I hope you’re drinking something dark and delicious today. Stout is what made Ireland into a famous beer country in the first place, but over time Ireland has slipped into also-ran status in terms of beer. The national brewing scene has become dominated by a small handful of multinationals and as a result the beer scene lacks the vibrancy of most other traditional beer nations. Cask ales are hard to come by – relegated mostly to serious beer bars only.
There are, however, signs of life in Ireland. Beershine and I just completed a month-long tour of the Emerald Isle, and we investigated a lot of breweries along the way. Microbrewing in Ireland has been relatively slow to develop, but there are reasons to be excited. In the past couple of years brewers like Dungarvan, Clanconnel and West Kerry have emerged to liven the scene up a bit. There’s a brand new brewery called Inishmacsaint in Co. Fermanagh whose distribution is so limited we never saw their beers. Another new venture is underway in Clifden on the Connemara Peninsula, Metalman Brewing is under construction in Waterford and there are rumours about people wanting a startup in Dingle, a town where hardware stores double as pubs.
Ireland is one of those places where the microbreweries all trend towards a standard range. This range usually includes an Irish Ale – the existence of which both I and the Irish themselves debate. And it usually involves something dark. Testing the beers of Ireland’s micros, one thing stands as certain. Whatever else they do, they are passionate about their stout. It shows in the character of the beers, which almost invariably exceed the character of the macrobrewed stouts. Speakings of the macrobreweries, I should point out for the benefit of those who don’t yet know what’s going on with Beamish that the brand is now almost exclusively sold in Ireland and has been positioned as a budget brand. In terms of character, these days Beamish is a clear step below both Guinness and Murphy’s (and we can put an asterisk on the Murphy’s, since the locals in Cork insist it is still made there). This I feel is a bit of a shame, because I think for most of us the three big Irish stouts stand together with a special place in our beer appreciation. To see one of them devalued and degraded just doesn’t make any sense.
But then again, none of those beers really stands up. If I lived in Dublin or Cork or Galway I would stick to the craft brewed stuff because, well, it’s just better. I think the best stout in Ireland is Belfast Black from Whitewater. Beershine votes for Celebration Stout from Porterhouse. Ratebeer also says Celebration Stout. Of course, that’s a light impy, which just goes to prove my point about impys being able to withstand averaging over many raters. The best all round stouts, judged by the site and the two us are clear, however:
Whitewater Belfast Black
Porterhouse Wrassler’s Stout
Porterhouse Celebration Stout
Strong showings also come from Porterhouse Oyster Stout and Dungarvan Black Rock Stout.
If you’re not into stout on St. Patrick’s Day, what would you drink? Well, we recommend Clotworthy Dobbin, a brown ale from Whitewater in particular. Dungarvan has the most interesting red ale and blonde ale. And for lagers the Jul-öl from Messrs Maguire was the standout for both of us, although that is a seasonal.
And what does one have if not beer? Well, if you can get hold of Double L Cider, I recommend that. But you’re probably thinking about whiskey. If so, then the answer is Midleton. This one really isn’t close.]]>
But if I went into any more detail about that, you’d all be tuning out. So let’s get to the point. Guinness isn’t really any better in Ireland than anywhere else. It’s pasteurized, first of all, so there isn’t much variability in the liquid itself. There are, however, establishments that have Guinness that is generally better than other establishments. We spent a month in Ireland, and while there are some wonderful microbrews there, distribution of microbrews is a bit lacking so we drank a lot of Guinness. What we found was this – Guinness doesn’t change much. There are stacks of pubs in Dublin, and everybody has an opinion as to which of these serves the best. None of them were any different than any other.
We did find, however, three pubs with superior Guinness last year. I mean noticeably superior, enough that a veteran beer geek who’d been drinking multiple Guinnesses a day for a period of around a month would notice the difference. The first was at Dowling’s Bar in Cashel. I don’t even remember the name, but it was pretty special. The other was in Tom King’s in Clifden, at the end of the gorgeous Connemara Peninsula.
