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The empire strikes back

Ethnic beers in Britain

Between the Pakistani city of Karachi and the Indian city of Bombay juts the state of Gujerat. With its westerly, coastal, position, Gujerat is one of the most outgoing states of India. Gujeratis managed tea and coffee plantations in East Africa, and provided trading expertise during the period of the British Empire. After independence, one East African country, Uganda, expelled its Gujeratis, most of whom went to Britain. It may be just one among India's 28 provinces and seven territories, but Gujerat has touched upon the life of every neighborhood in the cities of Britain.

In urban communities, almost all convenience stores are run by Gujerati families from Uganda, though perhaps not for much longer. Typically, the Gujeratis have worked long hours to ensure that their children are well educated. The next generation will run bigger businesses, or go into the professions. I suppose they will move to the suburbs, too.

In my inner city neighborhood, the Patel family is on hand to ensure that the correct four newspapers (six at weekends) are delivered to my home, with the New Yorker once a week. At lunchtimes, the matriarchal Susie Patel makes sure I get a sandwich. At the end of the day, her younger brother Bob asks whether I would like a ready-made curry popped into his micro-wave.

He knows he can't sell me a beer, because brewers already send me more samples than I can handle. Even if I didn't have all that beer, I would only buy from Bob if I could persuade him not to display his bottles in the window. This is a common problem with convenience stores. They are not specialist drinks shops, and they are often run by people who do not drink. Whether a popular lager in a can suffers much from warm days in the summer is open to question. Canned beer is, at least, not vulnerable to light.

The Patel family is part of the neighborhood; we have seen their siblings marry, their children grow, and now Bob is threatening to retire. The prospect is the talk of the community, and much of the talk is in the tiny shop. That is one of the places where I see my neighbors. Another place for a chat is over a curry at the Rajput; like most "Indian" restaurants, it is run by a family originally from Bangladesh. Thank heavens, the second generation is very much involved in the business.

Or there is the Thai restaurant that is an adjunct to the local pub. You can wash down your Thai meal with a Singha beer, though I stick to the Fuller's, superbly kept by Tom and Moira Mahedy (both of whom were born in Ireland. It is supposed to be an Irish neighborhood, after all. Well, Irish and Polish).

Many of the ethnic restaurants in Britain try to offer beers that match their food. In practice, all of these beers are standard (in marketingspeak, "premium") lagers, in the international Pilsner-derivative style. There is no distinct national style of beer that is Chinese, Thai, Indian, Greek or Italian, for example.

Red Storm

By far the most popular ethnic food in Britain is "Indian". There are two dozen Indian restaurants on the main road from my neighborhood to the next (Chiswick, home of Fuller's brewery). Most of them offer a standard lager from Carlsberg and one of two supposedly Indian brews, both produced by companies with robustly English identities. Neither of these beers is hugely characterful, but they are popular, and the subject of much myth about the alleged special characteristics of "Indian" brews. It is a topic I rarely examine, hence the length of this article.

The longest-established Indian beer in Britain is Kingfisher, a well-known lager in India. Kingfisher belongs to United Breweries of Bangalore, a large, diversified, company run by Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya. Six years ago, Mallya bought several American micros, with a view to producing Kingfisher in the U.S. He made a splash at the time, but not much has since been heard since. The beer is produced for the British market by the country's oldest brewing company, Shepherd Neame, in the heart of Kent hop country.

Kingfisher, at 4.8 per cent alcohol by volume, is brewed from a grist containing five per cent wheat, to assist head retention. This can be a particular consideration where beer is being served with food. Anything fatty on the diner's lips can flatten the foam on his beer. The rest of the grist is Pilsner malt (from winter barley, to give a more cleansing edge). Challenger hops, from England impart a lemony flavour and late, lingering, cedary dryness.

The other "Indian" lager, now with higher sales in the British market is Cobra. At 5.0 per cent, this beer yet sweeter, with a carbonation that is slightly lower than in most lagers, and a smooth, textured, body. The grist contains "small proportions" of rice and maize. "More than one" variety of Bavarian hops is used.

