An imagination exercise in localizing Mild in East Asia (Session #99)

Well, I’m not actually returning to America for “good,” i.e. a substantial period of years, until this weekend, so responding to this month’s Session call for thoughts on what a localized mild might look like is a bit hard given my general displacement since January. I don’t have a locale to call my own just yet, being in a six month period of transitions. However, the occasion of this Session is a welcome exercise in thinking about ways to incorporate locale into beer, albeit with a traveler’s perspective.

The American Mild Month’s outline on what a Mild ought to look like are summarized as, “a restrained, darkish ale, with gentle hopping and a clean finish so that the malt and what hops are present, shine through,” and provide a nice outline to this thought exercise. In the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to experience beer in a number of countries in East Asia, so it seems apt to perhaps reflect on what a localized Mild might look like in some of those places.

DISCLAIMER: This is based, of course, on my very limited and essentially touristic experiences. So, it’s all pithy at best and most certainly deserves to be critiqued by brewers and people hailing from each of those places. Nonetheless, it’s a fun road to think down.

Rioting in Singapore is very loosely defined, but it's punishment isn't. I realize it's harsh and excessively minimalist to highlight this about Singapore, but it was a bit odd to see these signs plastered around the downtown area.

Rioting in Singapore is very loosely defined, but it’s punishment isn’t. I realize it’s harsh and excessively minimalist to highlight this about Singapore, but it was a bit odd to see these signs plastered around the downtown area.

I’ll just take this chronologically and start in Singapore. My impressions of beer in Singapore were decidedly limited to Brewerkz, which operates a couple of brewpubs. Their beer was straightforward, very American in influence, and since Singapore imports basically all foodstuffs, everything was made with imported ingredients. Starting with those cues, I’ll combine it with Singapore’s eerie rigidity and cleanliness, a striving for perfection and having everything in its right place. Those two thrusts combined, I’d say a Singaporean Mild would be brewed exactly to the middle of, say, the BJCP guidelines (this is still in honor of American Mild month, after all)–well within the established framework and structure–with British malts, hops, and yeast. Probably served on cask as well, since Singapore is a former British East India Company trading post and later British territory. This is a strict and by-the-books interpretation.

Angkor beer with Khmer barbecue: the best meal we had in Cambodia. Angkor also produces an extra stout.

Angkor beer with Khmer barbecue: the best meal we had in Cambodia. Angkor also produces an extra stout.

Moving on to Cambodia, I’m not entirely sure what inferences I could draw about Cambodian beer because it’s so dominated by mass producers of light lager and I honestly only tried the Pilsener from a Phnom Phen’s smaller Kingdom Breweries; that doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance, much like in Singapore. So, I’ll draw on what stood out to me on Cambodian beer shelves: the prevalence of foreign extra stout, be they of the Black Panther, Angkor Extra, or Guinness sort. It’s obviously missing the point of the session to make this about stout, but I’ll already pointed out I’m grasping at straws here, and so I’ll just apply my passing impression onto the notion of a Cambodian Mild: it would be very dark, pushing past the SRM boundary (again, it’s American Mild month, so it’s okay to invoke the American spirit of stretching the rules of tradition, right?), but on the sweeter side.

Truthfully, this sounds like a terrible version of something that quite clearly isn’t mild.

A Bia Hoi corner in the Hanoi Old Quarter. Note the hand dispenser at the bottom off the keg. 5,000 dong per glass = US $0.25.

A Bia Hoi corner in the Hanoi Old Quarter. Note the hand dispenser at the bottom off the keg. 5,000 dong per glass = US $0.25.

