Friday 18 September 2015

Bia Hoi in Hanoi

I couldn’t quite take the picture in time. I saw it, fumbled to unlock my phone, fingers sticky from street food, and I tapped the camera icon, but the scooter carrying five silver kegs was already weaving through Hanoi’s never-ending traffic.

As we follow in the same direction I’m soon distracted. There are people everywhere, everything moves so fast, life condensed into the packed, stacked, compact streets; the air is thick with the smell of bubbling stock pots, an aniseed edge to every inhale coming from all the herbs, tropical fruit adding a fragrant sticky warmth; every turn reveals something new, something I’ve never seen before. Like Bia Hoi Corner.

Hanoi is a frantic, fast, exciting place

This famous intersection of bars has battered old beer kegs lined up on the kerb, people run around with trays of glasses, trays of fried food, the scooters weave in and out of all of it, and hundreds of people sit outside on tiny plastic stools, a dozen different languages bouncing around. It’s one of the world’s most exciting and lively places to drink, where the local beer, bia hoi, is unlike any other lager you’ll have had before.

Plastic mugs of the freshest, cheapest beer in the world

Bia hoi essentially means draft beer, the ‘bia’ bit derivate from the French ‘bière’, and it’s a pale lager, somewhere between 3%-4% ABV, brewed with malt and rice. That part is fairly normal for Asia. What makes it different is that after fermentation, at the point where lagers usually undergo an extended conditioning period, bia hoi is kegged and sent to bars. It’s fresh beer, a few days old, unfiltered and unpasteurised, with barrels delivered to bars every morning and emptied within a day, all served and drunk on the side of the street.

Kegs of bia hoi are all around the city, including small shops like this place, a couple of doors down from the main junction of bia hoi corner 

And that busy street-side experience is remarkable. When you sit on those plastic stools, knees under your chin, with your feet in the road, you’re given a tumbler, sometimes glass, sometimes plastic, of pale lager, and it’s something wonderfully simple in the middle of the madness.

Bia hoi corner at night

Bia hoi has the light, clean essence of Asian rice lager, made lighter by being low in alcohol and lacking depth because of its youth, the same youth which brings fruity esters of banana and strawberry. You also often taste the kind of caramel and buttery sweetness of Czech lager, reflecting the Czech influence on beer here (something surprisingly prevalent, especially so in Hanoi’s many brewpubs). The best bia hoi are really fine glasses of refreshingly bitter beer; the less-good ones aren’t worth worrying about when you’ve only spent 10p on it – it's one of the cheapest beers in the world.

100-litre drums of bia hoi sit outside a busy restaurant

While the liquid itself might be simple, understanding it is less so. All bia hoi is a bit different and the quality ranges. Different breweries make it (most big, some small), kegs change taste through the day, it changes depending on where you drink it, some bars have large drums of beer, others just tilt kegs on the roadside with barely any bar to house it; sometimes it cold, other times barely cool, some are great, others are ok, plus you never know who makes what you’re drinking because it’s free of branding; it’s just bia hoi, draft beer.

This is Vietnam’s beer and drinking it in Hanoi is a rare and wonderful experience. Nowhere makes or serves beer in this way, a fast-brewed, very fresh beer, kegs opened and emptied in one day before another delivery comes the next morning, where you drink on the street and the simplicity of the beer is the best kind of counter to the craziness of life flying by around you.

It’s worth knowing that you can also get draft beer that isn’t bia hoi – this is regular kegged lager from the local breweries, so if you specifically want bia hoi then you have to order that. And my favourite place to drink bia hoi wasn’t on Bia Hoi Corner, it was on the corner of Bat Dan and Duong Thanh (the top picture is the place) – lovely and bitter beer, in a place filled with locals eating good cheap food. There was also a place opposite (the one with the big 100-litre drums in the picture above) which was good.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Wahleeah and cooking with beer

Yesterday I had beer-cured bacon with bacon stout ketchup for breakfast. I’d started making it a week earlier, brining belly pork in smoked porter, brown sugar, maple syrup and salt. I took the pork out of the brine on Friday morning and left it to dry out in the fridge, then cut thick rashers and fried them, the sugars caramelising, the beer giving a toasty, smoky flavour, and the pork itself more porky in depth through the curing process. It was delicious.

That bacon was something like the 75th recipe I’d cooked incorporating beer this summer (and a very big clue to what my fourth book, out next spring, is going to be…). So when I heard about Wahleeah, a restaurant specialising in using beer as an ingredient, I planned to go as soon as I could, which was last night. And I discovered that Wahleeah is way more than just cooking with beer.