Cobra was the brain-child of Karan Bilimoria, whose father General Bilimoria was a senior figure in the Indian Army. Karan. was born in Hyderabad, India, but has lived in Britain since he was 19. Bilimoria studied law at Cambridge, where he was also a polo blue. He is additionally a qualified accountant. His beer is contract-brewed at Charles Wells, of Bedford, better known for their Bombardier beer, the label of which features the English flag.

The entrepreneurial Karan Bilimoria was one of the founders of Tandoori, a trade magazine for owners of Indian restaurants in Britain. Intending no doubt to use the publication as an influence to promote high standards, he wrote an article criticising the typical neighborhood Bengali restaurant. His article was perhaps too robust, and he was rewarded by a brief boycott of his beer.

To fill the gap, a beer was created under the name Bangla (as in Bangladesh, the home country of most Bengali restaurateurs). This has 5.5 per cent alcohol ("stronger brewed for stronger food" is the slogan on the neck label). The beer has a clean sweetness. It is smooth, relatively full bodied, and well-balanced. Styrian hops, from Slovenia, impart a balancing "orange skin" dryness. It is produced in Dorchester, at the former Eldridge Pope/Thomas Hardy brewery. Bangla was created by a contract brewer called Refresh, which grew out of the former Usher's brewery. in Trowbridge, Wiltshire

This company already had a lager for the Indian restaurant market: Lal Toofan ("Red Storm") 5.0 abv. This has five per cent rice in its grist. Target hops, from England, impart a geranium-like bouquet. There is a tangerine-like citric note in the palate. The beer is very light in both body.and flavor, with a very crisp finish. This is also produced in Dorchester. under licence from the Indian company Shaw Wallace, diversified producer of drinks, chemicals and detergents.

None of these beers passes my lips with any regularity, though I eat Indian two or three times a week. I do not subscribe to view that a light, refreshing, beer suits a curry. I don't want a beer that lies down; I want one that stands up to the food. This brings us back to Gujerat. Or, at least, to a Gujerati.

Red Spot

Rohit Amin Rohit "Roy" Amin is a Gujerati from East Africa, but not Uganda. His birthplace was Tanzania. His family has a business background in the milling of rice and other grains. Although Amin is often a Muslim name, Roy's family are Hindus. Although alcohol is not typically a part of Hindu culture, there is no injunction against it (though excess is discouraged).

In Tanzania, his family would quench their thirst with the local Tusker beer, or have one before dinner. Even as a toddler, Roy remembers being given a wineglass of beer by his grandfather. "In retrospect, the beers were on the sweet side, and I enjoyed that. I remember being fascinated by the foam and the lacework. I was a very small child, and it must have been the first time I had seen foam on a drink. In his teens, he drank full-sized glasses while playing darts in clubs in Tanzania.

By the time he went to college, in Britain, he had decided to follow the family tradition of being involved in food processing. He studied biochemistry at Sheffield University, in Yorkshire, and took his master's at University College, London. He then worked for some years with APV, a company making vessels for the brewing industry.

While working at APV, he had read trade journals that covered brewing equipment. One day, he saw an advertisement from a company wishing to dispose of the brewhouse from a failed micro. Thinking it might be an opportunity to exercise his entrepreneurial genes, he went to have a look. "It seemed to me that they failed because they had no bottling line. Yet, with my background in equipment, I knew that a bottling line was the most expensive item in a brewery, and a potential Achilles heel"

That led him to explore the idea of contract brewing. At least for the moment an Indian beer is expected to be a lager. Roy's view, with which I agree, was that British brewers in general were not sufficiently wholehearted in their approach to lager. He looked at the three Continental European countries with the strongest beer cultures and settled for Belgium. Not only is it nearer than Germany or the Czech Republic, it also has a more creative approach to brewing.

