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The Beers Of Asia: Still Defined By Its Western History

Asian made but still European

Asian made but still European

In an era of globalization, countries are thought of, in the most hoped for scenarios, as specialists of something.  In the case of foods, the Europeans have embraced protected geographic indicators (PGI's) to proclaim internationally that their regions/countries are specialists in particular foods and beverages.  The hills around Turin, Italy are home to the TGI piedmont hazelnut.  The Champagne region of France is the only region in the world which can call the sparkling wines hailing from its region champagne.  Parma boasts its Parma ham.  The Brits have Melton Mowbray pork pies.  

For something to be granted PGI status, it must continue to be made/grown/produced in the designated region using traditional techniques which, presumably, have made the item desirable and famous to begin with.  

But beer?

It is not common for beer to be given PGI status.    It is virtually unheard of.

Scottish & Newcastle's Newcastle Brown Ale had PGI status until 2007.  The company asked for the status and got it, but then asked, less than a decade later, to have the PGI status revoked because they wanted to move production outside of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Gateshead.  Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.  The only other brewing company I know to secure this status is the Czech Republic's Budweiser Budvar.

The Europeans don't need PGI labels to protect their throne as the cultural beer experts.  They're already the perceived dominant brewers worldwide.    Ask who makes the best beers in the world, you'll usually hear the Belgians or the Germans, maybe the Czechs.  Never the Japanese or the Koreans.  That's where you get quality cars from.  Asians just aren't known worldwide for their beers, which isn't to say Asians don't/can't make good beer.  

The world's oldest brewery, Weihenstephan Brewery in Germany, can trace its roots back to 768.    The German Purity Law has been around since 1434 or 1516, depending on which source you believe.  Six hundred years ago, the Germans were already codifying purity standards for a drink Asians had never heard of.

Asia's oldest (beer) brewery, by comparison, is less than 200 years old, setup by the British in the Himalayas to supply their fellow citizens, a brewery establishment pattern repeated in many Asian countries thereafter.    The first modern brewery in Japan, which later evolved into Kirin, was started by a Norwegian-American in Yokohama in 1869.  Tsingtao, China's second largest brewery, was set up by German settlers in 1903.  The Lao Brewery Company, makers of Beer Lao, started out as a joint venture between Lao and French businessmen.  

Not all breweries in Asia were established by European immigrants.  Thailand's first brewery, Boon Rawd, makers of Singha, was setup by a Thai in 1933, but Asian-owned breweries  like these took root largely because of what was happening elsewhere in the region.  Just two years before Boon Rawd's birth, Dutch giant Heineken and Fraser & Neave formed a joint venture called Malayan Breweries Limited to produce Tiger Beer.  

The Asians have their unique beverages and their own unique cuisines borne out by geography and climate.    But there is no such unique thing as Asian beer, defined by Asian brews utilizing a special type of hops or barley indigenous to the region or utilizing a common Asian brewing technique not practiced elsewhere.  Whether an Asian brewery was founded by European immigrants or founded by indigenous people, beer was always a Western drink, using key ingredients largely imported from the West.  Beer Lao, for example, is brewed in Laos with hand picked indigenous rice varieties, spring water originating from the foothills of the Himalayas, Hallertau (German) hops,German yeast, and French malted barley. Even where Asian countries can support the growth of barley and hops, it is more prestigious and desirable for consumers that the barley and/or hops came from more affluent nations with brewing traditions.    India indulged in an experiment to grow hops in the remote tribal regions of Himachal Pradesh, but with few Indian breweries willing to take the produce, there was talk of hops being replaced by other crops.  

Wine is a different beast.  European grape varietals were grown in new continents where they took on different flavor characteristics.  With Asian breweries using predominantly the same key ingredients as their European forebears, Asian beer becomes, in effect, a Western product stirred up with an Asian-based brewmaster's (Westernized) recipe.

The Asian side of the craft beer revolution thus far is Asians observing the progression of the craft beer industry in the United States (and other Western countries later) and doing the same thing themselves in Asia, again using mostly Western ingredients and beer styles.    This is why Japanese microbreweries like Hitachino and Baird, itself owned by an American expatriate, can export their brews back to the West and be appreciated.  Beer, by its very context, is already Westernized.  

You can tell a Cuban sandwich from a Vietnamese sandwich just by looking at it and most definitely by tasting it.  As far as I know, there is no unique Japanese or Korean or Chinese or Thai or Indonesian brewing style that puts such an indelible signature on the beer that any experienced sampler can immediately discern the beer's origin.

This is not a dig at Asian beer manufacturers.    It's just a fact of history that brewing beer as we know it began in Europe and that history continues to define the standards, like it or not.  Sake began its origins in Japan.  Today, over 10 countries brew sake, with  7 sake breweries in China and 6 in the United States.  The NøgneBrewery in Norway, makers of quality microbrews since 2002, also makes highly regarded sakes in the yamahai muroka junmai genshu style.    I'm sure it's delicious if sakes takes you to new levels of consciousness.    But sake still remains a Japanese drink, brewed according to long established tried and true Japanese sake brewing techniques.    This Hadaka-jima just happens to be brewed in Norway.  If a sake novice or even a sake connoisseur were richly exploring the universe of sake making, would s/he be better off hitting Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea, all locations of sake breweries, or doing a sake crawl in one region of Japan?

Europe is never far away, as long as a shop selling beer is nearby.  

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