The first time I took a swig of beer was in Udwada, Gujarat. It was the culmination of a clandestine operation, involving whispered phone conversations and money changing hands like secret agents exchanging packages in a Cold War spy flick. The black marketeer handed over a gunny-wrapped bundle that contained four bottles of lukewarm London Pilsner beer. The beer tasted ghastly and, during that junior college trip, the high came more from breaking the prohibition law than the alcohol content of the beer.
After that disadvantaged initiation, I thought all beer was the same. Till I walked into a pub (no, this is not a joke) in Hobart, southern Tasmania, and shouted into the sudden silence created by a between-songs jukebox, “A pint of Boag, please.” All conversation stopped, someone even disconnected the jukebox. I had done the unthinkable by asking for a pint of Boag—north Tasmania’s most popular beer—in Hobart, firmly Cascade territory.
Guinness rules in Ireland. Rishad Saam Mehta
But the Aussies are friendly people and, after I’d claimed ignorance, I was soon laughing with them—over a Cascade beer. Later, I learnt that the rivalry was so intense that Boag ads in Hobart and Cascade billboards in Launceston (north Tasmania) were regularly defaced.
A few months later, in Dubai, a friend introduced me to Hoegaarden, a Belgian white beer. A cloudy, light drink, this wheat beer became one of my favourites even before the foamy head had fizzled out. The beer gets its great taste from unusual ingredients, including coriander and Curacao orange peels. The cloudy appearance comes from a second, in-barrel fermentation.
The world seems to agree with me because I’ve had Hoegaarden in pubs in Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town besides Europe. In fact, I’d waxed so eloquently about it to my friends Peter Berck and Elisabet Tilly that they stocked a whole crate for my visit to their home in Nijmegen, Holland. Besides, they also had a wide selection of Dutch and Belgian beers. Of these, the Grolsch Lente Bok was a clear winner. Peter told me that the Grolsch brewery makes beers according to the season; since it was spring (lente), they were brewing Lente Bok, soon Zomergoud (Summer Gold) would appear in stores and that would give way to Herfst (autumn) Bok. Since then I’ve tried them all, but the Lente Bok remains a favourite because of its sweetish tinge and refreshing taste—somewhat reminiscent of the joy of spring after a cold winter.
Mehta takes a cafe break near the Brandenburg Gate. Rishad Saam Mehta
A diametrical opposite, but another winner, is the Guinness. If Lente Bok is the sprightly floor gymnast, Guinness is the hefty weightlifter. Stout and bitter, it has a kind of creamy quality that sits heavy on the palate. There is a sweetness of the malt at the front of the tongue, the roastiness through the middle of the mouth and bitterness at the back of the throat.
In Ireland, during the days of the long stool (the winter, when the Irish habitually spend long hours on a high stool in a pub), most people will be found nursing a pint of Guinness. So I always associated a dark beer with rain or the cosy insides of a pub. But the Velkopopovický Kozel Cerny did away with that. One of my happiest memories of Prague this summer revolves around sitting on a pavement café in the Staré Mesto (old town) on a sunny day and enjoying a half-litre draught of this refreshing Czech beer. The Kozel dark has a caramel taste with a hoppy flavour and at just 3.5% alcohol content, it washed down everything from goulash to roasted pork with horseradish and dumplings.
Asking for a pint of Boag in Hobart can raise eyebrows. Rishad Saam Mehta
Signature beers in various countries are all very well, but I have my eye on this 16-day workshop with the festivity of a carnival. At the Oktoberfest, you sample beers from six breweries around Munich, beers specially brewed for the fest. The beer is always drunk from a glass or a tankard because you get the most flavourful pint when it is freshly pulled from a tap. There are also huge amounts of food, including hearty traditional fare such as wurst (sausage) and sauerkraut.
Once in my lifetime, I’m going to pack some clothes two sizes larger and head to the Oktoberfest in Munich.
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