"Which was your most unusual beer hunting trip?" I am often asked. Among them, I always cite a visit to Sri Lanka, in 1986, to track down a cask-conditioned stout. For some people, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime journey. For me, it has been twice, thus far. I found the stout the first time, so strictly speaking I did not need to return. Nonetheless, I did go back recently.
It is a longish journey. For anyone who cannot quite place Sri Lanka, it might be better remembered by its older name, Ceylon. It is an independent island nation at the foot of India. The indigenous drinks of Sri Lanka are toddy (a "beer" fermented overnight from coconut sap) and arrack (a coconut brandy).
There also remain colonial influences from the Portuguese, Dutch and British, especially the latter, who found that the hill country provided a perfect climate in which to plant tea. The men who ran the plantations thirsted for British beer. There seems to have been brewing in Sri Lanka in the 1860s, but the Ceylon Brewing Co., brewer of Lion Stout, traces its history to 1881. Its original brewery, in the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, which spreads from 3,500 feet to more than 6,000 feet, was perfectly placed for the planters, but its location is a logistical nightmare.
What the roads were like a century ago, I cannot imagine. On my first visit, an experienced local driver took five hours to drive from the port of Colombo, the capital, to the holy city of Kandy, and a further four hours to Nuwara Eliya. Even to a professional traveler, the mountain roads are an endless series of steep hairpins bending round precipices. On my first visit, floods had washed away hunks of road, and in some places was still doing so beneath our tires. On my second visit, after a dozen years or more, I had forgotten what a white-knuckle ride it was, even though road repairs and improvements had cut the trip to seven hours each way. On both visits, there was the additional problem of an ethnic guerrilla conflict. Although the war zone is in the north, there have been several bomb outrages in Colombo.
Even in calmer times, it is hard to imagine trucks loaded with malt making that mountain journey, then returning with beer. I did not see them: suicidally, they do it at night, because the roads are quieter. However many expatriate tea planters lived in the mountains, the biggest centre of population is Colombo and the coastal strip. In recent years, the company has built a brewery near Colombo, and I wonder how long the brewery at Nuwara Eliya will stay in production. I am glad to have seen it. A thousand or more feet above, from a point called Lover's Leap, a cascade provides water for brewing. Because it is hard to boil at such altitudes, a pressure kettle is used, held down by weights and chains. On my first visit, there were still fermentors clad in Halmilla, one of the countless hardwoods that grow in Sri Lanka.
The brewery's principal product is lager, but it made a pale ale until the 1960s, and it still produces a stout. This pattern is typical in former British colonies. As golden lagers became more popular, the bronze or copper "middle" color vanished, but a black porter or stout survived for those who wanted something truly dark. All beers were stronger in colonial times, and these old black brews typically had between 6.0 and 9.0 per cent alcohol by volume. The Ceylon Brewery's Lion Stout has in recent years increased its alcohol from 6.3 to 8.0 by volume.
Sri Lanka is a competitive market. On this small island, where religious attitudes make for many abstainers, there are three breweries, each producing a stout. Lion has by far the biggest market share, and its stout is the most complex in flavors.
The "cask conditioned" stout was available in 1986 in two bars that no longer exist. The beer was drawn by hand pump from 50-gallon wooden barrels, but there was no methodical conditioning. Despite a comment on the label, the "bottle conditioned" stout is not precisely what it says, either. It is still unfiltered, but is now pasteurised. It is, though, a wonderfully assertive example of a tropical stout.
The unlikely purpose of my recent visit was to judge a cocktail competition in which the stout was to be used. I particularly enjoyed one that blended the Lion Stout with fresh mango and passion fruit. The local fishermen lace it with arrack, creating a delicious but potent potion.
Actually, the stout is pretty good on its own.
Pruney, mocha aromas and flavors; tar-like oiliness of body; peppery, bitter-chocolate finish.
Anything with coconut, especially Sri Lankan curries and similar mild-but-spicy dishes from elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent or South East Asia. To make a great dessert, blend it with melting ice-cream, then freeze the result. Serve with bitter-chocolate cookies.
Published: NOV 1, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online
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