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The Lion hunt ends in west Londo

Once Michael Jackson had to cross mountains to get his hands on a favourite Sri Lankan beer. Now he sips it in Ealing

It seemed a rather tame location. I was sitting in a restaurant in the London suburb of Ealing, chewing on dried Maldive fish and drinking a beer I had once travelled far and perilously to taste. That, I suppose, is progress.

My dinner companion, Rajaratnam Sriskantha, was telling me that this beer would soon be available in Sri Lankan restaurants and corner stores "island-wide" (he meant Britain), and would one day be known the world over. Having worked for Heineken in Sri Lanka, he knows a thing or two about marketing. But the more we talked, the farther my mind travelled to the journey of discovery.

People think hot countries, being thirsty places, must have good beer.

I rarely go to sunny lands in search of beer. People think hot countries, being thirsty places, must have good beer. This is rarely so. Hot countries grow tropical plants, but not barley or hops, which prefer cooler climes. These ingredients can be shipped to the sun, but why should they find a brewing tradition when they get there? Even if there were once colonial brewers, how many countries retain their methods?

Almost every nation has a traditional drink fermented from whatever grows locally. In Sri Lanka, I drank a soapy, sherbety, whitish, intoxicating toddy. It had been fermented overnight from the sap of a coconut palm, and served at a roadside stall roofed with the tree's fronds. Even the drinking vessels were coconut shells. The toddy was loosely a beer, but not the one I was hunting.

Nor was the lightly sweet pilsner ("brewed from European malt and hops," said the label) or smooth, chocolatey stout, named after a circus strong-man called Sando, that I sampled in the Three Coins brewery, near Colombo -- good though they were. Although there was a war in progress, and the area had been hit by floods and earth-slides (in which 20 people had been killed), I set off on my quest with a driver whose name sounded like Sam Good Puller in a Toyota that was as care-worn as a Japanese car permits itself to become. Following the tourist route (with stops to see batik being printed, cane furniture being made and rubber being tapped) it takes five hours to climb to the Buddhist holy city of Kandy, in the mountains at the centre of the island of Sri Lanka. But my great desire was to visit the famous UKD Silva Brothers bar. It served the products of the Ceylon Brewery, Lion Lager and Stout, by hand-pump, from the wood.

In the lands of lager, Bavaria and Bohemia, I have occasionally seen that style of beer served from the wood. The home of dry stout, Ireland, has not offered it cask-conditioned for decades. The Lion Lager was soft, dry, tart and yeasty. The Lion Stout had the head and texture of a draught English bitter -- perhaps just a little smoother -- with a fresh flavour of chocolatey malt and hops.

The bar was open to the street. Inside, about 30 men sat or leaned at a high bar, sampling its wares. Most had chosen the stout. Cooled only by two large ceiling fans, there were three large casks behind the counter. On the wall was a certificate recording second prize for an ale (since discontinued) at the 1952 Brewers' Exhibition at Olympia, London, a calendar advertising Andrew's Liver Salts and a stag's head.

The sampling made me all the more determined to see the brewery where these beers were made. We set off for a further four hours' drive along zig-zagging mountain roads, some still being washed to red clay ledges by water cascading down a mountainside; I was glad Sam Good Puller had not been sampling with me. The road rose into a mist, from which emerged the hill town (and tea-planting capital) of Nuwara Eliya, on a plateau beneath the peaks of the Pedro Mountains. Tea-pickers were combing the hillsides. With the rain still sluicing down, they were wearing brightly coloured plastic macs that made them look like exotic birds.

Tea was not enough to quench the thirst of the Scottish tea-planters, who established what became the Ceylon Brewery Ltd., possibly as early as 1860 (it was certainly in operation by 1881).

Up a heavily rutted hillside road, behind a handsome iron gate, were the several rendered buildings of the brewery. Tea was not enough to quench the thirst of the Scottish tea-planters, who established what became the Ceylon Brewery Ltd., possibly as early as 1860 (it was certainly in operation by 1881).

A mountain spring at 7,000 ft., flowing over Lover's Leap waterfall, feeds the brewery. Malt from Denmark and Czechoslovakia, and hops from Slovenia, are hauled up the mountain road; the finished beer is trucked back down the road to the more populous coast. When I was there, they had been using the same British yeast for 30 years to ferment their stout -- in open wooden vessels.

Whatever the airborne tropical yeasts could do to it in those wooden fermenters was not evident when I sampled the stout in the bottle. It was, and is, a hearty, traditional stout, very aromatic, with lots of chocolate, coffee, and toffee flavours, and an almost oily texture. The brewery said it had an alcohol content of at least 5.2 per cent, maybe as much as 8. Now it is labelled 7.5. Even in the bottle, it still has a yeast sediment, and it throws a huge head.

When I booked into the Hill Club that night ("from 7 p.m., gentlemen shall wear a jacket and tie; no member shall give any money to any of the servants of the club, under any pretext whatever, but may subscribe to the gratuity fund; under by-law No. 16...") a perfect Martini set me up for a dinner featuring spam and a wine list erring toward German medium-dries.

In Ealing, with Mr. Sriskantha and the Maldive fish, I settled for bottled Lion Lager, as soft as I remembered it, with a nice dry finish, perfectly acceptable. When it came to a Sri Lankan dessert of palm honey and coconut milk (and I take the same view on Indian kulfi ice-cream), that was the moment for a Lion Stout.

It was to taste the spectacular Lion Stout that I had travelled all those hours. Now that it has returned the compliment, I shall name it my Beer of the Month.

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: NOV 7, 1992
In: The Independent

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