Miracle Brew is brilliant!

This is a review of Pete Brown’s latest book, Miracle Brew, that appeared in the TLS. Rereading my words now, I realise that I have not communicated by enthusiasm for the book strongly enough. It’s really a wonderful book. Every page contained something I didn’t know. It’s a strong year for booze books but Miracle Brew is definitely a candidate for booze book of the year. Also amazed that the TLS left in my joke about the Burton Snatch.

Image result for paul whitehouse brilliant

I like beer. I like reading about it, I write about it, I sometimes even drink the stuff but when I heard about Pete Brown’s latest, a detailed examination of beer’s constituent parts: barley, water, hops and yeast, I thought it sounded a bit technical. Perhaps aware that the book might be not be an easy sell, Brown ramps up the enthusiasm level from the first page. At times he writes like a cross between Brian Cox and Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show, brilliant!!

But the book also has a strong narrative thread. It’s nothing less than a history of beer from a primitive drink made by chewing grain to release sugar, to the introduction of hops from the Low Countries, Pasteur’s work on yeasts, and the present day craft beer boom. Brown’s argument is that despite its humble image, beer is one of the pinnacles of civilisation. Extracting fermentable sugar from barley is a process so complicated that it could not have been invented accidentally but nobody knows when it was discovered. In contrast wine is simply crushed grapes.

Water, yeast and barley have just as much effect on the taste of the beer as the more glamorous hops.  “Hops are just lipstick on beer. Barley is its soul” as one brewer says. We learn that water from the Liffey has never been used for brewing Guinness and a ‘Burton snatch’ refers to the  sulphurous taste from Burton water not something that you go looking for after too many pints of Bass.

The book is full of facts to amaze your friends at the pub: the common fruit fly drinks alcohol to poison the larvae of parasitic wasps that would otherwise eat it from the inside. My favourite chapter is the one on yeast not least because I learned that lager yeasts cannot survive in the human stomach therefore have a less volatile reaction on your digestive system than ale yeasts. Bitter makes you fart, lager does not. For this we have to thank Emil Christian Hansen who isolated the lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, at the Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark.

This is the joy of Brown’s book, he manages to make you appreciate the magic of beer even in its most everyday form. Anyone who has ever drunk homebrew knows how hard it is to get right. That bottle of Pilsner Urquell is a miracle of human ingenuity. Isn’t beer brilliant?


The Joy of Wetherspoon’s

Of all the stories I’ve heard about the fallout from Brexit, families divided, work jeopardised, friendships ended, the saddest was someone on Facebook who announced that he would never visit  a Wetherspoons because its proprietor, Tim Martin, was involved with the Leave campaign. This seemed to me the very definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face, imagine turning down cheap beer because of the European Union. But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society, that you do business even with those whom you strongly disagree. Voltaire marveled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”

But it’s not just over Brexit, it’s long been fashionable to sneer at Wetherspoons. Perhaps it’s because they sell such cheap beer. In London a pint in Wetherspoons will cost you less than ⅔ of what you’ll pay in the place with gastro pretensions up the hill. They can offer these prices because they have massive buying power. There are now 1,000 Wetherspoons around the country. It’s a far cry from when Tim Martin bought his first pub in 1979 and named the company after one of his old teachers who couldn’t control the class, which was how Martin felt about trying to run a pub.

It has to be said, those cheap prices do mean that you get some, ahem, colourful characters in a Spoons. The one in Liverpool Street station is particularly intimidating, full of big loud men with shaven heads having a few before getting the train back to Billericay. The pubs are often in converted cinemas, banks and churches and can be rather cavernous. You’re not going to get the quiet burble of conversation, the crackle of an open fire and a shepherd’s pie prepared by the landlord’s wife.

So by the standards of that mythical pub we all have in our minds, Wetherspoons falls short. But then so do 99% of pubs. Most are owned by  chains. One of the biggest, Mitchell and Butler, also own Nicholson’s, Harvester and All Bar One. Many pubs that look independent aren’t: our local in Blackheath, the Hare & Billet, is owned by the Metropolitan Pub Company. Being part of a chain doesn’t stop your average Wetherspoons being something of a beer drinker’s paradise. Whereas until recently many pubs considered doing real ale something of chore, Wetherspoons have always prided themselves on their selection. And because they don’t play music or show sport you can enjoy your pint in peace. The food, particularly the curries and the meats pies, isn’t bad either. In a strange town a Spoons can be a refuge.

