The Nuances of Flavour

I was staying at a bed and breakfast in Dublin, the capital of Ireland. Carrying my heavy luggage up the stairs, I was almost out of breath when the owner said mischievously, ‘Have a stout! After you drink it, you’ll instantly feel more energetic!’

I smiled knowingly. Some people say that the Irish are proudest of their culture of stout, which clearly was true.

I first heard of stout from my mother-in-law. She was very hospitable, and made sure to prepare a feast for any guest. In stark contrast, she was very frugal with herself, eating simple fare every day. Her greatest extravagance in life was to savour a glass of stout after meals, which she laughingly called ‘highly nutritious black milk’, and the tastiest ‘health tonic’.

Curious, I once tried a few sips from her glass. Bitterness aside, there was only a sort of sharp taste on my tongue. I was very young then, and I didn’t know that bitterness could in fact transform into a lingering sweetness. Perhaps due to drinking stout for years, although my mother-in-law was over 70, she was nevertheless able to climb her own fruit trees to pick fruit.

In the eyes of the Irish, stout was the source of ‘strength and vigour’. They believed that men who drank stout could access their inner charisma and masculinity, and that stout could also help pregnant women, patients, and blood donors recover their strength more quickly.

Dublin, famed as ‘the capital of stout’, was particularly fascinating in summer. Its innumerable bars and clubs were always packed with smartly dressed men and women chatting and laughing away, all of whom held in their hands a beverage darker than night. In the heady perfume of alcohol, gossip and rumours were exchanged one after another, adding little bursts of excitement and energy to people’s lives like the bubbles in beer.

Countless types of stout have long been brewed in Ireland, one of which is now renowned worldwide – Guinness Stout, which built its first factory in 1759. It is just one of Ireland’s many products, but today, the Guinness Storehouse has become a local landmark in Dublin, and a must-visit tourist attraction. This brand of stout is also brewed in over 50 countries and sold in more than 150 countries across the world.

Guinness Stout is undoubtedly worthy of such global renown, but to be frank, the word ‘Guinness’ has also been instrumental in Guinness Stout’s ‘conquest of the world’. Back in 1951, during a hunting party in Ireland, managing director of the Guinness Brewery Sir Hugh Beaver was unable to hit a bird despite multiple shots. In surprise, he exclaimed that this must be the fastest bird in the world. Other people in the group disagreed, leading to a heated discussion. Subsequently, they consulted encyclopaedias to find an answer, but to no avail.

In a flash of inspiration, Sir Hugh Beaver decided to publish a book of ‘World Records’ under the name of the Guinness Company. Information about world records in sports, science, business, architecture, the natural world and other subjects would be extensively collected and carefully verified in order to provide authoritative answers. Sir Hugh Beaver felt that such a book could encourage more conversation as people were drinking. As people chatted more, they would in turn drink more, forming a virtuous cycle.

Unexpectedly, the publication of the book caused a huge sensation, and it was sold worldwide. Ever since then, Guinness Stout has been closely associated with the captivating Guinness Book of World Records. To this day, many people still come up with ways to create all sorts of unusual records, so as to ‘go down in history’.

The Guinness Storehouse was originally created by modifying a large building that had over a hundred years of history. Seven storeys high, its elegance extended beyond its grandeur. I sat at the top floor overlooking the city, holding a big glass of stout. As I slowly drank, I became aware that the darkness of stout was not the kind that pointed towards death. Rather, it was a lustrous darkness that had layers to it, like melted black jewels. In the vast darkness, pinpricks of golden light could be glimpsed now and then, subtle and beautiful.

After so many years, savouring again this stout that my taste buds once rejected, I realized that my feelings were different, though the flavour itself had not changed. Though still bitter, it wasn’t the kind of distorting bitterness. Rather, it was like liquid bitter gourd, with depth and nuances. As the stout flowed through my mouth, there was a slight bitterness that lingered, but that quickly gave way to a mellow sweet aftertaste. In that gentle sharpness, I was unavoidably reminded of the sorrows and joys over the past decades. At that moment, after having tasted the many flavours of life, I finally accepted the nuances of stout and its flavours.

This piece was originally published in Chinese as〈沧桑的饮料〉in《释放快乐》.

Tham Yew Chin, better known by her pen name You Jin, is the author of some 158 books and a prolific writer of travelogues, essays, opinion pieces, short stories and novels. Known for her heartwarming and sensitive observations of everyday life, she has been recognised in Singapore and China. The inaugural recipient of the Singapore Chinese Literary Award and the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award, she was honoured with the establishment of the You Jin Research Centre in Chongqing University in 2000. In 2009, Tham received the Cultural Medallion for her contributions to literature in Singapore.

Chong Gua Khee is a Singaporean theatre practitioner with an interest in movement, text and translation. Some of her translation projects to date include translating Nine Years Theatre’s stage adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio, as well as surtitling and live translating for Emergency Staircase’s staging of Offending the Audience. Gua Khee was a part of the inaugural intake for the Singapore Apprenticeship in Literary Translation (SALT) in 2017-2018, organised by Tender Leaves Translation and The Select Centre and sponsored by the Singapore National Arts Council, and was mentored by Shelly Bryant. This piece was originally translated as part of that programme, and is taken from the short story collection《释放快乐》, first published by Lingzi Media in 2013.

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