Top of the hops

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:14pm


On the south side of the Mediterranean island of Crete, near a Greek Orthodox monastery, is a long, golden-white beach accessible only via a steep path down a 30-metre cliff. When I was there more than 25 years ago, it was popular with young Germans, one of whom, with admirable enterprise, had set up a shack on the beach that sold snacks and, more importantly, iced beers.

Keeping those beers cold after they were purchased was not a problem, since the beach was dissected by a stream that ran down from the mountains in the centre of the island, and its waters were chilly, even in summer. Stick the beer bottles up to their necks in the stream to keep them cold, go for a swim in the warm azure Mediterranean, come back, dry off in the sun, pop the top off a bottle, and neck the icy beer. Paradise.

I can't remember what the beer was and, to be honest, it doesn't matter. For the beach, almost anything will do, provided it's cold and refreshing.

This may come as a surprise if you haven't tried the beer for years, but you would be as well off with that old local favourite San Miguel, which I've always found tastes fresher than anything else in Hong Kong. That's because some of the San Miguel available in Hong Kong is brewed in the New Territories, in Yuen Long.

It is about the freshest beer available, since it will not have been shipped thousands of kilometres to get here. (That lovely smell hitting your nose when you get out of the MTR at Yuen Long is the malt being mashed at the brewery.) Fresh is definitely best for all but the very strongest beers.

One big warning, though: don't take any beer to the beach that comes in clear glass bottles. Brewers don't like to admit this, but beer and sunlight do not mix. The ultraviolet rays that tan your skin react badly with the hop resins that give beer its flavour, causing a reaction that is very similar in chemistry and aroma to the fluid sprayed by a frightened skunk. This can happen within 20 minutes of beer being exposed to sunlight, even in a beer glass: that is why most beer bottles are coloured, because this stops the UV rays getting through, and prevents the brew inside from going skunky.

But it's a little different if you're planning a barbecue or picnic. You want a beer that will complement the food. There are beers that will do the job far better than pale lager.

In fact, standard lager should probably be towards the bottom of the shopping list for a barbecue; it's refreshing enough on a hot day, but generally too lacking in character (and too weak) to stand up to the strong flavours of barbecued food.

As a meeter-and-greeter when your guests arrive, the Belgian 'champagne beer' Deus, available from at least one Hong Kong specialist retailer, is spectacular: it's a 'double-fermented' beer that comes in a 75cl cork-closed bottle, it's about 11.5 per cent alcohol, dry, fizzy, and it should ideally be served in champagne flutes. The problem is, at HK$250 or more, this may be the most expensive bottle of beer you'll ever buy.

When it's time to eat, for grilled steaks, ribs and chops, especially when rich sauces and marinades are involved, the hoppy, malty flavours found in bottled British pale ale - bitter - make a terrific companion, lightly chilled and kept in a cold glass.

There's a good range of premium pale ales from British brewers available in Hong Kong that go well with barbecued meats: Fuller's London Pride; Spitfire from the Kentish family firm Shepherd Neame; and Landlord from Timothy Taylor of Yorkshire to name just a few. If you are lucky, you can find Wychwood's Hobgoblin, which, with its dark, slightly caramel character, is particularly good with well-done Aberdeen Angus beef.

Amber lagers such as the Samuel Adams beer from the Boston Beer Company, or Brooklyn Lager from New York, which have a maltier character than paler lagers, provide many of the same matches with barbecued food as British ales. So do Belgian abbey ales such as Leffe Brune.

If darker beers go with red meat, paler beers complement fish, chicken, duck and pork. Wheat beers are especially good with grilled fish, either the cloudy, yeasty German hefeweizen or the spicier Belgian style epitomised by that favourite, Hoegaarden (which, if you want to show off, is pronounced 'who-harden' with the h sounding like ch in the Scottish word 'loch').