As with all chains, there are good Spoons and bad. The best have a sense of community lacking in their more upmarket neighbours where the old regulars have been priced out.  I experienced the full magic recently at the Brockley Barge in south east London when we popped in one night after a meal. The beer, of course, was good and remarkably cheap but even better was the atmosphere. There were postmen enjoying a post-work drink, students, old men eking out their pensions and chubby girls on a night out drinking pinot grigio by the bucketload. People were smiling and talking to each other. Maybe I’d had too much discount real ale but that night I felt like Voltaire at the London Stock Exchange. However you voted in the Referendum can we at least agree that being able to buy a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord for £2.50 is a wonderful thing?

This article originally appeared in the Spectator


Beer Wine articles

The problems of getting a drink in Amersham

I wrote something for the Oldie earlier in the year (I’ve just put it up on my blog) about how my home town of Amersham (on the Hill, the old town is a different matter) which had been dying a slow death by estate agents and hairdressers has got a bit more life to it. One of the problems was that for a long time there was nowhere decent to get a drink. Oddly for such a prosperous town the local pubs when I was growing up were all very rough:

The Boot and Slipper – the snug bar was ok but on the whole this was a pub for people who drove souped-up Vauxhall Astras to nightclubs in High Wycombe in order to brawl in the car park. It’s now a Chef and Brewer – a bad chain restaurant.

The Iron Horse – the notorious Iron. Frequented by bikers, metallers and school children. Famous for its £1 a pint night on Wednesdays and the smell of rare herbs coming from the garden. No real ale. In fact all the beer was usually revolting. This is where I spent most of my late teen years. Closed in 2004. Demolished to make way for flats.

The Red Lion – aka the Dead Red. This was just outside Amersham in the village of Chesham Bois. A real smoking and drinking locals pub. The pub was one of the few places where you would hear the old Bucks accent before it became all estuary. It sounds a bit like a West Country burr, Chesham is pronounced Chess ‘um. My brother used to work here. He thinks the smoking ban must have hit them hard. Knocked down in dodgy circumstances in 2012.

Earlier this year, a local brewery, Red Squirrel, opened a shop in Amersham. I’d already seen their shop in nearby Chesham and was mildly interested. Both sell beer to drink off and on the premises. The difference is that Chesham still has lots of pubs so the shop is generally very quiet. In Amersham, the locals have taken to it with gusto. This summer the outside area has been packed with enthusiastic drinkers.

What was so nice about it is not only how good and cheap the beer is, £2.80 (!!!) for best bitter, but what a heterogeneous crowd it attracted. On my last visit, there was a group of elderly cyclists, families, young couples and a rowdy group who looked like they’d been wandering the streets since the Iron Horse closed in 2004. I recognised a couple from my misspent youth. One was telling me that he had once been barred from the Iron Horse which considering the what was allowed to go on there must have been something.

Basically it’s a Kent-style micro pub come to Amersham. It shows that Amersham really wanted somewhere to get a good pint of beer and have a chat. Previously nobody had managed to make it work financially or even perhaps even tried. It means that when I’m at my parents house, I make lots of important errands so that I can have a sneaky pint. Which is what having a good local pub is all about.

Normally these seats are crowded with drinkers. 




Two takes on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

My latest Guardian column is on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. After writing it, I noticed how similar the opening was to an old article from my former East Asian correspondent, Victor Crabbe. I wonder what happened to him. Anyway, it would seem that it was quite common to drink Foreign Extra Stout after a hard night on the town. You can compare the two articles below. I think Mr Crabbe’s is better. I should get him to write for World of Booze again.

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.

And mine:

When I moved to London about 15 years ago, I spent many lost weekends at warehouse parties in the East End. On my way home through the cold mornings, I would invariably stop at one of Hackney’s grocers to pick up a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. I drank it for the alcohol – at over 7% it’s much stronger than normal Guinness – but it also provides some serious sustenance. It felt like an antidote to the rather louche life I was living at the time.

This always happened whenever I had a Guinness 

Beer Books Wine articles

Booze book round-up for the Guardian

This is the uncut version of an article that appeared in the Guardian on Saturday:

Oddbins stocked a wine in the late 90s called Kiwi Cuvee. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the South France designed to taste as if it came from New Zealand. This summed up the direction wine was going at the time. For supermarkets flying wine-makers made products around the world to a formula and at the top end highly-paid consultants created lush ‘iconic’ wines for collectors. There were still plenty of interesting wines out there but the received opinion, not least from the European Union, was that unfashionable vines such a Carignan should be ripped out to be replaced with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This homogenising trend is over. Variety is now everything. Whereas before the concept of terroir – a sense of place – was mocked by Anglos as a marketing device invented by the French to sell wine without any fruit character, nowadays it’s a term used even by Australians. It’s telling that it is no longer italicised (though my spellcheck still tries to change it to terrier).

