This one is hot off the telex from our Far East correspondent, Victor Crabbe:
One of the things I appreciate about living in Singapore is living somewhere foreign enough to make Guinness Foreign Extra. When I was a younger man, walking home in the small hours along the Kingsland Road, I would pause from time to time at various off-licences and fortify myself, needlessly, for the remainder of the journey with a dark malty bottle of the stuff: the fact of its availability seemed exotic, as if a case or two had somehow been abducted from its proper location of Nigeria or Jamaica. It seemed as cheeky as the shop owners’ attitudes to the licensing laws. It never occurred to me that the UK was somewhere that could be exported to just as well as more remote places, despite evidence to the contrary to be found in every shop and newsagent nearby.
Now that I’m here, it still seems like a slightly dirty choice of drink. The smooth ice-cream character of draught Guinness is nowhere to be found, making it all the easier to discern the rusty-razor-sharp sourness that people who dislike stout are so aware of. Singapore-brewed Foreign Extra is a hard, bitter and (at 6.8% by volume) strong drink, much like the people it’s traditionally been made for. Like coffee and caviar, it’s a taste that’s hard to imagine bothering to acquire — if you melted caramel into stewed tea and stirred in a cold Horlicks, you might be close to replicating it. In contrast to gentler Belgian beers of a similar strength, where the high alcohol is a natural support for honeyed, floral, welcoming flavours, the alcohol in Foreign Extra does nothing more than lend the whole thing a medicinal je ne sais quoi.
The marketing department of the local distributors recently offered a ‘limited edition’ for sale, leaving the recipe unaltered but repackaging it in a gaudy collision of copper and gold. On the back they included a history lesson: “In 1869, the distributor of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout in Singapore, Blood Wolfe, used a wolf’s head emblem to distinguish themselves. The locals started calling it ‘Ang Ji Kao’ (Red Tongued Dog). Walking alongside you when you celebrated success and endured hardship. Guinness has been enjoyed by generations of Singaporeans. Let us raise a toast to what we have created because this one is for us.” The relevant press release goes into more detail, claiming that the Hokkein ‘ang ji gao/kao’ tag was easier for locals to pronounce than ‘Guinness’. The wolf in question is panting, in a way entirely appropriate to this climate, with a long red tongue lolling around in a way that makes the HMV puppy look terribly innocent. What struck me most was the idea that something as Oirish as Guinness, to my North Sea eyes, could be claimed as local all the way over here, somewhere distant enough that people had no experience of idiots in foam hats and shamrocks. But then of course it isn’t Irish, apart from the brand — it’s stout, a drink that’s been here long enough to be local.
Local stout, whether Baron’s, ABC, or Guinness, is, despite the marketers’ efforts, a drink for old uncles and exhausted labourers, something sold in huge bottles under fluorescent lights and drunk around plastic tables, something with enough malt and barley to compensate poor diets and sufficient alcohol to make difficult lives seem more pleasant. Expats like me (Caucasian, European) aren’t really seen drinking it, and I sometimes feel self-conscious at the Market Place or Cold Storage checkouts with a bottle nestling against the expensive muesli. Ang ji gao is not for ang mos: Singapore is too young a society for the middle classes to have started copying working-class mores, with affluence only a recent feature of life here. But I like it: I like the short list of ingredients (water, malt, barley, hops), I like the funny moreish nature of its cosy bitter taste, and most of all I like that I’m drinking it in exactly the sort of far-flung location in which I always imagined it belonged.
Editor’s note. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout can be divided into two categories: those that are brewed in Dublin for export to the former colonies and those that are brewed in the former colonies themselves. The latter category are brewed in Nigeria, Jamaica and Malaysia amongst others and vary in alcohol content. The situation is confused further as some of the foreign-brewed Extra Stouts are then imported into Great Britain and Ireland, the Nigerian is common in London, and sold alongside the Dublin-brewed stuff. There are differences in taste but I can’t remember what they are. These are strong beers we are talking about.