Returning recently from ale heaven in London, our columnist goes on a hunt for British-style ales in Malaysia.
WHERE are all the ales? Malaysian pubs and bars have recently enjoyed an influx of wheat beers like Erdinger, Franziskaner, Paulaner and Schneider Weiss; and more lagers such as Stella Artois and Kronenbourg 1664. This is on top of all the commercial beers that were already here in the first place. But where are all the ales?
What are ales, you say? Well, the simplest definition of an ale is a beer brewed using a top-fermentation process (as opposed to lagers, which are usually brewed with bottom fermentation). Also popular in Belgium, this richly flavoured, full-bodied style was the traditional beer of choice in Britain, until lagers started grabbing the three lions’ share of the beer market there.
Technically, there are several types of British ales. There’s the quintessential mild ales, which are served from the cask (the bottled versions are called brown ales), pale ales, bitters and so on. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m going to lump all that together under the term “British-styled ale”.
The traditional English cask ale has made a comeback of sorts in recent times, with more and more small craft breweries popping up and brewing traditional English cask ales, or “real ale”.
According to the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra), a British consumer association that actively promotes the brewing of traditional cask ales and ciders; real ales consist of beer “brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”.
Also known as “cask-conditioned beer”, the ingredients used in cask ales are fresh and natural, and the beer is neither pasteurised nor filtered. It also undergoes a slow secondary fermentation in the cask, making it essentially a living product, as it continues to ferment in the cask even in the pub, developing its flavour as it matures ready to be poured into your glass.
When I was in London recently, I had a blast hopping from one pub to another, trying all the different cask ales on tap in each one. I was amazed by how many different ales were available there – each pub I went to had a minimum of five on tap, with eye-catching names like Midnight Bell and Dragon Slayer. Each tap also had a brief description of the ale, and you could even request a small sample of it just to check out the taste. Each ale had its own distinctive flavour and character – there was even a “special coriander beer” called Nethergate Umbel Ale, which had the full flavour and aroma of coriander in it.
Unfortunately, while we have scores of lagers, wheat beers and the most popular stout in the world, we are rather short on proper ales in Malaysia. There is a good selection of Belgian ales over at Brux-Ale Belgian Bistro in Bangsar (03-2287 2628), while Craft Brews in Mutiara Damansara has a good range of American craft ales on bottle.
However, where British-styled ales are concerned, this is a segment of the beer market that could use a little expanding. There are some decent ones available here though. They may not compare with the cask ales over in Britain, but hey, it’s better than nothing. Here’s a regrettably short list of British-style ales available in Malaysia.
Newcastle Brown Ale
The next time you head to an English or Irish-themed pub in the Klang Valley, ask for one of these. Currently my personal favourite beer here, this medium-bodied brown ale has a wonderfully refreshing and pleasant nutty flavour that leaves a nice sweet, caramel aftertaste on your tongue long after you’ve swallowed the beer.
Fondly known as Newkie Brown, Newcastle Brown Ale is immensely popular in Britain, and is also one of the best-selling bottled beers in Europe. You may even recall the Newcastle United Football Club sporting the beer’s logo on their jerseys some years ago. Distributed by Guinness Anchor Berhad (GAB) here, the beer comes in 330ml bottles, and is available in more than 25 British and Irish-themed outlets around the country, including all four Sid’s Pubs outlets (www.sidspubs.com).
Old Speckled Hen
Old Speckled Hen was first brewed in 1979 at the Morland brewery in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the MG car factory there. The name refers to an old, mud-spattered factory runabout which the locals called “old speckled ’un”.
There is more to this ale than the interesting name though. Old Speckled Hen has a nicely-balanced, malty flavour to it, with a slightly hoppy aftertaste.
Old Speckled Hen is available on tap at The George And The Dragon pub (03-2287 9316) at Bangsar Shopping Complex, KL.
Red Dot English Ale
This is probably the closest we could possibly get to a real ale around these parts. Brewed by Red Dot Breweries in Singapore, this English-style ale is ruby red and has a slight spicy, hoppy flavour to it. It is a little light on flavour for my liking though, especially when compared to the ones I tried in London, but it is still a decent alternative to the more commercially-available ales out there.
The ale is the strongest and most full-bodied of the four Red Dot craft beers available on tap at Craft Brews (Menara KLK, Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya / 03-7722 3000).
Tetley’s English Ale
With a history of more than 200 years, Tetley’s has been brewed in Yorkshire, England, since 1822, and has been available in Malaysia since 2000. Distributed by Carlsberg Malaysia, Tetley’s is also one of the most widely available English ales in Malaysia.
It is a decent ale, if not very distinctive in flavour. It may not have a very strong distinctive character to it, but it makes up for that by being pretty easy to drink, and having a light, hoppy aftertaste.
There is also a Tetley’s Smooth Flow canned version available in selected supermarkets, which provides a slightly better experience. Brewed at 3.8% ABV, it is classified as a “light English ale” and is smoother, more satisfying than the one on tap.
This is the odd one out. Technically (and geographically), Kilkenny is not a traditional British ale per se, but an Irish ale. However, an article about ales in Malaysia would not be complete without a mention of this beer, as it is arguably the most popular British-style ale in Malaysia right now, and is widely available both in bottles and on tap.
A beautiful dark, ruby red colour, with a nice, pleasant malty taste, the beer is the perfect middle-ground drink for those who want neither something as light as a lager nor something too heavy like a stout either.
The beer’s origin is intricately tied to the St Francis Abbey brewery, the oldest operating Irish brewery that has been producing great beers since 1710 in the small town of Kilkenny in the south-east of Ireland. Almost 300 years later, Kilkenny is one of the country’s most internationally successful beers.
While it has not quite reached the heights of its fellow Irish beer and GAB stablemate Guinness, Kilkenny has still managed to garner a strong cult following here in Malaysia, and is one of the fastest growing brands in GAB’s stable right now.
Sick of lagers and wheat beers, Michael Cheang is going to stick to his Newcastle Brown Ale for now, thank you very much.