It couldn’t be a better time, therefore, for Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson to publish the latest edition of their World Atlas of Wine Atlas. It’s a very different book to the last edition in 2007 and now includes small scale maps of some of the most exciting emerging regions such as Croatia, around  Mount Etna in Sicily and Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne which is rivalling Burgundy for its elegant Pinot Noirs. The book is a celebration of terroir and a logical companion to Robinson’s Wine Grapes (2012) – an expensive and exhaustive encyclopaedia of every grape variety in the world. More than just being thorough, there’s an infectious sense of glee about this new Atlas. One gets the impression that Johnson and, in particular, Robinson with her humorous pedantry, really enjoyed writing it. The other new edition of a classic that is well worth buying is Alex Liddell’s Madeira, the Mid-Atlantic Wine. Madeira is a wine whose long and colourful history you can actually taste – 19th century wines from this island are still good to drink. Berry Bros & Rudd stock an 1875 D’Oliveira Malvazia for £689 a bottle.

It’s not only wine in which variety is being rediscovered. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t easy to find a of decent pint of bitter in London but recently a new wave of pubs have opened dedicated to craft products. Cider, for a long time a joke drunk by teenagers in bus shelters and the Wurzels, is now attracting serious attention. Best known for his beer writing, Pete Brown, has produced World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw. Although it looks like a coffee table book with lots of, often stunning, photos it’s also written with wit, knowledge and passion. You might even go as far as describe Brown and Bradsaw as the Johnson and Robinson of cider. I had no idea that cider was so widespread outside the three cider superpowers of England, France and Spain. The Germans make cider and express surprise that anyone else does, the Irish drink the most cider per head and in Quebec they make a super sweet ice cider. It’s not all good news though, it’s shocking how few actual apples go into some commercial brands. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that cider is currently the most exciting drink in Britain and it will improve as growers match the best apple varieties to the right land just as the French did in Bordeaux and Burgundy generations ago.

It’s a great time to be drinking but it’s not necessarily a great time to be reading about drink. I saw far too many books along the lines of ‘200 Wines to Impress your Father-in-law’ or a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Craft Beer’. Most were illustrated and designed to be easily marketed to English language readers worldwide. They’re all starting to look alike when the products they celebrate are increasingly diverse. Drink books are now either for gifts or reference. What is lacking is the sort of book that you want to read in bed; an Elizabeth David or Jeffrey Steingarten of wine, perhaps, to make you smile, think and, rather than trying to educate, assumes a certain knowledge and interest on behalf of the reader.  There are lots of people writing about drink in an interesting way on the internet. There are even some Americans trying to combine comedy with wine albeit not very successfully. None of these writers however, are producing engaging books for the general reader.

The two books that I enjoyed most this year didn’t come from traditional publishers. Don’t be put off by the rather exclusive title of the first, “Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition” shows how  wine writers can entertain when they’re given a bit of space to breath. It features noted wine types letting their hair down or at least giving their toupees a good airing. I particularly enjoyed Oz Clarke on sticking it to the toffs as a grammar school boy at Oxford and Will Lyons on claret and the Auld Alliance. The second is an ebook only thing called the Sediment Guide to Wining and Dining. It brings a mixture of seriousness and silliness to the strange ritual of the dinner party. In the right hands wine and laughter can go together. Maybe next year a publisher will have the nerve to commission a full-length book in a similar spirit.

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Beer Wine articles

Enough of these undrinkable craft beers

I have a friend who has been a real ale bore since his teens. During student pub crawls in Oxford he used to quiz unwary landlords on cellar temperatures and other arcane CAMRA matters. When he first visited New York some time in the 00s he was surprised by the craft beer scene. Surprised but not impressed. His comments were along the lines of: ‘typical Americans, they drink nothing but watery lager for years and then we they finally start drinking proper beer they take it too far with the hops, alcohol etc.’ My thought at the time was, when it comes to beer, too much is better than too little. Rather a Big Grizzly Bear IPA than Coors Light. Now that craft beer has hit these shores, we have the strange situation where British brewers are making versions of American versions of British beers.

The other night I reflected on my friend’s words whilst at the Cask in Pimlico. Actually it was almost impossible to reflect on anything so loud was it in this place. The next day my ears felt like they’d been at the Orbit in Leeds and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Never mind the Campaign for Real Ale, what British pubs really need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishings. I was looking forward to a nice chat with falafel magnate Patrick Matthews but I couldn’t hear much of what he said. The other problem was that most of the beers we tried were undrinkable (and the chicken and leek pie was horrid too.) They were nice at first but then my taste buds would be hit with a wave of hops and alcohol and I didn’t want another sip. We were drinking halves and it was very difficult to finish them. The nadir was a coffee stout that tasted like Guinness Foreign Extra laced with Tia Maria.

