Bar/fly: Sri Lanka

By Alex Robertson

When a Sri Lankan watering hole touts its beer as strong, it is, finds Alex Robertson.

A menu board appeared from the gloom by the bar: lager 90 rupees (80 cents) half litre; strong beer (8.8%) 110 rupees ($1) half litre. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
A menu board appeared from the gloom by the bar: lager 90 rupees (80 cents) half litre; strong beer (8.8%) 110 rupees ($1) half litre. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

It won't be much of a surprise to those who know me that I am partial to a beer or two and have enjoyed a variety of ales in the far-flung corners of the world.

I've supped in a bar in Antwerp that claimed to have 3000 beers on the menu; I've imbibed fresh, warm beer straight from the oak cask in Kent; and I've lapped up overly-hopped 8 per centers in California, to mention a few.

Connoisseur may be too strong a description of my taste for the amber nectar, but I would say I can sniff out an ale worth wetting one's whistle for, even if I couldn't chuck out that sentence after a handle or three.

However, I can count on one finger the times I've been faced with a choice of just two beers. TWO BEERS!

The occasion was a wet Saturday afternoon in a town called Nurawa Eliya in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. It lies in the highest reaches of the island jewel, above tea country, and was founded by the British as a resort for golfing, hunting and fishing.

It's also the birthplace of Sri Lankan beer, with the famous Lion brand started by the Ceylon Brewery in 1881.

Some aspects of the town look like a Victorian seaside resort on the South Coast of England, with tiled-roofed, stuccoed, detached houses neatly lined up against the dark green, bush-clad hills.

With the sunlight quickly fading, shop lights reflected from puddles in the rutted side streets, traffic crawled through the drizzle and the raised footpaths teemed with people swaddled against the cold - we could have been in a border town in the Khyber Pass and not the charming, sun-kissed paradise I had come to love in the preceding week.

After queueing with locals to buy Arrack - Sri Lankan fire water distilled from coconuts - as gifts for unsuspecting loved ones back home, our group was on a mission to have a beer in a local, the kind of place you might catch a football or rugby game on TV on a wet Saturday afternoon in winter.

But it wasn't going to be easy: our first attempt ended in failure after negotiating a twisting covered lane to enter a packed cavern of lurching, smoking drinkers lit only by the bar at one end of the room.

We were turned away as they had run out of beer.

Back out into the coming night, a neon sign flashed from across a busy intersection: PALLADIUM RESTAURANT.

Weaving between slow-moving taxis, buses and trucks, the eight people in our group ran as one through puddles, leaping over high kerbs and through the open doorway.

Traffic noise and car horns were replaced with Madonna's Like A Virgin belting from a music video, which also served as the main source of lighting. Men in various states of inebriation sat around the edges of the room drinking and smoking.

An empty table for eight sat right in the middle of the room, as if we were expected. A menu board appeared from the gloom by the bar: lager 90 rupees (80 cents) half litre; strong beer (8.8%) 110 rupees ($1) half litre.

Six handles of strong beer were ordered, one of lager. The guide smoked instead. And they weren't kidding when it said strong beer. We only had time for just one and the cold air outside gave me the head spins and the need for a snack.

I was soon tucking into a wada - a doughnut-shaped, fried rice-flour pancake topped with a hot and salty sambal - bought from a roadside cart.

The fiery feast seemed to intensify the alcoholic rush, and the combination warmed me against the cold during the walk back to the colonial comfort of the Grand Hotel and an altogether more civilised pre-dinner gin and tonic.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights from Auckland to Colombo via Singapore.

Further information: See World Expeditions' Sri Lanka trip schedules.

The writer travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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