When discussing this pub later on that night, the locals admitted that it was known as a “Guinness pub”. That is to say, the people there drink Guinness above all other beers and the landlord keeps Guinness better. Now here’s the thing. Guinness has been sold internationally for centuries. For most of that time, the beer came in barrels. It was alive. There was undoubtedly a difference between Guinness in Dublin and Guinness elsewhere. Bottled Guinness was bottle-conditioned as late as the mid-90s in Ireland, much later than anywhere else. But today, there’s only so much a place can do to make Guinness better or worse.
Most of it comes to handling. The Guinness is fresh, of course, in Ireland. They sell a lot of it. It does turn over quickly. But that’s the case for almost all the pubs we went to. Why were these two better? Were they cooler? Goodness no. The pub in Dingle that doubled as a hardware shop was the cooler. And we spent New Year’s Eve in Dublin. And we went to St. James’ Gate. So no, atmosphere wise, neither of these pubs was anything special. The beer was just better. What could do it?
It’s not turnover – everyone turns it over quickly in Ireland. It could be the draught lines. That always makes a difference. How about temperature? The beer would be more expressive. Could be – but I’ve never known Guinness to benefit from being warm. A confluence of factors might explain it, but at least the pub in Clifden had a reputation among the locals as being something special with the Guinness. For what that’s worth. And it is a fact that Guinness has an army of sales/QC people in Ireland to ensure the product is stored and poured according to spec – something that is unlikely to be the case elsewhere.
But as far as I can tell from extensive tasting, the Guinness in Ireland wasn’t any better than it is anywhere else (at least among pubs that actually move the stuff). It wasn’t any better at the brewery, and we had it at four different pubs there – we don’t joke around with this stuff. In our experience, the entire thing is a myth. There are a lot of myths in the world of beer. Many of them were rooted in the truth once, too, as this one most assuredly was. But today, it’s just not so. Guinness is brutally consistent, unless it has been mishandled. But that’s nothing to do with the beer – it’s like saying X food is better at Y location because the food handling standards of that country are higher.
Incidentally, the pub with the best Guinness last year? Not in Ireland. Try the noted Guinness hotbed of Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, at the sexy freewayside pub of the Guinness Anchor Berhad Brewery. They don’t have high turnover there because the pub isn’t really open to the public. And the atmosphere – dude I was bitter when I was there. But yeah, whatever mojo it takes to pour a superior Guinness, some guys in Malaysia beat all of Ireland, at least on that day.]]>
When small brewers get into legal battles with one another, beer geeks shudder. Really, we hate to see it. Then, they start to take sides. Usually this means supporting either the local brewery or the brewer that the geek likes the most. At this point, the prospect of reasonable, civilized debate seems to go out the window. Otherwise intelligent people let their biases cloud some basic truths.
The most important basic truth is that craft brewing is not some great hippie fraternity where all participants are expected to love one another. The fraternity we see in craft brewing is actually exceptional in the world of business. But we can hold hands and sing hymns while drinking endless bottles of Collaboration Not Litigation but it doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, people are putting their hard-earned money on the line. It’s not that beer geeks don’t understand this – they do. They bristle when brewers cry foul over their beer ratings. After all, a consumer who pays money for a product has the right to not only have an opinion about the product (they all do) but also to express that opinion (as happens in every other product category with passionate fans).
The same laws apply to brewers, who arguably have a lot more money in the game than consumers do. Brewers earn returns on investment and those returns do everything from help cover ingredient costs to putting brewers’ children through college to sending brewery shareholders on nice tropical vacations. That is one of the main points of starting a business. Indeed, making cool beer without that is what homebrewers do, so anybody taking the leap into commercial brewing is doing so specifically with making money in mind. How much is irrelevant, as long as one goes about it ethically.
Ethics, of course, are a tricky issue. There’s a reason why many of the greatest philosophical minds (and countless thousands of dullards) like to ponder ethics. There’s a reason why religious leaders and politicians seek to create and enforce ethical standards in societies. Ethics are big. Somewhere along the way, people in the craft beer community have, by and large, rejected the idea that “corporate” ethics have any place in the beer business. Anything that smacks of lawyers, shareholders, profit above that needed to put food on the table…all of these things are anathema. Hence, suing other brewers is also anathema.