The beer culture of Vietnam was by far and away the biggest highlight of my trip, but I’ll save the details of it for a much larger post or two. But for this Session, we’re talking about Mild, whose social role as an accessible, easy-drinking, everyday beer draws many comparisons to the social role of Bia Hoi in Vietnam. And if there’s one thing that really stands out about bia hoi, it’s the freshness. Vietnamese drinking is all about consuming large amounts of fresh, cold, draft beer, often even poured over ice to achieve the cooling effect. The bulk of Vietnamese beers seem to be lagers, but since I’ll keep this imagining as an ale. A Vietnamese Mild would above all, be brewed to be consumed as fresh as possible. You know, served from the keg by day five or six. Being hot and tropical, this would be brewed with just a hint of hops–let’s use Saaz with a light hand because there’s an overwhelmingly direct and stated Czech influence over Vietnamese brewing–and with rice adjuncts so that it can be consumed as cheaply and abundantly as is feasible. Mot…hai…ba…vo!

Snack sellers on the Great Wall at Jinshanling of course carry hot water and beer.

Snack sellers on the Great Wall at Jinshanling of course carry hot water and beer.

Finally, China. There are some generalizations that can fairly be made about Chinese beer, but it’s also fun to take some of the regions we’ve visited and look how you could construct a Mild based on some of their gastronomic tendencies and habits. First, a Chinese Mild writ-large would be take after its many macro lagers: it would have an very low ABV, very pale color and be made entirely with domestic ingredients. We’re talking a Mild brewed with 100% Chinese malts and hops. Specifically, you’d probably use Qingdao Flower (Cluster) hops for the bittering portion, just a tiny bit of Chinese Cascades at 15 minutes, and the SA-1 (a Saaz/Tettnang cross) at knockout. (Yeast-wise, I haven’t been able to track down any locally cultivated ale yeasts, so I’d just go with an appropriately fruity English ale yeast.) At 3.1% ABV, you can polish off a few 22 oz bottles of this by yourself without guilt.

Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan peppercorns.

Breaking down this process regionally, how about the widely adored Sichuan cuisine? The infamous peppercorn seems to be the most known contributor beer-wise to anything remotely Chinese, so you can build around that, but keep in mind that Szechuan cuisine is all about balance–the spice comes with a sweetness to hold it up. So a Mild inspired by Sichuan cooking would be aiming for a red color, with a healthy dose of 20L crystal malts involved to balance out the token peppercorns that are added at 5 minutes in the boil and in the keg. Given the pleasantly mouth-searing effect of the peppercorns, this mild would be hopped with Chinese Nugget hops that can further add another dimension to the sweet and spicy interplay, ideally creating a complex balance between the three where no single element overwhelms. Of course, this only represents a Mild inspired by Szechuan cuisine–I sincerely doubt anyone would want to drink this next to Szechuan hot pot, which I would argue generally weakens this example for the sake of this exercise.

And then there’s Fujian province, on the southeastern coast, which is historically the home of many of the Overseas Chinese populations. This means that if you’ve eaten in a Chinatown in North America, there’s a good chance you had food with roots in Fujian. We were able spend a week steeping (pun intended) in the historic tea growing region that is known as the birthplace of both oolong and black teas. And I must say, I leave there a convert to oolong teas. How about a quick detour into tea? China produces the world’s finest and most subtle teas, including Green, Black, White, Oolong, Yellow, and Pu’erh. Note, these are all kinds of Tea–capital T–that are derived from the camellia sinensis bush and differ in how and when they are picked, how much of the bud and leaves are picked, and processing methods. But, they all come from the same bush. (None of this rooibos or mate nonsense.)

A tea plantation producing mainly dark oolongs in the Wuyishan Scenic Reserve.

A tea plantation producing mainly dark oolongs in the Wuyishan Scenic Reserve.

Bringing it back to Fujian, we spent time near the town of Wuyishan, which as mentioned is known as the home of oolong and black teas. Chinese black teas are relatively light, able to hold up to tea and sugar in the English style of tea drinking, but not demanding it like the more astringent Indian or African blends most often do. On the other hand, oolongs lie on the spectrum between green teas, which are not allowed to oxidize, and fully oxidized black teas. However, oolongs do not combine the flavors associated with green and black teas, so much as cherry-pick the best of each. An oolong often takes the subtlety of the lighter flavors in green teas, without the savory notes, and combines it with the dark fruit and honeyed flavors of the black teas, but without the malt and smoke. It’s really quite a mesmerizing combination when you can sit down and tease out the differences when tasting them all side-by-side.