Patrick commented that the craft beer scene reminded him a little of wine 10-15 years ago. The emphasis then was on more: more extract, more ripeness, more oak, more alcohol. More, more, more! The model was big glossy Californian Cabernets. Wine has moved on. Everyone now talks about balance, acidity and drinkability. The model is Burgundy or even Beaujolais. Fashionable wines are ones that you could easily drink a bottle of by yourself. Or at least I could. Many new brewers, in contrast, are stuck in a 90s time warp. Rather than looking over their shoulders at the US, they should try some old favourites. The classic English beers such Landlord, Black Sheep and Young’s Special, are amazing and unique things. The disparate elements, alcohol, bitterness, fruit, maltiness are all in harmony with nothing shouting too loud. They’re complex enough to make you keep coming back but not so intense that you don’t want to take a really big swig. You can mull over them but they’re really for drinking in large quantities.

We shouldn’t be too hard on these ambitious new brewers though. To create something perfectly balanced is much harder than creating something immediately impressive. Making a good beer takes expertise and years of experience. I think in future all trendy beer pubs should have one classic British beer on tap just to show the young pretenders how it should be done. I bet it’ll be the first to run out.

Beer Spirits Wine articles

I’m bored with wine

Of course I’m not! I love wine. I’m just bored of ordinary wine. As a wine columnist for the Lady I get sent lots of samples. It sounds very exciting but the truth is that most of them aren’t very good. The whites in particular are desperately dull. My wife doesn’t even try them anymore. During this bout of sunny weather it has dawned on me that I would rather drink a gin & tonic, an Aspalls cider or even a bottle of Heineken than almost any sub £7 wine. There was an article in the Spectator  that got a lot of flack called Why Does Anyone Drink Wine by top advertising guru Rory Sutherland:

“But wine drunk on its own is often a terrible drink, usually consumed for appearances’ sake, or because the drinker lacks the confidence to complain, or for want of any alternative source of alcohol.”

You can read the whole thing here. I don’t agree with everything he says; he makes the mistake of conflating two types of wines, ordinary stuff, which is drunk by the undiscerning drinker or drunk by the discerning drinker when he’s not being discerning, and the more interesting stuff. But broadly, it’s hard to disagree with him. If you want something delicious, you’re almost always better off having a non-wine drink.  

The problem with cheap wine is that producers are trying to make a consistent product out of a an inconsistent annual crop. Wine doesn’t take well to industrial production. Grapes lose flavour when over-cropped. Rivals to wine: beer, cider, gin etc. don’t have these problems. They’re not aiming to be vintage. The big brands are industrial products and they’re not ashamed of it. Yes there’s an awful lot of bad beer and cider around, but most pubs, supermarkets and corner shops offer a few interesting beers, a decent cider and a superb selection of spirits for the same price as the not-so-good stuff.

This summer we’re drinking cocktails and my wife is happier than ever. The only problem is what to do with all those leftover samples. I could give them to my neighbours but the best thing to do with a cheap white is to add Aperol or Campari, fizzy water and ice to make a Bicyclette. Or you could party like its 1979 by adding Creme de Cassis to make a Kir.

Beer Restaurants

Good pub guides

543284_10151067514306204_1249535014_nDue to the capricious workings of the UK Border Agency, we went on holiday to Norfolk last year rather than France as originally planned. One of the highlights of the trip was the pub next door to our cottage. The Vernon Arms in Southrepps is a proper pub; there’s plenty of space for those who just want to drink. It’s not fancy, it’s not gastro, they don’t tell you the lineage of the cow that goes into your pie and the chicken probably isn’t free range. The crab is awesome, of course, as it’s straight out of the sea. It had three well-kept real ales and a nice mixture of locals and holiday makers. In short, it’s the kind of pub that tourists probably think England is full of but is increasingly rare. A few days into our holiday we drove up the coast from Cromer towards King’s Lynn looking for somewhere to eat. Somewhere just past Beeston Regis the pubs change, they become a bit, how shall I put this, Farrow & Ball. The old sign has been taken down to be replaced with something in black and white. The only colour visible is a tasteful green. The insides have been stripped back to bare boards. The menu is expensive and needlessly complicated.