This view hasn’t been helped by certain industry bullies who have used their financial muscle to force small brewers into submission on issues that would not have ultimately withstood a legal challenge. When Anchor, or Moosehead, or some other big company gets their lawyers to sue mom-and-pop micros specifically because they know the smaller company cannot afford to mount a defense, that is ethically questionable because it leaves the rule of law out of the issue. When the players are of the same size, the issue can reasonably be settled in the legal system. Neither player is at a particular disadvantage or advantage on account of their ability to pay.
The ethics of the lawsuit are, of course, only one half of the story. The ethics of the – in this case – alleged infringement are the other side of the story. Something like a Celtic cross is a fairly common icon for craft brewers, be they attempting to convey a brand (the old Grant’s Celtic Ale), a statement of origin (I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Brendan Moylan is Irish), or a even just a vague statement of brewing history itself. Whatever the reason, there’s lot of people using this symbol, so the argument isn’t about a Celtic cross, but a specific rendering. That’s where the business aspect of the brewing business comes back into this.
Craft beer has grown rapidly over the past several years. As a seasoned old fart beer geek, I have noticed a few peaks and valleys in craft beer, and this latest peak is something special. Now – as Stephen Beaumont pointed out in the late 1990s – today’s young drinkers grew up with craft beer as a staple of their existence. It’s normal. Choice, flavours, whacky-sounding brands – all of that is normal. This, combined with the fact that these new drinkers are part of a massive age cohort (the baby boom echo) means that craft beer is riding a pretty huge wave of support right now. The upside of this is we get an amazing amount of beer available to us, and brewers have an easier time establishing brands and distribution channels.
The downside is that as the business becomes mainstream, craft beer drinkers as a group also become more mainstream. One of the criteria by which such infringement suits as Lost Abbey v. Moylans are judged is “the degree of care likely to be exercised by purchasers in selecting goods.” Us beer geeks take the time to study tap lists and tap handles. We read the labels on the bottles before we buy. We know who Moylan’s is and we know who Lost Abbey is. But the more craft beer becomes mainstream, the more we become the minority within the greater community of craft beer drinkers. Normal, everyday beer drinkers still gloss over many of the details we take great care to study. That’s why basic icons become critical to brand development. Anything with a gargoyle on it is Stone, for example. Yes, a beer geek cares which Stone beer it is. But the rest of craft beer drinkers – an increasingly large group – might not care nearly as much. People who do branding for a living understand this. That’s why they fight for the integrity of the brand associations they have worked hard to create – those associations are critical to the business. If you don’t think they mean anything, start Gargoyle Brewing Company. Your sales will be better than you expected (at least until the cease & desist lands in your mailbox).
So yes, there is a reason for this lawsuit. Whether it has any merit whatsoever is a matter for the courts. That is, just for the record, what the courts are for. If the two parties can’t come to an agreement, they have a judge look at the issue. That’s how it works; how it has always been intended to work. Beer is still a business, governed by the same laws that govern every other business. It’s not always going to be warm and fuzzy. If we as beer geeks cannot figure out what to call a dark, hoppy beer between 6.5-8% alcohol with the discussion degenerating into name-calling and stupidity, then perhaps we shouldn’t expect brewers to behave nicely to another all the time either. If anything, beer geeks need to get used to it. The truth is, if and when craft beer stops growing, these types of disputes between craft brewers will become a lot more common.]]>
Once upon a time, the beer lover visiting London was told that all London pubs were shite, but that Michael Jackson had recommended the White Horse on Parson’s Green as a good one to visit. Well, last time out I tapped that White Horse of all its new beers, which is not a good sign for a serious beer bar in a country in which I do not live. But this time, there was no risk of that at the Rake, a much better situated pub. I had expected the usual American and Belgian suspects – nothing exciting for me in other words – but was wrong about that. The selection was very good, with a lot of beers I hadn’t seen before. Especially heartening was the presence of some interesting beers from England. I don’t normally get so excited about barrel-aged imperial stout, but for the English to make – for the domestic market – was pretty exciting to see.
