Weddings, the first year anniversary of the birth of a child and other significant milestones are typically celebrated in a Chinese restaurant, where guests are grouped 10 to a table. Food is served in a seemingly endless stream of courses family-style on a lazy Susan. Although the menu can vary slightly, it’s fairly predictable: pickled appetizers (such as jellyfish) and cold meats, soup, sometimes quail, roasted chicken or duck (head included), deep-fried shrimp balls or crab claws, abalone with mushrooms and greens in brown sauce, shrimp and squid, occasionally beef, a whole fish, crab or lobster, and noodles or fried rice, often topped off with red bean soup for dessert.
Banquets can be a challenge for a craft beer drinker, however. Beverages are usually limited to tea served in a stainless steel pot (leave the top open if it needs to be refilled), sparkling cider, 7-Up and sometimes Hennessey cognac or wine. Except for the tea, none of these match particularly well with food. The ideal companion for this type of food is beer, but beer is not a traditional part of Chinese cuisine. The best the bar will have to offer will be American adjunct lagers or green bottles of Heineken or Tsingtao—China’s answer to Corona.For once, I was determined to do better.
Fortunately, Chinese restaurants are generally nonchalant about people bringing in a bottle or two, especially for a large banquet of hundreds of people; they’re in it for the big tip at the end of the party. Since it’s not counting on making a lot of money on alcoholic beverages during the banquet, chances are the restaurant will not be offended if you bring in some beer.
Overall, the flavor profile at a Chinese banquet is salty and savory (also known as umami), which is the fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Sweet and fizzy macro lagers can counter the salt, but they don’t do much to elevate the food. I decided to see if I could come up with one beer that would perform well with all of the different courses. I settled upon a bottle of Hacker-Pschorr Anno 1417, a keller bier, which is an unfiltered lager.
The Anno was sufficiently light and refreshing to cleanse the palate without competing with any of the savory flavors. Yet the keller bier, which is dry rather than sweet like an American adjunct lager, had enough substance to bring out underappreciated qualities of each of the courses while taming some of the less-desirable greasy or salty aspects of umami flavors like MSG. From soup all the way through seafood, chicken, lobster and fried rice, the keller bier not only held its own but made the overall experience even more pleasant and convivial. I only wish I’d brought another bottle.
I’m not holding out much hope for mainstream Chinese restaurants to expand their beer offerings, but with the emergence of the next generation of Asian restaurateurs we may some day see a selection of brews from Europe and even Asia (such as Hitachino White) that better complement the savory qualities that typify Chinese banquet food.