Take the salt and pepper, for example. The pepper on the tables contains 11 ingredients. The salt takes three days to produce and contains horseradish and a process that involves smoking water. Diners shouldn’t even need to use them, says chef Dave Ahern, but if he has to have salt and pepper on the tables then he wants the best he can get with an exact flavour, and it turns out the only way to get that flavour is to make them himself. This obsessive level of detail is in everything – Dave makes cheese, vinegar, condiments, and more, for the restaurant. Beer is just one small part of it.

But for me, the beer part is the reason I’m there. Having spent the summer cooking with beer, I know all the good and bad things about what happens when you add beer into a recipe and I want to see what Wahleeah has done.

Oxtail and onions cooked in Fuller’s Black Cab Stout is rich with beer, full-on meaty with the onions giving a nice sweetness. There’s delicious crab cauliflower cheese, perfect with the suggested pairing of Weihenstaphaner Hefeweizen. There’s also beer-cured salmon with house pickles, stuffed mushrooms with beer and soy, a beer chilli to go on tater tots.

Larger plates include mussels in witbier with the addition of deeply-savoury ham hock, where it pretty much demands the beer on the side to act like part of the recipe, giving a freshness to lift the richness. A huge rib-eye steak comes with a brilliant beer fondant potato and a stout sauce, where that table salt and pepper gives it a remarkable extra depth of flavour (and recalls one of my favourite ever beer matches: steak, parsnip fries, horseradish sauce and oatmeal stout). There’s also ricotta dumplings with beer butter, tuna meatloaf with bloody beer sauce, bream with beer-braised fennel.

Then desserts: chocolate stout brownie with banana beer ice cream is superb and perfect with a bottle of Liefman’s Kriek, there’s also Porter cheesecake and Oreo trifle.

It’s all big-flavoured but elegantly done; next-level pub food incorporating the pub’s most central drink, but it’s not all about the beer – these are just great dishes that happen to contain beer. 

I love that Wahleeah is taking beer seriously – that’s the best thing about it for me. I love that the food is very good and I love how the beers used in the cooking enhance the dishes in their own subtle ways without ever overpowering – they are additional seasonings, they add depth which other ingredients can’t add, they give their richness, and they compliment the food. I also love how each dish comes with a beer suggestion – and that those matches are very well selected (done by Boutique Bar Brands). It makes the beer important and it encourages people to try new beers. And it has around 12 draft beers and 50 bottles, so there's a lot of choice. These are all good things.

Wahleeah is the first restaurant in the world to focus so completely on beer cooking. This could be seen as a gimmick, a Cereal Café for beer nerds, but Wahleeah really is way more than just cooking with beer. Surprisingly more. You should go.

Friday 11 September 2015

De Garre Tripel in De Garre, Bruges

There were only so many beers I could write about in The Best Beer in the World and only so much space to pick out individual glasses of beer from the travels, meaning many important and wonderful beers didn’t get the space they perhaps deserved. Instead of going in the book, this begins an on-going series of some of the best beers and experiences I’ve had from around the world.

It’s just off the Grote Markt, perhaps 40 paces from the Belfry; you take a left and then a right and then you’re there. But I still walked past the tiny alleyway twice before I found it.

Here’s a clue: find La Belgique Gourmade and La Cure Gourmade and right between them is a small gap. You could stand directly opposite those brightly-coloured shops and still not see it. But it’s there, I promise. A few meters in and there’s the well-worn steps leading through a cloistered brick doorway and that’s Staminee De Garre, the place you’ve been searching for, a tiny dark bar with just a few tables and a few taps.

Order their eponymous house tripel and what arrives a minute or two later, on a paper-doilied tray, is one of the finest-looking beers in the world. A thick whip of Swiss meringue foam on top of just-hazy golden beer, the heavy base of the glass is like a fat door knob, the bowl is as sturdy as the beer within it, a beer powerful in its depth. There’s a fragrant peppery-orangey spiciness, there’s a hot sweetness in there, it’s boozy yet refreshing with the foam giving a smooth creaminess. And the cheese. It comes with cheese. These little cubes are the most perfect little tangy-creamy mouthfuls with that mighty brew.

One beer disappears too quickly, leaving its white lace down the glass, and you immediately want another because you don’t want to leave the little bar, don’t want to go back and brave the waves of tourists, don’t want to stop drinking this beautiful beer.

Don’t miss this place in Bruges. And I mean that quite literally; don’t miss the tiny little street with the big beer at the end of it.