07 January 2019

Lager incognito

I do my best to get a good mix of the world's beers onto this blog, something that can be tough in Dublin where the speciality beer market is small and tends to be dominated by the micro-giants of the British and American craft scenes. I'll pick up an oddity or an outlier any time I see one, and today's post concerns six of such, from countries where beer isn't the most famous export.

From Redmond's I took home this handsome 600ml bottle of Nigerian lager. Star is premium quality, cold filtered, and finest lager beer. It's 5.1% ABV, a perfect limpid golden colour, and the main fermentable, according to the ingredients, is sorghum. It tastes, bizarrely, like a non-alcoholic beer. It has that porridgey sweet character, all wheat and honey. I can't imagine anyone would find it refreshing. No hops, no crispness, nothing that makes lager worthwhile. Doubtless this is a lifesaver in its home market: the beer you drink when goddammit you just need a beer. The large format is efficient, but I can't see it appealing to anyone but the ticker in Ranelagh, looking for something  different before Redmond's closes.
Bintang is from Indonesia and a 620ml bottle cost me a princely €3.55 at Asia Market on Drury Street. It's 4.7% ABV and counts sugar among its listed ingredients. Despite the green glass it wasn't skunked, which immediately put it on my good side. As did the foretaste: sweet, but in a proper bready helles way. It thins out quickly, alas, introducing a cidery tang with a slight plastic burr and a spark of metallic zinc. Nevertheless you have to work to find these off-flavours. If you were just drinking it like a normal person and not trying to describe it, I reckon you'd be happy. Especially if you'd paid Indonesian prices for it. Despite the relatively minor flaws, this is a good example of mass-market Asian lager.

From the same shop came Pearl River, a Chinese lager, the bottle 600ml this time, and the ABV 4.9%. I've never seen this in the wild and could tell immediately why the discerning restaurant trade prefers to stock Tsingtao. It's very sweet right from the outset, bringing fruity notes of red apple and quince, fading to an exotic floral quality: lotus and hibiscus. None of this is unpleasant per se, but there's none of the crisp bitterness I look for in a pilsner, while it's also not weighty enough to fit as a more malt-forward style. Falling between the two poles and tasting weirdly fruity gets it a thumbs-down from me.

I came across Mozambique's 2M quite unexpectedly in a delightful little Portuguese bistro on Mary Street called Nando's. The Dali-esque pour gave me a coating of bubbles on the inside of the glass but absolutely none on top -- not a good sign. The colour looks fine but the texture is very thin and the flavour isn't up to much either. Like many a crappy hot-country lager there's a tinny bitterness which has nothing to do with real hops, and lots of green apple. The only nod towards proper beer here is a sharp malt-husk note that pokes through briefly towards the end before being smothered by the long appley finish. It is, in short, terrible.

We round things up at the Pho Viet restaurant on Dublin's Parnell Street. I had never seen Vietnamese beer in these parts before, and Pho Viet has two of them. I began with Saigon Export. Though only 4.9% ABV there's a lovely weighty softness to the texture here, a little like a proper Bavarian helles. That comes with a sizeable, though not out-of-control malt sweetness: spongecake, leading on to candyfloss. That meant it had enough substance to still taste of something when served freezing cold and consumed along with a bowl of sharply spicy broth. It's easy-going, moreish, and completely flawless. I would drink this even if I didn't have to.

What were the chances of my luck holding out for the second Vietnamese beer, Hanoi? The first sip proved that to be zero. This one was much more what I was expecting: thinner, paler, with a half-hearted head and a sugary twang. That begins as no more than a blip but rises gradually, and eventually takes over the whole show. My hat comes off to the brewer who managed to achieve a recipe which is both watery and syrupy at the same time. A wholly-anticipated tinny finish brings us in. On the universal quality scale, this fits in beside your mate's dodgy kit-brewed lager: drinkable, but not something of which anyone involved should be proud.

It's a dismal and uncaring world out there. Those of us who are fussy about our beer should take the occasional moment to reflect on how good we have things.