Once upon a time I used to be clear about things. I’d spent a lot of my life forming opinions. I looked around and saw what I liked and what I didn’t. And I knew why, and why not. But now I’m old and wise and I just don’t know anymore. Every single thing seems to have grown new facets. It’s all much more complex than it used to be. Take the simple subject of beer, for instance. To an older person from England, dark beer is the best and the blonde lagers are for kids who can’t handle the real thing. A young American, on the other hand will judge everything against the iconic ‘American Style Gold Lager’. But most of Middle America still thinks Budweiser in a can is real beer. And Germans old and young will crave their pilsner. Yes, I know, this is about Thai beer. But there’s two ways I can write this: the easy way is to just make a list of them and copy some historical dates and notes from the internet. The other way is what I’m doing now.
And the aspect of culture and tradition weaves its way through the whole subject of beer, tugging opinions this way and that, depending on who you are and where you come from. There are some European breweries that have been running since the dawn of time: Weihanstephan Abbey in Bavaria has been brewing since 1040 AD, for example. Whereas America’s Yeungling Brewery has only been at it since 1829. This is important, as it shapes a nation’s thinking. Thailand, for instance has been making beer since 1933.
You just can’t escape it – culture and tradition. You need hops and malt to make beer, neither of which ever used to be grown in Thailand. The nation’s staple diet is rice. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that all the traditional Thai tipples have evolved from rice, fermented fruits, or a blend of both together. Beer was a foreign thing. Rice wine – and it is absolutely not ‘wine’ at 40% alcohol! – was a rural favourite, as was the dangerous ‘ya dong’, home-made and usually from ethyl alcohol. But the imported ‘bia’ was highly suspicious and very expensive.
Interestingly it was the Thais’ love of everything American that got them started, leading to the formation of the nation’s first brewery, the Boon Rawd Brewery, in 1933. To be fair, the company’s founder, Phraya Bhirom Bhakdi, spent several years living in Germany and Denmark studying their methods and techniques. And the result was the appearance of Singha Beer, which has since become something of an international symbol for Thailand.
And all went along as smooth as Thai silk until 1995. This was when the company which had previously held the government monopoly on the spirits sector, the ThaiBev Group, brought out a rival with their Chang (elephant) beer. And then, just to make things even more fun, both Carlsberg and Heineken opened their own breweries in Thailand in the same year. Not only that, but Boon Rawd also bought the two German breweries which produced Singha Gold for the European market!
And to come back to the place where I began; what’s beer all about? Here’s a little challenge on this point. Which beer has been reviewed by international experts and described as “… honeyed raisin-toast aromas with a hint of lychee follow-through on a crisp, smooth entry to a dryish medium body, with a hint of apple, nut, and a solid roasted grain character. Finishes with a crisp, balanced earthy hop and pizza dough fade.” Forgive me for being bemused – a pizza dough fade? Wouldn’t that be something to run away from as fast as you can? If you’re still puzzled – it was the critique of Chang at World Beer Championships in 2008. Drink some and see for yourself.
Getting back to history, in 2010, Boon Rawd embarked on a serious marketing campaign, not only introducing the cheaper Leo beer (pitched firmly at the working classes), but also getting stuck into some serious international marketing with its flagship Singha beer. This is the Thai beer that’s stood the test of time, and with an estimated 78% of all Thai restaurants in Europe and America carrying it.
But today, things have changed a lot, and on three distinctive fronts. Firstly there are the Asian beers, which now include Singapore’s famous Tiger brand, and Chang has even sprouted a baby brother as a sort of ‘budget’ alternative tipple, the little-known Archa beer. The second is that there’s a new wave of beer importers, making brews available from not only many of the Asian countries but also from all over the world. Some of these are the traditional stalwarts such as Erdinger or Fuller’s London Pride, but there’s also a wild frontier of craft beers, too.
And that’s category three – craft beers. While it’s tempting to assume that these are all brought-in from micro-breweries in Europe or America, not so! Thailand’s laws are changing. In theory it’s still illegal to brew beer – there’s a curious 200 baht fine for doing this! And although it’s still not generally permitted for a micro-brewery to actually bottle their wares for distribution, craft-brew pubs are spreading. There are dozens in Bangkok and, notably, the first one in our part of the world, in Phuket, the Full Moon Brewwork. They’re putting together a variety of brews, such as the crisply floral Cha La Wan pale ale and even the English-inspired Andaman Dark Ale. Things are looking up.
The good news is that I know of several hotels on Samui who are now stocking these beers. And the better news is that Samui even has its own micro-brewery – the Bees Knees Brew Pub, on the long stretch of Chaweng’s Lake Road.
So do yourself a favour, and all of us, too. Ask for some Wychwood: ‘Snakes Bite’ or Summer Wine: ‘The Kiwi’ or even Amager: ‘Bryghus Sloth’ at your resort. Mutter about craft beer in the restaurants. Raise awareness. Because the more strange beer-beasts there are, the happier we all will be!
Rob De Wet