, we used to get sent books to review that were full of “pub porn”, photographs of fantastic designer bars, designer in the sense that they were designed to appeal to people who will not even notice they’re paying seven times the corner-shop price for a bottle of very ordinary beer. But surely eventhey expect something better than CHTS today?
Well, if they do, they’d struggle to find it in Macau. How about the Hard Rock Hotel, in the Cotai Strip? If Iron Maiden can create a beer with Robinson’s brewery, craft beer has got to be rock ’n’ roll, right? Ahhh – no, the bar at the Hard Rock Hotel, Macau offers just CHTS, the same as everywhere else.
Across the dual carriageway, though, is the Venetian Macau complex, and research beforehand had revealed that in the middle of the 240 acres of hotel rooms, casinos, shops and eateries was a bar called McSorleys – not actually related to the famous New York bar of that name, but claiming in its publicity to have “a wide selection of ‘real ales'”. That I didn’t believe at all, but could it actually be selling something better than CHTS?
The bar took some finding, despite my having printed off a map of the interior of the Venetian from the internet, and of course when I did arrive the decor was as fake as any 1990s Irish theme bar in Newport Pagnell or Tunbridge Wells. But it had a beer menu and, lordy me, I had finally, in my last gamble before taking the ferry back to Hong Kong, thrown a seven, drawn a pair of aces, seen the ball land on red – half a dozen beers from Australia, the US and the UK.
Now, drinking in the UK, you might sneer at a line-up that includes Hobgoblin, St Austell Admiral’s Ale, Doom Bar and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, but after two days of CHTS, I wasn’t complaining. Doom Bar for 70 patacas and in a clear glass bottle 6,000 miles from home? Bring it here, madam, and not just so that I can tell Stuart Howe one day that I once paid £5.73 for a glass of his best-known beer.
Foolishly, after the Doom Bar I chose Pure Blonde, made, I hadn’t realised, by Carlton United in Australia as its entry into the “lite beer” category. Antipodian readers are laughing at me already. Pure Blonde is a terrific tribute to the skills of Carlton United’s brewers: they have managed to make a product from malt and hops that has almost no aroma, and practically no taste. It’s as if the brief they were given was to make a beer that was as close to the punchline of the old joke about making love in a punt as possible.
However, McSorley’s Macau also sold Red Tail Ale from Mendocino Brewing Company in California, and Vale Ale from the McLaren Vale Beer Company of South Australia: I’d had Red Tail before, but Vale Ale was a great find, gingery and dry, a lovely yeasty tang about it. Very moreish. But there wasn’t time for more: a quick chat with the duty manager at McSorley’s Macau, which revealed that his boss was apparently a beer fan, hence the appearance of something other than CHTS, and then back on the free bus to the ferry for the hour’s trip across the Pearl River Delta to Hong Kong.
So: Macau – worth visiting? Oh yes, definitely, if you’re in the region. It’s a fascinating fusion of Cantonese tradition with a Portuguese crust on top, and the historic centre is deservedly a World Heritage Site. But unless you’re going to be staying in or near the Venetian, don’t go there for the beer.