Beery trivia: those huge glasses Hoegaarden arrives in when you order one in a bar are said to derive from those used in Belgium to serve milk, since the man who revived the brewery in the Belgian village of Hoegaarden in the 1960s was actually the local milkman, and those were the only glasses he had to supply the bars taking his beer.

The Japanese boutique brewer Hitachino makes an excellent German-style wheat beer it calls Weizen, available from Sogo, which has all the proper banana-and-bubblegum flavours found with the style, and a Hoegaarden-like beer called White Ale.

Strong German lagers are a natural with pork steaks and grilled ribs (pork and lager are a classic Bavarian combination), and so, too, is cider ('hard cider' for Americans). Dry ciders will sit well alongside pork and chicken, while cider will also complement grilled fish, barbecued prawns, pasta salads and rice dishes. American pale ales and India pale ales, with their citrusy flavours, often suit grilled chicken dishes, although they are mostly too hoppy and bitter for fish. Dark German wheat beers (the style called Dunkel), with their almost chocolaty, roasted flavours, also match grilled meat dishes.

The Americans have solved the problem of keeping quantities of beer both close at hand and cold during a barbecue by inventing the 'beverage table'. This is a cast aluminium outdoor table with a large central pit that can be filled with ice. If, however, you do not want to spend as much as US$1,500 for a special chilled table, there are far cheaper ways of achieving the same result.

One answer is to commandeer a children's paddling pool - preferably one with a sunshade attached - and fill that with (1) beers, and then (2) ice at least half way up the bottles.

If your children insist on using the paddling pool for its proper purpose, pour ice into the bottom of a (clean) plastic dustbin, build a ring of bags of ice two or three bags high around the inside of the bin, put a plastic bin liner into the bin and fill the bin liner with (wet) bottles of beer. Then build the wall of ice bags up to the top of the bag of beer, and place more bags on top of the beer until ready. This way you avoid having to plunge your arm into freezing water.

How much beer you allow per head is tricky: you don't want your guests either passing out in the bathroom or sneaking thirstily away down to the nearest 7-Eleven. Calculate around two litres of beer per head, and add some extra for unexpected arrivals.

Finally, don't forget beer with your summer dessert: a chocolate stout, a honey beer such as those made by the British brewers Wells and Young's, and Fuller's, or a Belgian fruit beer such as kriek (cherry) or framboise (raspberry) will all go with ice cream, fruit fool, cheesecake and the like, as will the marvellous vanilla-tinged Innis & Gunn oak-aged ale from Scotland.

Unfortunately, there were no desserts at my Cretan paradise: at the end of an afternoon of total pleasure, it was necessary to climb back up that steep and slightly crumbly cliff in 40-degrees-Celsius sunshine.

By the top, my heart was hammering, my shirt soaked and my throat rasping. I could really have done with a cold beer.


You can make your own version of a Pimm's with beer, a 'Brewsters' refresher'

Serves 8

1 litre ale, chilled - British beer such as Fuller's London Pride or ESB; Shepherd Neame's Spitfire; or American ale such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager

1 litre lemonade or soda water (for soda water add the juice of a lemon)

100ml gin - or vodka or whisky

1 apple, cored and sliced

1 medium-sized orange, halved and each half sliced into eight pieces

Sprig of mint

1/4 cucumber, cut into sticks

- Put the fruit and cucumber into a large jug, pour the beer, lemonade/soda water and gin/vodka over it and add the mint and plenty of ice.

- You could also use frozen raspberries as a substitute for at least part of the ice.

Other 'beer cocktails' also make good coolers. One is the 'beer mojito'. This recipe is from the British beer writer Marverine Cole:

7 fresh mint leaves

2 wedges of fresh lime

100ml chilled golden ale or pale lager (less than 5 per cent alcohol)

50ml white rum

25ml sugar syrup

Crushed ice

- Put six of the mint leaves into a glass.

- Cut the wedges of fresh lime, throw them into the glass and muddle.

- Pour in the beer.

- Add the white rum and sugar syrup and mix. Top off with crushed ice.

- Garnish with the last mint leaf.