He looked in trade reference books for a Belgian brewery that could produce lager, was a suitable size, did contract brewing, and had experience of exporting, Five stood out as meeting all those criteria. With his background in biochemical engineering, Roy was keen to see the equipment in which his beer would be brewed - and bottled. After making visits and meeting the brewers, he chose the brewery Van Steenberge, of Ertvelde, East Flanders.

This brewery has a dozen beers of its own, ranging from Piraat, a strong golden ale at 10.5 per cent alcohol by volume, to Bios, in the sour Flemish Red style. Van Steenberge also produces a similar number under contract, including the dark version of Corsendonk.

Although the brewery is known for its top-fermenting beers, it also makes a genuinely bottom-fermenting lager, Sparta Pils, for its own cafés. This clean, mildly hop-accented, lager, was enough to persuade Roy.

He was not aiming simply for the sweetish, refreshing, style of lager. "I wanted to create a lager with enough bitterness to arouse the appetite, and with a reasonable amount of flavor. It's a beer to taste: a couple of glasses with dinner, Of course, from a commercial viewpoint, I would love people to drink barrels of it, but that is not really the job of this beer.

It is a golden lager, but with a relatively full color. This derives from grist that includes small proportions of pale ale malt, and Munich, as well as the usual Pilsner malt (the latter accounting for 75 per cent).

It seems that, to be authentically Asian, a beer has to blend its barley-malt with rice. Roy's beer has about 10 per cent rice. He assures me this makes it especially friendly toward my pilau or biriani at the Rajput. American Budweiser has 40 per cent rice. Does that make it four times more suitable? To my nose, the malt leads the aroma, fresh, biscuity notes (poppadoms, please). The body is firm and very smooth. There is enough rice to give a flick of lightness without undermining the body. In the palate, the grainy note becomes slightly grassy, then lemony and perfumy, as the hops make their presence felt. The varieties at work here are Spalt, Tettnang and Saaz, in two additions, to 24 units of bitterness. That's a good line-up of noble hops, in a beer that is reminiscent of one or two well-known Belgian Pils, but with a couple of touches of individuality, from the pale ale malt and the grassy Spalt hops. Those two elements add just a dash of extra aroma and flavor, and make the beer very more-ish.I would still like a malty, Vienna-style, lager to stand up to my lamb dhansak. And what about an India Pale Ale? Or I would settle for the splendidly-named Ultimate Curry Beer, produced a few years ago by the Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery. This robust, complex brew was hopped with no fewer than four varieties: Goldings, Fuggles, Progress (which can taste juniper-like) and First Gold (tangerine-ish). The beer was distinctly spicy-tasting, with gingery sherbet notes. It was created for a competition organised by the National Hop Association of England, and won, but the brewery was too dim-witted to capitalise upon its success.

"A Vienna lager? An ale? I would like to do both, but first I have to sell the beer we are making now," says Roy. If he is successful, perhaps there will be line extensions. Roy has a very good name for the line.

tikka His notion of creating a beer spent several years being moved from the back of his mind, then returning. Then, in his sleep one morning, just before consciousness dawned, he had a dream about the idea. "In my dream, I had gone through all the stages to take the project to its completion. We now had our beer, and it was a success. On the label was the word Tikka. Then I woke up. I am not talking about a metaphorical dream. I really was asleep when the name came to me."

The word Tikka refers to facial decoration. It most often alludes to the spot applied in the middle of the forehead. The most typical spot is the red one ceremonially given at weddings.

A dish called Tikka Masala is said to be Britain's most popular meal. The Tikka was originally a medallion of lamb, prepared in a clay oven, as a starter. In Britain, it became a main course, more often chicken, lubricated by a spicy ("Masala") sauce. A beer named after the country's most popular meal sounds a ver persuasive notion. Roy takes up the story:

"At breakfast, I was deep in thought. My wife said I was quiet. Was I okay? I told her about my dream, assuming she would keep it to herself. She works in a firm of stockbrokers, and she told her colleagues. They said:

"It's a brilliant .name. Tell Roy to go for it."

He did.


Published: MAR 3, 2003
In: Beer Hunter Online

Beer Review - Food/Pairings - Beer Styles

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