Southeast Asian Beer

Part three in a series on Southeast Asian beer.

By the time we flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia, after five days at a teetotaling Malaysian resort I had developed a bit of craving. And there’s nothing like a craving to help me appreciate something I might otherwise pass on. I.e., cheap and easy lager.

The temples at Angkor Wat are endlessly stunning, and if I'm honest, put most of South America's ancient sites to shame.

The temples at Angkor Wat are endlessly stunning, and if I’m honest, put most of South America’s ancient sites to shame.

Siem Reap is town that runs on the tourism associated with Angkor Wat and the dozens of other temples located in the area. The drive from the airport takes you past numerous massive luxury hotels with six or seven huge buses parked outside each of them, for kilometers. As gaudy as it could be–and I’m sure anyone who went to Siem Reap 10+ years ago laments the expansion–it’s an engine for jobs as well. The town itself is an experience; plenty of obvious foreigners to be found walking around, but the center is packed full of them, with drinking, dining, massage, and shopping options to go along with it.

Myriad well-established night markets open up after dark along what were nondescript streets during the day, hawking all sorts of wares and foods. The crepes and juices are delicious, and I let myself be talked into a bag of fried larvae and a cricket. I couldn’t quite bring myself to try the snack on a stick, but I’ll be in Beijing soon enough and surely it will be there. The center of all tourist activity is Pub Street. Our guide from 2010 listed something like three restaurants on it, but the packed-to-the-gills growth outward and upward would suggest that the pace of development has been hectic in the past five years.

Dinner on Pub Street offers myriad options for food and the baseline price for a draught beer is U$ 0.50, or U$ 2.00 a pitcher. Of course, what comes in that pitcher is one of Anchor (no relation to the San Francisco brewery), Angkor, or Cambodia lagers; but again, absence makes the heart grow fonder and heat makes the body thirstier for something light. So it was with much fondness when that first pint of Anchor was set down in front of me. Draught beer was still such a novelty in Bolivia that coming across a tap handle anywhere still gets me bit giddy, although that will surely wear off shortly.

Angkor Lager, ubiquitous in Siem Reap.

Angkor Lager, ubiquitous in Siem Reap.

But either I was really craving some or it was a brilliantly fresh keg, because that lager was everything you’d want over a sweaty outdoor dinner underneath the fans in the lovely heat: bready, even a tad toasty, and graced with a just notable noble hop overlay (which I’m sure someone would roll their eyes at and insist I imagined). But there’s a time and a place for everything, and an evening on a frenetically busy Cambodian street corner with sweet pork ribs is most certainly one of those occasions.

Coming from Bolivia–which is my obvious point of comparison after years of living there–Cambodia is wonderfully comfortable on many points, albeit so much more full of people. Whereas Bolivia has a glut of sleepy rural towns and even cities that would qualify for the descriptor, people and motorcycles and tuk-tuks and bikes are everywhere in Cambodia. It feels full, busy, never stark.

But signs of familiarity also emerge: plastic tables and chairs set up on street corners before dawn to serve breakfast, abundant juice sellers, polite and friendly hawkers, and lots of meat grilled on a stick. Obviously that’s all aesthetic at best and leaves much to understand and learn. Five days mostly spent exploring ruins and night markets capped off with reflexology says little of Cambodian life, although it speaks well of being a tourist here.

I think there's definitely a market out there in Eastern Bolivia for a hammock bar.

I think there’s definitely a market out there in Eastern Bolivia for a hammock bar.

The recent-ness of Bolivia again colors my perceptions as I encountered Cambodian beer, namely expressed in my astonishment towards the breadth of just how many stouts are produced regionally. There’s Angkor Extra Stout (8% and a bit sweet), Black Panther Foreign Extra Stout (8%, inky black and overly sweet), Archipelago Brewing Company Foreign Extra Stout from Singapore (7%, dry, chocolatey, sufficiently bitter and very satisfying), as well as a stout from the Cambodia Brewery and a dark lager from Beerlao. They are spoiled for choice in this department. It piques my interest as to just why Stout is such an understood and in-demand category.

