Tuesday, August 15

Portugal's Super Brews

Summer is blazing across Portugal with a vengeance, turning the hillsides brown, packing the beaches with holidaymakers and igniting a hundred forest fires across this parched and intriguing land. What better place to escape this seasonal mayhem than the Douro Valley? Apart from being one of Europe’s oldest wine growing regions, the Douro also offers some of Portugal’s most dramatic landscapes, royal palaces, Gothic cathedrals and picturesque river ports.

Table wine has been produced on these steep and rocky terraces since Roman times, but the region is best known for its rich and complex port wines – this trade, pioneered by famous British port houses such as Taylors, Sandman’s, Croft and Offley, dates back to 1703. What then were my chances of finding an artisan beer (cerveja artisanal) in the land of Vinho Verde, Mateus Rose and Tawny Port? Not that hard, as it turns out.

After a morning exploring the delightful city of Guimarães, just 55-kilometres north west of Porto I found a little pavement café serving 1927 craft beer on tap. The €5 (A$7.50) tasting paddle consisted of anniversary lager, amber IPA, wheat beer and a German style Dunkel – all which were pleasant, fresh and bursting with flavour. The charming view across the medieval square, Largo Da Oliveira, surely one of the loveliest in Portugal, was complimentary.

Since these 1927 beers are produced by Unicer, the giant conglomerate behind Portugal’s biggest selling beer, Super Bock, they hardly qualify as boutique brews. Nevertheless it was heartening to see that with Super Bock and its rival brand Sagres Portugal has maintained a strong brewing tradition and resisted incursion by the likes of Heineken, Grolsch and Peroni – although it has to be said that Unicer does produce the equally ubiquitous Carlsberg under licence. In the Douro, Super Bock in its many guises (the company makes excellent dark ales, plus some novelty flavoured beers and pre-mixed beer cocktails) reigns supreme. In part because beer is really cheap in Portugal, as little as €0.80 (A$1.20) for a small glass in non-touristy bars.

Despite this impressive brewing tradition the small Iberian nation of 10.5 million people is a latecomer to the global craft beer revolution. According to Lonely Planet the first craft beer bar, Cerveteca Lisboa, didn’t open its doors until 2104 and the demand for craft beer among the country’s young urban elite has been tepid to say the least. Today, the capital offers just two brewpubs, five dedicated craft beer bars and about a dozen microbreweries, such as Dois Corvos, Bolina, Passarola, LX, Mean Sardine, Musa and the wonderfully named Amnesia. Thanks to their efforts Portuguese are now able to sample Chocolate Porters, Imperial Pale Ales, Belgium Blonde Ales and even more exotic brews such as Smoked Baltic Porter.

One of the pioneers of the Portuguese craft-brewing scene is Rui Bento, the founder of Amnesia Brewery and a police officer by day. "A lot of my fellow officers have tried some of my beers and liked them lots," he told Lonely Planet. "They now understand the difference between craft beer and industrial beer, and realise why I drink craft. I'm trying to show them that there’s another life beyond industrial beers!"

The slow growth of craft beer in Portugal seems to have more to do with economics than consumer trends. The country was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and has taken longer than most to recover. Many young professionals – the target market for craft beer – are now working in France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Although youth unemployment remains high, there is a tangible sense of confidence in the Douro – hopefully many of these expats will soon be able to return to their native country and help fuel the modest craft beer revolution in Portugal. Until then, I’m happy to drink Super Bock Original– Europe’s cheapest and freshest mass-produced lager.

Mark Chipperfield visited Guimaraes as a guest of Scenic Cruises (www.scenic.com.au) which operates a 10-day cruise along the Douro River.

