Chef Jowett Yu's pairing of grilled New Zealand fatty lamb ribs and an especially brewed beer has been years in the making.
Years ago in China, the Hong Kong restaurateur had eaten lamb ribs at Guanguanji, a restaurant in Shanghai. The lamb had been slathered in cumin, fennel and chilli powder, and he had wanted to wash it all down with an ice-cold beer - which the halal restaurant did not serve.
Now, however, Yu has finally been able to marry the two together. Dad Bod, a beer brewed in Hong Kong by Young Master Brewery, is sold exclusively at Ho Lee Fook, Yu's modern Chinese restaurant in SoHo - a district south of Hollywood Road in Hong Kong's Central business and entertainment district.
Dad Bod is a pale ale made with guava that "cuts through and balances out the richness of the dish", says Yu, thanks to the use of fruity hops and a slight amount of acidity from the guava. The beer, he adds, goes well with many of the restaurant's other meat-based dishes too.
It should come to no surprise that beer (which can be malty, hoppy, smoky, spicy, fruity, funky and sour in turn) pairs well with so many dishes - even more than wine.
"Wine can sometimes be constrained by certain dishes," says Young Master founder Rohit Dugar. "With beer, there's so much variety. It gives you a lot to work with."
Hong Kong brewers such as Young Master, which is based in Wong Chuk Hang in Southern district, are increasingly working with restaurants on custom beers to pair with specific dishes. This isn't something seen only in Hong Kong; some of the world's top restaurants have beer lists as comprehensive as their wine selection.
Three-Michelin-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York, for example, has one of the best beer programmes in the city, and beer plays a starring role at Rene Redzepi's Restaurant Barr in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"In these places, the sommelier is expected to offer a beverage pairing, not just a wine pairing," says Dugar. This, he says, is still not common in Hong Kong.
"Craft beer has made a lot of progress over the last seven years, but many restaurants here still don't have very long beer lists," he says.
Even a short beer list can offer rewarding experiences. Laszlo Raphael, the co-founder of Moonzen Brewery in Kwun Tong, Kowloon, says a good rule of thumb is to respect what he calls "the three C's - cut, complement and contrast".
The first refers to a beer that can cut through particularly intense dishes. "If it's fatty food, acidic beer is best," says Dugar. "If it's spicier food, there should be some sweetness and not much bitterness."
One example of this would be Young Master's Days of Being Wild, a series of sour beers fermented in a wood vessel called a foedre, before being aged in barrels with added hops or fruits. The resulting brews have layers of flavours and an acidity that make heavy meats seem less fatty and overwhelming. Dugar says they also pair well with rich, creamy desserts.
That's also the case for Moonzen's Milk Company series of sour fruit beers, inspired by the Yee Shun Milk Company's double-boiled milk puddings. The beers are brewed with Lactobacillus bacteria, which is what gives yogurt its distinctive tang, and lactose is added for sweetness. Raphael says the beers pair well with the Yee Shun puddings, too.
Moonzen took a different approach when Crazy Noodles, a Chinese restaurant in Central, Hong Kong, that serves fiery Sichuanese dishes, asked the brewery to make a custom beer; it opted for something with complementary flavours. Dan Dan Beer is a strong ale made with chilli peppers, sesame and peanut powder that reflects and enhances the flavours of its namesake dish.
"Sometimes," Dugar says when it comes to beer, "doubling down on the flavour can work, like a chocolate stout with chocolate cake."
The trick is to make a beer that matches the intensity of a particular dish. That's why hotpot enthusiasts at Liu Yi Shou can pair their spicy broth with a mala lager brewed especially for the restaurant chain that serves Chongqing-style dishes (similar to Sichuanese).
It seems counter-intuitive to chase a spicy hotpot with an equally spicy beer but, somehow, it works.
The third approach is to pair by contrast. One classic example of this is raw oysters and stout, as the bitter, roasted notes of stout help define and enhance the briny taste of shellfish.
Chris Wong (a restaurateur, head brewer of Heroes Beer Company in Yau Tong, Kowloon, general manager of Carbon Brews in Fo Tan, in the New Territories, and co-owner of the HK Brewcraft liquor store) says fish and chips go surprisingly well with the bitterness of a hoppy India Pale Ale.
He also loves drinking Rodenbach - a Belgian beer with notes of dried fruit and sherry vinegar - with Cantonese-style roast goose. "It mimics the plum sauce," he says.
Many Hong Kong restaurants now serve custom craft beers - such as Young Master's Bun Bong Be, a beer made using 15 different Chinese botanicals for the Crystal Jade chain of Shanghainese cuisine restaurants, and the Captain's Bar Beer, a German-style Pilsner designed to pair with the menu of Indian curries at the bar of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central. Blue Supreme in Sheung Wan has made beer pairing a central part of its mission.
There are also the occasional pairing dinners hosted by Hong Kong's breweries.
"HK Brewcraft runs pairing events where they lead participants through basic beer and food pairing principles, beer and cheese pairings, and sometimes dive straight into some more extreme pairings of traditional Chinese street food with beer," says Wong, who was surprised by how well the Yardley Brothers Christmas Ale - a winter spice beer brewed in Kwai Fong - goes with meat braised in lo sui, a Chinese five-spice master sauce.
Young Master also hosts a monthly beer pairing dinner at Goon Goon, its bar and restaurant in Shenzhen, the Chinese border city opposite Hong Kong, where chef Sheep Mann creates special dishes inspired by specific beers. Past dishes have included a house-smoked salmon paired with a sour IPA, and a fusion Sichuanese-German pork knuckle served with a Sichuan-pepper-infused wheat beer.
It's also easy to create your own pairing experience.
"A lot of old-school Cantonese restaurants are open to people bringing their own beers," Wong says. He often ends up at the Queen's College Old Boys' Association in Tai Hang, which runs a reservation-only Chinese restaurant. "A lot of beer geeks go there and we bring beer to do our own pairings. It's fun. There are always some surprises."
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