Now I’m not averse to gastropubs or gentificaton being rather gentrified myself especially if the choice is between that and frozen microwaved meals. It’s hard to make a living from a pub and it’s nice that some of them are thriving by moving up-market. Proper pubs are, however, increasingly hard-to-find which I why I was so pleased to be sent a copy of Sawday’s Pub Guide . One of the joys of books such as these is looking at areas of the country one knows and seeing which pubs have been included. On opening the book I immediately noticed a problem. Most of the pubs in this book aren’t really pubs. They’re hotels, or restaurants, or at a push, inns. In fact a typical entry will read ‘having trained with Marco Pierre White at the Gavroche, Tim and Jeremy bought this neglected pub in the Herefordshire and have since wowed locals with their Italian-influenced cooking and all-Piedmontese wine list.’ As Tim and Jeremy have invested a lot of money in their pub and they’ve worked in London restaurants, they’re going to do some PR.

Take the Wheatsheaf in Northleach for example. The town is described as ‘a well-kept Cotswold secret’. Well maybe a secret as long as you don’t read any newspapers because this is where Kate Moss held one of her weddings. In fact the Wheatsheaf might be the best-publicised pub in the country. They even leave a book of press cuttings in each room. And of course it’s really a restaurant rather than a pub. The space for drinkers is tiny. There’s even a super-bright German sommelier called Angela who recommended an excellent Alsace Riesling for us. Again I’m not trying to knock this place. I’ve stayed here and had a lovely time but it’s not really a pub and if you google places to stay in the Cotswolds, this will come near the top of your list.

The restaurant theme continues in London. Choices include the Thomas Cubitt and Grazing Goat – sister pubs that share comically small portions, high prices and indifferently-kept beer, and the Anchor and Hope in Southwark – great food but why would you need a guide to find this place? What aren’t in the book are the old school unspoiled boozers that really are unknown or the new-wave ale houses that have completely changed how real ale is perceived in the capital. It wasn’t so long ago that it was hard to get a decent pint of bitter in London.

I can’t see who would buy this book. Pub lovers will look elsewhere and most of the places in this book aren’t exactly unknown. Sawday’s only seem interested in a sort of lifestyle, Farrow & Ball, Bodens Britain which though undeniably appealing, you don’t really need a guide to find. One of the ironies of gentrification is despite the shops and pubs remaining independent, towns start to look the same. I call the process Southwoldification after the pretty Suffolk town. Pubs that have been Southwoldefied are often lovely to visit – I just don’t want a whole book devoted to them.

Beer Wine articles Wine of the week

The Southwold invasion

On my visits to the seaside town of Southwold, I often heard complaints that the town was being taken over by Londoners (much of the time it was  Londoners doing the complaining). Now the people of Southwold have decided to fight back. Adnams, the brewery that dominates the little Suffolk town, is taking over London. They started stealthily with a shop in Stamford, Lincolnshire, then one opened in Spitalfields market and now another has appeared near where I work in Bloomsbury.

Adnams’ advertising may be a little hit-and-miss but their beer is lovely and they are a first-rate wine merchant. Their shops also do a nice line in up-market kitchenware: I have my eye on some spatulas that will be ideal for my mother’s birthday present. Whilst nosing around the Bloomsbury shop, I was grabbed by a member of staff and marched down the basement where they were conducting a wine tasting.

One wine in particular grabbed my attention Juniper Estate Shiraz from Margaret River in Australia. Adnams describe it like this:

‘You’ll want to save this whopper Western Australian Shiraz, with its chocolate-rich, blackberry fruit, vanilla oak and spice for folks you want to impress.’

Sounds pretty grim doesn’t it? Happily it tasted nothing like this description. In fact it was miles away from the clichéd image of good old boy Australian Shiraz, a wine described by Roger Scruton in I Drink, Therefore I am as ‘a wine for hooligans.’ The first impression was lively and fresh: this wine has a lot of acidity. Not that you would mistake it for Beaujolais, however, it’s full of sweet, bright optimistically New World fruit with some vanilla. I detected a floral flavour that I normally describe as violets but having never eaten a violet, I don’t know why I call it that. Must try to eliminate wine jargon!  It smells spicy. A 2005, it carries its age gracefully. The fruit is still very much to the fore though there’s also some woodiness and meat. I’d describe it as an Australian take on the Northern Rhone. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had chosen to label it Syrah rather than Shiraz. I wrote in a previous post that one of my wine prejudices was Australian Shiraz. The Juniper Estate made me realise that they don’t all have to be 15% monsters.

On leaving the Store Street shop I noticed that the pub opposite, the College Arms, is now an Adnams pub. Quietly, inexorably, the Southwold invasion has begun; London is theirs for the taking. If it means good wine, beer and quality fish & chips, then I shan’t be putting up a fight.

Juniper Estate Shiraz 2005, Margaret River, Australia – available from Adnams £15.99


Hair of the Red Tongue Dog: thoughts on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

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.