Beer Matters

Hop Thoughts from Abroad

Having recently returned from south-east Asia, my thoughts lately have been on beers from foreign parts.

To my mind, eating and drinking are an essential part of the travel experience, so I tend to stick to the local brews. Tiger from Singapore is ubiquitous in that region and complements the spicy food well. There were various European beers available but I eschewed the Heineken, Stella and Carlsberg on offer at the outdoor food stalls in Borneo, despite the pleas of the mini-skirted promoters in their respective brewery liveries. The biggest surprise was to find real Dublin Guinness (the 8% thick, meaty bottled version) in the rest house 11,000 feet up Mt. Kinabalu, whence it has to be carried like everything else on the backs of porters.

Otherwise, in Malaysia there was not a vast choice. Apart from the Tiger, there was sometimes Anchor, rather bland by comparison. Cambodia has its home-grown Angkor, which is quite pleasant and went down a treat with the fried frogs in ginger. But the best find was Chang: to add to the novelty of flying by turbo-prop from Bangkok to Siem Reap, I was given a can of this strong (6.5%) and agreeably tasty beer to while away the short flight. A slightly weaker variety turned up at Kuala Lumpur airport and provided welcome fortification for the long haul home.

I didn’t, however, bring back any samples. Experience has taught me that opening them weeks later is inevitably disappointing. Beers are a product of their environment. A light pilsner-style beer may hit the spot when you are lying on a tropical beach (I even admit to drinking Red Stripe in the Caribbean and am convinced it gives the body extra buoyancy) or dripping with sweat from a trek in the jungle but, in the cold reality of an English winter (or even summer), the beer which you enjoyed on holiday can seem totally lacklustre.

This doesn’t necessarily apply to brews from more temperate regions. Belgium produces many hundreds, most of which are interesting and some very good indeed (for a hop-head like me, Orval must be a serious contender for the best beer in the world). Germany – or at least Bavaria – obviously falls into this category, but I haven’t been there yet. Whilst the French are not generally noted for their beer, being more adept with the grape than the grain, the one exception is the rich, fruity bière-de-garde from Normandy; try Jenlain (available in Café Rouge) or St Leonard.

The Czech Republic has the world’s highest per-capita beer consumption and some excellent beers, particularly the dark ones. Radegast, Velkopopovický, Branik and Novomestsky are all well worth trying. If you go Prague, by all means try the famous home brew (a sort of mild unchanged since 1499) at U Fleku, although it’s expensive by Czech standards and full of noisy Germans. But do seek out U Cerneho Vola (the Black Bull) near St Vitus’ Cathedral and enjoy some wonderful, cheap beer and food in a real pubby atmosphere. You can drink to your heart’s content with a clear conscience (not that I ever do otherwise) in the knowledge that your efforts are supporting the blind school next door.

So much for Europe and Asia. In the second part of this article I intend to look in more detail at beers in the ringing corners of the globe, particularly Australia and North America.

One person who clearly doesn’t believe in sampling the local brew is George W. Bush. During his recent visit to a pub in Sedgefield he ordered a pint of Bitburger non-alcoholic lager. Nor was he set an example by his host. The man Blair appears not to know what the true and proper drink of Englishmen is either. If he were to follow Uncle Max’s advice and take three or four pints of best bitter daily, he wouldn’t come up with ridiculous schemes like emasculating the House of Lords or making my Sunday dinner illegal. Now, I’m sure William (14 pints) Hague would have made an excellent Prime Minister.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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