An impecunious amateur in the East

Victor Crabbe, World of Booze‘s man in Singapore, looks at what to drink in the former colony:

When I was young, I had a LEGO catalogue that described a perfect town, with just one of everything: one sandwich shop, one police station, one motorway maintenance vehicle, one railway station, one space rocket launch pad, and so on. On the face of it, Singapore has the same refreshing approach. There is one media provider, one airport, one coffee chain, one telephone company, one political party – and one beer, Tiger.

Tiger is everywhere in Singapore, all over buses, umbrellas, sporting events, television and of course bars. It’s something Singapore is very proud of, an international lager brand with more exotic chic than any equivalent mass-produced European brand. It’s a huge success, and like the other huge global lagers it tastes of dilute robot tears and marsh gas. A friend of mine says he feels as though he’s licked too many stamps after drinking a glass. We all drink it, but after a couple of months most people stop enjoying it. The brewery once offered Anthony Burgess free beer while he was in Singapore, after he used their slogan “Time for a Tiger” as the title of a novel, but he had tired of it and become “wholly a gin man”.

Lager came to Asia with the European empires and their hot and thirsty employees. A British man started brewing Kingfisher in India in 1857, the Spanish crown granted permission to brew San Miguel in the Phillipines in 1890, German colonists created Tsingtao inChinain 1857, and Seibei Nakagawa, trained by more Germans, started makingSapporoin the Kaitakushi Brewery in 1876. Tiger was a relatively late entrant, launched in 1932 by Malayan Breweries, a Heineken-backed venture. Lager, like port and gin, has been part of globalisation and international trade for a very long time, and I suppose in many ways this heritage of international commerce is older and more respectable than the supposed rural localism of the sorts of booze I prefer to drink. Many regional styles are distinctive and interesting, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing: the honeyed embrace of Thailand’s Chang beer or the crisp salute of Beer Lao are each of them memorable and evocative. So not every local lager is as faceless as Tiger, though it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate national drink for a place created through mercantilism and unfettered consumerism.

In the last few years a second wave of colonisation and empire has crashed against Singapore’s shore from the New World, bringing its own ideas about drinking in the shape of the “microbrewery”, which here as elsewhere presents a standardised and reliable set of choices while pretending to treat its customers as connoisseurs who appreciate beer “crafted” by “artisans”. They are pleasant and expensive, and this is really the crux of the difficulty facing any impecunious amateur inSingapore. Alcohol is very expensive, partly because it’s taxed heavily, and partly because certain drinks appeal to the sort of aspirational drinkers who think that being seen in the company of European booze makes them look sophisticated. As a result, even mediocre booze is unpleasantly dear. A bottle of wine for which I would be happy to pay around seven English pounds might retail at about S$30, which today is about £15. I recently had a 2008 Yarra Ridge pinot noir, which turned out to be a well-structured wine with a cherry-cola appearance and tannins that suggested a sieve of tart summer fruit left over a plate of hot ribs, giving it a kind of barbecued strawberry aura that was less unpleasant than it sounds. It was nice enough for under a tenner, but the $S32 I paid for it left me keen to exaggerate its virtues and pass over the formulaic Australian focus on varietal character. An empty wallet and mid-range tastes are distorting my palate, and I suppose while I’m here I shall have to get used to it. The only hope lies with Carrefour, the French megamarket: they carry a wide range of French wine and make no effort to promote them, thinking, I suppose, that anyone who doesn’t already know where Vosne-Romaneé is can’t be worth selling wine to. I do, and I am, and I intend to set about their shelves with abandon.

Editor’s note: I think it is time for an Anthony Burgess revival. ‘The Malayan Trilogy’, of which ‘Time for a Tiger’ is the first novel, is one the great empire novels. It captures the dislocating effects of colonialism: there is a French priest who longs for China, a British sergeant more comfortable speaking Urdu then English and an Moslem Indian soldier who wishes his sergeant would be a bit more British. There’s also a lot of drinking.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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5 Responses to An impecunious amateur in the East

  1. winstonsdad says:

    aren’t beautiful books reissuing some of his books but agree Henry these are due a revival ,he is one few british writers I love ,all the best stu

  2. Chaz Folkes says:

    May I second the call for a Burgess revival. At the moment my local library seems to be keeping most of his books aside from A Clockwork Orange in the basement store. A diverse and hugely talented writer, he is in danger of being overlooked these days.

  3. Pingback: An impecunious amateur in the East « rowensalemy

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