Thursday, July 6

India’s Colonial Hangover

During two fascinating weeks in India, including a tour of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a bike ride through the backstreets of Old Delhi and some high-altitude hiking in Ladakh, I discovered this terrible fact: it’s impossible to buy an India Pale Ale in many parts of India.
While IPAs are now being brewed in almost every corner of the globe – from Denver to Dunedin – India remains wedded to Kingfisher lager, the ubiquitous thirst-quencher of the sub-continent. Despite my earnest entreaties, the most interesting beer I could find was Stella Artois, on tap at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi; the hotel’s splendid 1911 Bar, complete with its royal crest, is not to be missed.
At the time of Partition in 1947 there were around 25 breweries in India, some dating back over 100 years, making a variety of ales, stouts and ‘sparkling beers’. The Himalayas alone supported half a dozen breweries, mostly supplying the old hill stations like Shimla and Darjeeling.
In its heyday India Pale Ale, originally created to survive the long sea voyage from Britain, was consumed in vast quantities by the soldiers of the Raj – and yet by the 1960s had all but disappeared from India, along with so many small, regional breweries which either closed down or were absorbed by the two majors: Mohan Meakin and United Breweries, makers of the top-selling Kingfisher.
“Did the British take all the tasty beer with them when they left?” asked one exasperated columnist recently. Could it be possible that in this tech-savvy, forward-looking country that is keen to embrace every new trend from the West – including the ‘selfie’ – has yet to discover craft beer? I’m told Delhi’s licensing regulations make it impossible for new brewers to set up shop in the capital, but a report in India Today suggests that craft beer is thriving elsewhere, namely in Mumbai, Gurugram, Pune and Bengaluru (Bangalore) – the southern city already has 30 microbreweries, with another 20 slated to open by 2019.
Many observers such as Greg Koch, CEO of Stone Brewing Co in the United States, see a bright future for craft beer in India – a country with a young, cashed up and adventurous middle class.
“It is not just about beer but about a cultural shift,” he says “I see amazing potential.”
India’s first brewpub, The Corinthians, opened in Pune in 2009 after a long battle with local authorities to relax the state’s policies on brewing. Both Gurugram and Bengaluru followed suit, with Mumbai’s first microbrewery, The Barking Deer, opening its doors October 2013.
Other new entrants include Toit, Big Brewsky, Degree Bauhaus, Windmills Craftworks, Gateway Brewing, Doolally, White Owl and Independence Brewing (pictured top).
Apart from making traditional IPAs, Hefeweizens and Stouts Indian craft brewers are also concocting some distinctly exotic blends, such as Basmati Blonde, Mango Wheat Ale and Coffee & Bacon Beer.
The Indian craft beer revolution is very much fuelled by the proliferation of brewpubs and specialist bars.
Indeed, Vikram Achanta, CEO of drinks training firm Tulleeho, says that based on current growth trends India could outstrip both the United States and Europe in the production of craft beer within a decade.
“In a relatively short space of 10 years, we now have 100 brewpubs across India, with the newer ones coming up in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chandigarh and Goa,” he says.
“But what I am most looking forward to is [the arrival of] brewpubs in my home state of Delhi, a state which still is a wasteland for them.”

Mark Chipperfield travelled to India as a guest of specialist travel operator Abercrombie & Kent.

Monday, May 29

The Rum Rebellion

Artisanal. Bespoke. Hand crafted. When launching a new drinks brand onto today’s marketplace these three terms need to be artfully littered through the promotional bumf. Millennials of the smashed avocado munching variety demand a heavy whiff of “authenticity” with their evening tipple – whether that’s the latest small batch gin from a decaying inner-city slum or an unfiltered cider from a remote Tasmanian farmhouse.
So how does a mainstream drinks brand like Bundaberg Rum muscle its way onto shelves already groaning with bespoke, often obscure, bottles of high-priced rums from the Caribbean, Central and South America and the United States?
This is exactly the question I asked Duncan Littler, brand manager at the Bundaberg Distilling Company, when we met up at the Australian Tourism Exchange (ATE) in Sydney earlier this month – the new $8.5 million Bundaberg Visitor Centre in Queensland attracts 60,000 people a year, making it the city’s biggest tourist attraction.
“About six years ago we started looking into what it would take for Bundaberg to make rums that would rival the best in the world,” he said. “And the good news is that we are now doing that.”
For much of its 129-year history Bundaberg has made only one type of dark rum, Bundaberg Original, which has strong following among die-hard Bundy drinkers, but limited appeal to mixologists and globe trotting hipsters.
The company began developing a range of premium, barrel-aged rums which might appeal to those with a more discerning palate. The results have been impressive – Bundaberg rums have shone at many international drinks competitions, including the World Drinks Awards in London.
“We’ve won a number of major awards,” said Duncan. “Most recently we picked up an award for the World’s Best Dark Rum for our Solera release – last year we won World’s Best Dark Rum, World’s Best Gold Rum and World’s Best Rum.”
As part of its branding upgrade, Bundaberg opened a brand new visitor centre in 2016 – the impressive facility houses a museum, a retail outlet, tasting room and ‘Blendatorium’ where rum lovers can create their own signature blend – the Blend Your Own experience is world first for rum.
“Under the guidance of our expert blending guides you are given five rums which have been matured in port, sherry, bourbon, Scotch and heavily charred American oak barrels. None of these can’t be purchased by the public,” according to Duncan.
“We teach you about these special rums and the art of blending. Then you create your own special blend. Your blend is then bottled, capped and labeled and the formula is stored for future reference. Additional bottles of this unique blend will then be shipped to your house on request.”
The Blend Your Own Rum Experience is just one of several tours available at the Bundaberg Visitor Centre, but at $250 per person this two-and-half hour immersive rum experience represents pretty good value. Apart from two bottles of your own personalized rum to take home, the tariff includes a free rum tasting and a tour of the museum.
“You’ll also get to see the Great Wall of Bundy,” says Duncan. “We have the world’s biggest collection of Bundy, with over 1000 unique bottles. It’s pretty impressive.”