One would suspect Guinness exerts influence over that question given the ubiquitousness with which it is available, the prevalence of “Foreign” and “Extra” in the names and attendant strengths hovering around 7-8%. Likewise, given the presence of a huge Tamil diaspora through Southeast Asia, it seems fair to think that perhaps Lion Stout might have a historical influence as well (n.b. “Black Panther” certainly invokes similar imagery). It could be that the historical connections between England, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore laid a foundation for demand, but Cambodia was decidedly French during the colonial era. And these are not the sweet tropical stouts of the Caribbean. So, why is it that stout is apparently is such demand in Southeast Asia?

ABC Stout on the Singapore Airlines flight.

ABC Stout on the Singapore Airlines flight to Siem Reap.

That ought to be enough of a prompt for the budding beer historian to take on next time they find themselves traversing Southeast Asia.

Finally, as best I could tell there is one brewery in Malaysia invoking the “craft” name, and that is Phnom Penh’s Kingdom Breweries. However, these were not easily tracked down in the restaurants and bars, although I did come across the Pilsener and Dunkel in a grocery store. The Kingdom Pilsener was overwhelmed by the tagine I drank it with, but it had a lovely billowy head, tasted of bread dough and left a lingering bitterness–it almost felt acidic–along the tongue. Different from the macro norm, but honestly not enough so that I’d go too far out of my way to track it down.

I left Cambodia satiated, a craving satisfied and ready to try something in China.

Bamboo + old beer bottles.

Bamboo + old beer bottles.


Part two of a series on beer in Southeast Asia.

It’d been an hour since we got to the bus station in Seremban, it was hot, and still the bus to Port Dickson hadn’t shown up. I was already in a sour mood since the ticket touter back in Joroh Bahru, across the strait from Singapore, said that the long distance bus was supposed to go all the way to Port Dickson, but clearly it was on me to have asked more specifically. A minor annoyance borne from my own ignorance. Oh well, it’s a lesson to get a guidebook.

To make change for the RM 2 tickets for the bus, we needed to break a large bill, so the station’s Dunkin Donuts seemed a promising possibility. My wife and I love donuts, and while they certainly were available back in Bolivia, the donut shop isn’t quite the same edible institution as elsewhere. So we’re always up for ducking into DD. Plus, we have some vaguely fond memories of DD from our time in Philadelphia that are probably a trickle-down effect from the obsession East Coast folks in the US cultivate for it.

I love donuts.

I love donuts.

Walking into that run-down DD shop with peeling menu boards and about six too many people working in it was a revelation: DD tailors their flavors to local preferences and categories. This DD featured flavors such as Taste of Prosperity, Dragon, and Fire Cracker to celebrate Chinese New Year, Gummy (with gummy candies set in the frosting), M&M and Oreo Moment, Pandan Kaya-Filled (green coconut jelly), and the hilariously blunt Sugar Raised and Sugar Log (Long Johns). Heretofore, we resolved to stop in to every DD. We ducked into another bus station DD in Kuala Lumpur later in the week and found Salted Chocolate Caramel, Wormy Chocolate (gummy worms on top), NBA Basketball (orange with black stripes ala a basketball), and of course my favorite, Sugar Logs.

Coffee and donut-sated, the wait wasn’t too much longer. We had to passive aggressively shoulder our way onto the city bus, which then meandered its way 20 km onto Port Dickson, and then another taxi ride on to the hotel made for a bit of an exhausting day of travel. The perfect sort of day to end with a beer. Any beer, really.

As it turned out, we were staying in what I suppose might be called a family-style resort catering to Muslims. So, no poolside beers or cocktails on the beach. The hotel named “Ilham” probably should have tipped us off to that. I’d done a few brief searches to see what the Malaysian macro lager would be, but couldn’t find anything. That probably should have tipped me off. Somehow it never occurred to me that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and as such, trying a local beer would be futile pursuit.