In between the Rake and the now-legendary Market Porter lies Brew Wharf, a new brewpub. I’d already had beers from the new Sambrook micro and the next day I was able to hit up some bottles from the Kernel, another new micro. London – which once was home only to Fuller’s, Young’s and a handful of crappy brewpubs – is starting to put together a bit of a brewing scene for itself.
After London, our trip into England takes us to the Southwest, where we based ourselves in Bath. The town is beautiful and historic, dating to Roman times, and has a lot to offer the visitor even for a two week stay. The city is blessed with seemingly no end of quality pubs. It is rare, indeed, to find a pub in Bath that actually sucks. There are small characterful pubs like the Coeur de Lion, the Old Green Tree and the Volunteer Rifleman’s Arms. There are more modern, open pubs with racks of casks like the Royal Oak, the Raven and the Bell. You can get Bass served from the gravity barrel (“from the jug”, they call it here, in reference to the pitcher that the use to transfer the beer from the barrel to the glass) at the Star Inn, another great historic pub.
The local Abbey Ales can be sampled at the Farmhouse Inn, which adjoins the brewery. Another budding pub crawl is emerging in the Bathwick district with the Pulteney Arms – a rugby pub, the Barley and whatever that loud pub across the street is called. You can try Hobgoblin on cask at the eponymous rocker pub and see just how different that beer is when sampled in its proper, live format (the same can be said for the aforementioned Bass at the Star Inn, too).
Add to this some impressive pubs in the outlying towns, villages and rural areas. The Cross Guns in Avoncliff is stellar, as is the George Inn in Croscombe, the City Arms in Wells and there a couple others we haven’t been able to check out yet that would almost certainly make the list of great pubs in the area.
It’s easy to track down good pubs, of course, as the English take this stuff seriously. In addition to CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, there is also the Real Ale Pub Guide, and any pub that carries a Cask Marque sticker is also a fairly safe bet for a decent pint. Around the Southwest, it appears, there is no shortage of great pubs and small breweries to serve them.
And then there’s the bottled beers. Many small towns have well-stocked beer stores, although curiously Bath seems to lack a killer beer store. When you visit such stores in other towns, however, you can find not only some interesting beers (Moor Fusion, Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout) but also barrels of cider sold bulk and on the cheap. Did I mention the cider here? Crazy good. Except in Bath – it seems to be a country thing. Which is too bad, because some of the stuff we’ve come across has been exceptional.
All in all, I see many new breweries opening up in England, hopefully enough to replace ones closing down. I also see a lot of good pubs (yes, I’m sure there’s a lot of crap out there still) but my impression as someone who doesn’t spend much time here is that the scene is improving. As Britons take a greater interest in local food, they seem to also be taking an interest in local beer and cider as well.
Incidentally, Ratebeer has an excellent discussion ongoing about the English beer scene, with input from people who know it quite a bit better than myself – actual English (and Scottish) people!]]>
India might be one of the most disappointing stories in craft beer. India’s mainstream beer scene is notoriously weak. A handful of lousy pale lagers compete with a near limitless supply of horrible malt liquors. The land of IPA this is not. Still, with an improving economy and a large number of drinkers one would expect that India would follow its East Asian bretheren into craft brewing. Only in the past couple of years has there been any attempt to brew good beer in India. As of now, there is evidence of craft brewing (or contract craft brewing) in New Delhi, Pune and Bangalore. Hopefully, the Indians get it together with respect to craft beer and leave the legacy of malt liquor alcoholism behind them.
A Swiss (I think) expat has a brewery in Bhutan, one of the most unlikely locations for anything approaching craft beer. In Nepal, chang is a traditional beer that may be found by the intrepid beer hunter.
Central Asia fares a little bit better, thanks to the Russian tradition. Russian craft brewing is something unique, and for the most part remains well off the radar of North American and European beer geeks. But most cities in Russia have craft brewers (several in the case of Moscow). Even the Muslim former colonies, breweries remain to serve local and Russian populations, often using Russian brewing talent. Few beer lovers travel in the region, so my visit in 2004 remains one of the only sources of English-language information, meaning that there is no guarantee of accuracy. In particular, the breweries in the violence-prone south of Kyrgyzstan (in Osh and Jalal-Abad) may not exist. Still, brewpubs have been recorded in Bishkek, Tashkent and Ashgabat. I would not be at all surprised if there was a brewpub or two in Almaty (the region’s wealthiest city) or the Kazakh capital of Astana. Don’t expect much out of Tajikistan.