Bundaberg Rum Visitor Centre, Hills Street, Bundaberg, Queensland 4670. Opens Monday to Friday 10am-5pm. www.bundabergrum.com.au

Tuesday, April 11

Rebujitos, Custard Tarts and Gondolas

I can go anywhere on the planet and find a decent glass of beer. Afterall, I am a beer blogger. My craft beer odyssey has taken me from the wilds of Patagonia to the torrid streets of Jakarta. I even found a microbrewery on Easter Island (perhaps that is why the ancient Moai statues were abandoned).

But after four days in Macau I was looking like a man on a hopeless mission. Sure, the pleasure palaces of this former Portuguese enclave (now a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic of China) serve Stella Artois by the gallon – the Chinese middle classes seem to love the stuff. And those with a taste for Asahi Super Dry and Tsingtao lager will find ample supplies – each glass chilled to near freezing point.
However, I was looking for something edgy, boutique and hoppy. All seemed lost until I stumbled on The Old Taipa Tavern, an open-sided pub in the backstreets of Taipa – a quaint enclave of alleyways and tiny Macanese houses just across the bridge from the Macau Peninsula. To coincide with the Rugby 7s being played in nearby Hong Kong, the cheerful Taverna was serving draught Little Creatures – Fremantle’s world-famous pale ale – in traditional Schooner and Middy glasses; despite the heat there were just three people, all European, at the polished bar.
Almost two decades after Macau’s handover to Beijing the compact territory (which includes the peninsula and a smaller offshore island) retains much of its Portuguese heritage – in fact many of the old colonial streets and alleyways in Taipa and nearby Coloane are coming back to life. Little coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and artisan food outlets are springing up everywhere. Portuguese and Macanese cuisine is also enjoying a resurgence. Street food snacks like egg tarts and pork chop buns remain wildly popular among locals and mainlanders alike, while many family-owned restaurants serve authentic rustic Portuguese fare – clams cooked in white wine, butter, coriander and oodles of garlic are one of my favourites, alongside is spicy African chicken and grilled Portuguese sausage, plus some toothsome cheeses from the motherland.
Although the Chinese are a nation of tea and beer drinkers, wine still rules the waves in Macao. Our four-day visit began with chilled glasses of Rebujito (a refreshing cocktail of dry sherry and soda water with a sprig of mint) at Antonio’s – a multi-award winning restaurant in the heart of Taipa old town. Even the smallest eatery, such as the brilliant Restaurant Espaco Lisboa in picturesque Coloane Village, stocks a dazzling range of wines -- from the unctuous and refreshing Alvarinho (a popular white wine) to those distinctively soft and earthy reds from the Douro.
Given this honourable legacy – the Portuguese claim to have educated the Chinese wine palate over the past 300 years – it’s easy to relegate beer to the status as a pleasant midday Macau tipple. But there is one place where craft beer is making a triumphant stand: Marks & Spencer’s department store in Cotai Central. The store stocks an impressive range of hand-made beers from Europe, North America and the British Isles. Thanks to its “buy two get one free offer” I was able to retreat to my hotel room with a selection of ales from Cornwall, Yorkshire and Staffordshire – just part of the store’s current British Beer and Cider promotion. For the homesick UK expat M&S also sells authentic English crisps and wine gums. Despite such brave efforts I suspect that it will be some time before the happy Chinese holidaymakers taking a gondola ride at the Venetian Macau (oh, there’s even a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower nearby) will be queuing to taste a Cornish IPA or Belgian farmhouse ale any time soon. But who knows? In Macau, everything is possible.

Mark Chipperfield travelled to Macau as a guest of the Macau Government Tourism Office (www.visitmacao.com.au) and Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com). For imported craft beer visit Marks & Spencer, Shop 2116B, Second Floor, Shoppes At Cotai Central, Macau.