Young bulls in Malaysia out for a ride.

Young bulls in Malaysia out for a ride.

I’ve been to plenty of Muslim countries before, I even lived in Saudi Arabia for three years back in high school, but I’d never had a taste for beer back then, so couldn’t be bothered to miss it. Which isn’t to say others were the same. Just before Malaysia, we’d spent a few days with family friends from Saudi who, as my father tells it, were the first to greet us when we got there, with a packet of wine yeast and winemaking directions in hand. My parents don’t really enjoy alcohol all that much, but the gesture was nice. Plenty of that visit in Singapore was spent regaling us with stories of the disgusting homemade bathtub hooch that people turned out in Saudi. Basically just grape juice plus lots of sugar. Ugh.

So, Malaysia was a bit of bust beer-wise. There’s plenty of imports available, but whereas everything in Malaysia is about 1/3rd the price of Singapore, beer wise it’s not so great.

But, the upside of staying at a family hotel is that during the middle of the week we had the entire place to ourselves, and it was remarkably Malaysian. Which is to say, while there were the typical components of the continental breakfast, the bulk of the buffet consisted of things like fish or chicken in various curry based sauces, and the garnishes for the white porridge included tiny dried fishies and cilantro. Just, different. I loved it. (Although, it would truly suck to have a peanut allergy in Malaysia. Everything has peanuts, and is all the more delicious for it.)

There are a surprising number of greenish jelly desserts across East Asia. This was a delicious cake of some sort.

There are a surprising number of greenish jelly desserts across East Asia. This was a delicious cake of some sort.

Let’s end this with a song. To remind us that, “you never know what you have / ’til it’s gone away,” Comeback Kid’s “Always” from their stellar debut album, Turn it Around:

Let’s call this part one of a series on Southeast Asian beers.

Back in Bolivia, the concept of a sampler flight hasn’t quite caught on just yet. Then again, neither have brewery tours or the notion of breweries as destinations, or institutions that somehow contribute to or reflect the culture of the place they reside.

A week after leaving Bolivia, I was sitting down to my first sampler flight in the three and half years since I’d left the US, albeit this time in the strange, vaguely unsettling city-state that is Singapore. Brewerkz Restaurant and Microbrewery is one of numerous small-time outfits in the vibrant Singapore beer scene, operating a few other spots around the city.

To put this in a bit of context, we had arrived in Singapore almost directly from Bolivia (apart from a quick half-week visit in the US) and met up with my parents for a couple weeks of Southeast Asia travel before heading onward with them to China.

Two icons of architecture among many in Singapore.

Two icons of architecture among many.

As I said, Singapore is a very interesting beast in its own right, and couldn’t have felt much different from Bolivia. You’ll see minimal advertising in Singapore–no massive billboards, hardly anything posted on public transit, and even the storefront signs are dramatically pruned. The exception to this are the abundant PSAs featuring hokey slogans warning of the dangers of ID theft and “rioting,” which is vaguely defined and can include basically any non-pre-approved political gathering. Huh. On the other hand, protesting is practically a national pastime in Bolivia and advertising regulations seem to existent most prominently in La Paz, where the municipality plasters public fines onto signage that juts out above the street.

The vast majority of residential housing in Singapore is 20+ storey apartment buildings arranged very deliberately, grouped together in islands divided by vast tracts of open green space. It’s beautiful, a marvel of urban planning, and its cleanliness lives up to the legendary status Singapore has attained for its anal hygiene laws. Everything feels as though it has a assigned, planned and established place it belongs.

This pretty well sums up the overall sentiment.

But it also leaves you with a weird feeling that you’ve been dropped into a modern Downton Abbey set where there must be something pretty sad going on beneath the stairs. In other words, the wealth of nations is too often built on the backs of the poor, who in Singapore are pretty well invisible to the passing eye.