So let’s get back to Mild. Again taking the “inspired-by” route, I think that the Fujian-inspired Mild could try to include an oolong tea, but would need to be on the whole subdued–erm, mild?–in order for it to be expressed. I’d use Wuyishan’s Da Hong Pao tea, which is said to derive from six original bushes that are now insured to the tune of millions of RMB and a destination on one of the lovelier hikes we took in the area. Da Hong Pao is somewhat dark for an oolong, with around 70% oxidation (green tea is unoxidized and black tea is allowed to oxidize fully) and emphasizes flavors notes of dark sugars and peaches–easy to integrate well into a traditional Mild’s overall flavor profile. The Fujian-inspired Mild would not be a bold one, using multiple base malts to develop the subtle complexity demanded by a tea appreciator, a light hand of SA-1 hops for balance, and then with Da Hong Pao tea steeped in 90 C water and added at conditioning for another layer of flavor and aroma.

If you look closely, the tea leaves perched on the ledge midway up the cliff are fabled to be the original six Da Hong Pao tea bushes, and are a destination in their own right in the Wuyishan Scenic Area.

If you look closely, the tea leaves perched on the ledge midway up the cliff are fabled to be the original six Da Hong Pao tea bushes, and are a destination in their own right in the Wuyishan Scenic Area.

I’ll end in Guangdong province (formerly Canton), where we spent most of our time in China. Cantonese food is characterized by two principles: freshness and an emphasis on simplicity–that is, allowing the component ingredients of a dish to shine with as a little intervention by the chef as possible. Hence, Guangdong food is often steamed, incredibly fresh, and tends to use spices and sauces lightly and only to bring out the best of the natural flavors on the plate. The twist to Guangdong food is recounted in the Cantonese saying, “We eat everything on the ground with four legs except tables and chairs. We eat everything in the sky except airplanes.” This lends the freedom to add a “weird” element. Applying these principles, a Guangdong take on Mild would probably use the simplest treatment as possible: one base malt and Qingdao Flower hops, without adjuncts, allowing the primary component parts to shine. And then, because the Cantonese like to shock, perhaps I would throw in just a minimal amount of raw Pu’erh tea steeped in the last minute of the boil.

A typical pu'erh tea block from the highly recommended Yunnan Tea Branch. I'm lucky to have been gifted a (different) 10-year-old block from a family friend that I look forward to trying back in the US.

A typical pu’erh tea block from the highly recommended Yunnan Tea Branch. I’m lucky to have been gifted a (different) 10-year-old block from a family friend that I look forward to trying back in the US.

Pu’erh tea is from Yunnan province (but since Guangzhou is a major area of export and wholesale in China, it seems acceptable to add this in), and is made from green teas that have been pressed into cakes and are then allowed to age up to 20 years. Aspergillus niger mold (the kind that grows on an onion’s skin and turns it a dusty black) is allowed to slowly ferment the cakes into a very distinct and earthy tea. Given the Cantonese love of freshness, this Mild should be consumed sooner rather than later.

These are all basically novelty beers, as with most beers that are “inspired” by something that–you know–isn’t beer. Given that, I’d highlight the general Chinese Mild above as the one that makes sense in this exercise, because it is the closest to actually respecting the parameters above, and would be most likely to find an audience of the everyday drinker that Mild seems to represent historically. And, instead of being a beer “inspired by” Chinese cooking or beer, it’s more of a beer that follows the principles laid out by those trends and represents an adaptation of a beer style to a local context, rather than an attempt to shoehorn exotic ingredients into a beverage and dubiously pass it off as “beer.”

Anyway, returning as I am soon enough to the US, hopefully I’ll have a chance to lift a Mild this May. I’ll certainly try to.

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