Finding beers in Pakistan or Bangladesh can be done, but it isn’t easy. Iran has a number of non-alcoholic beers; of which the beers from Delster appear to be the best.
Craft brewing anywhere in Asia is a relatively new concept. Many Asian countries have specific associations that must be overcome. For example, there is the idea that only German beer is worth drinking, which locals sometimes take to mean that mediocre kit beer made on German equipment is better than authentic beer from any other nation. There are a number of legal issues throughout the region. Really, sharia is the least of concerns for beer in Asia because it is usually only enforced in Muslim areas and often then only on Muslim people. Cultures of corruption that make small breweries difficult to set up (Malaysia) or narrow-minded views about what small breweries can sell (Vietnam) often do more damage to the growth of craft brewing than anything else.
But good beer can be found. Ratebeer has the best pan-Asian coverage anywhere by far, so is a natural starting point for research. However, it is worth checking local blogs and doing extensive Google searches, since many parts of Asia remain poorly documented.
Here’s some (non-Japan) Asian beer awards (personal opinion only):
Best macro (pale lager): Beer Lao (Laos)
Best macro (stout): Lion Stout (Sri Lanka)
Best brewpub to visit: Louisiane Brewhouse (Nha Trang, Vietnam)
Best brewpub for beer: Boxing Cat (Shanghai)
Best beer bar: Café Brussels (Wuhan, China)
Best city for beer culture: Singapore
The best place to start is Popeye. Another top beer geek spot is Ushi-Tora.
Japanese brewers range in quality, so finding a place where a wide range can be sampled and where the staff and customers know the scene is essential for the beginner. I have never been to Japan, so cannot offer personal insights beyond the handful of microbrews I’ve been lucky enough to sample, but I would recommend that the English-language blogosphere be searched out. Bento.com has a regular column on Japanese beer. Other resources include http://beerinjapan.com/bij/; Good Beer and Country Boys (a blog that used to be based in Japan – search the archives); and Boozelist, with tap listings from Tokyo-area brewpubs.
While we have at Ratebeer people on the ground in Japan, allowing us to cover the country to our usual world-beating standards, we aren’t so lucky in South Korea. At the 2008 World Beer Cup, Sunshine and I met a couple of brewers from South Korea – one expat European and the other a native Korean – and they indicated that there were around 100 microbrewers in South Korea. There is, however, little information in English. The man who had described himself as Korea’s beer ambassador, American Phillip Kelm, appears to be brewing in Palau now, with no apparent replacement for bridging the large linguistic and cultural gulf. It is hoped that over time, somebody can help us out and more information about South Korean microbrews can be revealed.
We might actually know more about North Korean microbrewing than we do about South Korean. There are a few brewpubs in North Korea, in Pyongyang and in Sinuiju. The major macrobrewer there, Taedonggang, makes beer in the older Usher’s brewery and apparently to a pretty high standard.
Even Mongolia has a small craft beer scene. The hordes in Ulanbaator flock to the Chinggis Club, which brews a range of German-style beers. Khan Bräu is another relatively new brewery, albeit with a more macro orientation.
Not far from the North Korean and Chinese borders, Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok is home to a couple of brewpubs – Republic and Munich. Although there are no other reports I could find of brewpubs in other cities of Russia’s Far East, Siberian cities such as Krasnoyarsk also have brewpubs and there are likely many that the English-language world does not know about.
Next week – South Asia, Central Asia and some personal picks.]]>
Thailand gets the most visitors to the region and consequently has the highest number of breweries. Some cater to Western audiences, such as the Londoner Brewpub in central Bangkok, while other establishments are geared mainly to Thai drinkers. The country has brewpubs scattered around the country, including good brewpubs in Chiang Mai and in Pattaya. However, good beer faces an uphill battle in Thailand.