Don't riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

Don’t riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

If you look deeper, there are indeed some pretty upsetting things going on. This is especially true with imported labor, to the tune of New York and its nail salons. For example, maids–often Filipinas–are brought in under a special visa that prohibits them from having a significant other, getting pregnant, having family there, etc., and will get them deported if they lose their job. Likewise, imported laborers in the construction industries come from elsewhere in the region, such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc., and work under similar restrictions. I realize this is not a new story–I lived in Saudi Arabia as a child where it’s nearly a mirror image and probably worse when it comes to workers’ rights, but it doesn’t excuse turning a blind eye. Granted, we were only there for four days, so this was a fleeting glance at best–better to spare the holy judgment and try to see the positives.

Singapore is an incredibly easy city to be in, navigate and enjoy. Signs are in English, Tamil, and Malay. The island is deceptively large, and it can quite literally take hours to circumnavigate it on the MRT (again, because of size rather than efficiency).

And, of course, the beer is excellent.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

At Brewerkz we worked our way through the Pilsner (5.0%), Wheat (a hefeweizen at 5.0%), IPA (6.0%), Golden Ale (4.5%), XIPA (a 7.5% take on the IPA), Hopback Ale (cask conditioned bitter at 4.5%), and Mad Honey Bee Ale (brewed with Thai wildflower honey, 6.0%). Of those, really only the Pilsner and Hopback stood out, the former for its notable hoppiness overlaying the crisp malt and the latter for the welcome tartness that lit up the orange marmalade flavors and made it stand out against everything else. There’s a clear North American influence on Brewerkz’s offerings, and their website even acknowledges as much while describing the founders, “who initially modeled it after similar concepts in the USA and Canada.”

But pervading the entire time, sitting next to a canal on an island in Southeast Asia, a couple degrees north of the equator, drinking some very decent beers of styles I’ve not had access to for the past three years, it came with an unexpected sense of melancholy. Because here I was drinking a beer at its source and while being so far physically removed from North America, without the physical context to remind me where I was I’m not sure anyone could tell that these beers were anything but brewed in North America. Not only stylistically speaking, but ingredient-wise as well: the marketing boasts of malts and hops all imported from abroad.

Let’s be fair: Singapore basically imports absolutely everything. So it’s not like they can source locally for much more than the water (and even then the bulk of it comes from Malaysia). Likewise, Brewerkz is obviously an American-style brewpub catering to American tastes in a community that has a lot of Americans. So on the one hand, my attitude could be a great compliment, if the goal has always been to replicate the American beer experience as closely as possible.

However, my disappointment–fair or not–is the lack of anything distinctly Singaporean about the beer. It’s great beer; it just seems utterly disconnected from its geography. I think this reflects some of the observations lately regarding London from Boak and Bailey, where people are noting the explosion of breweries there that basically just replicate American styles and approaches to the point where you’d never actually know it’s from London.

Obviously, there’s a place for places like Brewerkz where tastes and demand exists for those styles of beer (I think of Brewcraft in Bolivia as addressing a similar market). Heck, if someone had been brewing even something so obviously other as a hefeweizen or IPA when I was back in Santa Cruz, I’d have undoubtedly been a faithful customer. But I do think that striving to connect beer to its place of production in more than just dumping in some token “local” ingredients for novelty’s sake is a worthwhile aspiration.

And that was the downer for me. Sure, I enjoyed Brewerkz’s beers. But it lacked that extra element of place and story to connect it to the physical experience of being in Singapore. It whisked my mouth away to San Diego, perhaps, but I was hoping it would somehow clarify or enhance a physical sense of being in a place so foreign to what I know. We can so easily travel from one place to another today, that it’s almost vulgar to consider it a journey. (I suspect this is why my mother dreams so frequently of taking a trip on a freighter–on a ship you cannot escape the sacrifice of time required to cross a long distance, and it would be a nice coda to echo the three weeks she spent as a young girl on a dramatic TransPacific crossing.)

So, in the midst of so many opportunities to see so much, I find myself looking for chances for embodiment in a place, and food and drink often can be those things. I didn’t find that corporeal moment in Singapore.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz's favorite place ever.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz’s favorite place ever.