Next door, Cambodia has the best selection of stouts in the region, which serves the visitors to Siem Reap and Angkor well. The capital city of Phnom Penh has a couple of brewpubs. Man Han Lou is a Chinese place, serving four varieties of decently-made kit beer. The highlight is the spirulina beer, one of three known examples in the world. The Munich Beer Restaurant is less interesting. Cambodia’s lack of tight controls on the beer industry is relatively unique in the region, and the result has been new macrobrewery startups. A Singapore-based beer bar has also set up shop in Phnom Penh, making it one of the better cities in which to drink in SE Asia.
When I visited Laos in 2004, a microbrewery existed in the southern province of Champassak. Whether this beer still exists today is unknown, but its beers are worth looking for. They are made with local palm sap as an adjunct in cooperation with some sort of French aid project. The beers tasted French, too, with lots of yeast and that characteristic unrefined rusticity of French microbrews.
Malaysia is a tightly-controlled duopoly between Guinness and Carlsberg. InBev products have decent distribution and there are a number of German and Belgian theme bars as a result. Taxes are ridiculous, making drinking out in Malaysia around the same price as drinking out in Norway, except at tax haven islands like Langkawi and Labuan. The country has a small third brewery that produces the decent macrobrew Jaz Beer and the green-tasting Starker Fresh Beer, which is marketed as a premium product in wooden barrels at a handful of KL bars. There are rumours of a brewpub coming to Malaysia in the city of Kuching in Sarawak province on the island of Borneo. Sarawak has a degree of autonomy and Kuching has a large Chinese population. The Malaysian owner of the 1308 Drei Kronen brewpub in Beijing is reportedly mulling a large-scale expansion across the region with Kuching as a major target city. Malaysia is famous for its wealth of food blogs and the best source of information about beer in the country comes from a blog as well: Beerbeer.org.
Despite being the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia is actually a mash-up of different religions and cultures. The result is that it now supports three small breweries in addition to a pair of larger industrial brewers. The most well-known craft brewer is Storm Brewing, run by expats on Bali. This micro makes a range of familiar beer types including Pale Ale and Stout. They are generally fresh-tasting, high quality brews but can be difficult to find outside of Bali. Another brewpub run by foreigners is Length Dragon, which is situated on the island of Batam. Batam is across from Singapore and its economy is based on trade with its richer neighbour. Length Dragon has a spirulina beer. The final small brewer in Indonesia is the newly-opened Paulaner Brauhaus, which is in the Kempinski Hotel in Jakarta.
Manila has a couple of brewpubs, one called Pivo Prada in the back of Grappa’s Restaurant and the other run by San Miguel in the Dusit Hotel called Fiesta San Miguel. There is a healthy selection of imported beers in Manila as well, by the sounds of it better than just about anywhere else in the region except Singapore. Otherwise, the Philippines is all San Miguel all the time.
Of the remaining countries, Myanmar has some industrial brewing but no craft brewing. Brunei and East Timor do not have breweries at all. East Timor may one day acquire one, but Brunei will not, even to serve the country’s Chinese and ex-pat populations, who must currently import their alcohol from neighbouring towns in Malaysia.
Next week: Japan and Korea]]>
The East End Brewery is the old-established of Hong Kong’s two craft brewers. They make a small range of beers, the most interesting of which is probably their Aldrich Bay Pale Ale. Ratebeer lists a few more promising brands but a visit over the Christmas holiday yielded none of these – and it’s the only reasonable time of year for a Hong Kong brewery to produce a porter, much less a Winter Brew. Ah well. Their beers can mainly be found at a trio of bars on Hong Kong Island, mostly in expatty areas, and these bars also feature a healthy range of second-tier Belgian ales as well.
A recent arrival to the Hong Kong scene is the tiny Typhoon microbrewery. This venture, operated part-time by an airline pilot, is situated on Lantau Island, where there is perhaps more room to spread out (I’ve actually seen houses on Lantau, something you seldom see anywhere in the SAR). Typhoon’s flagship is T8, an English bitter that is cask-conditioned. Despite being a British colony until 1997, Hong Kong knows little of cask ale, and the only bar to consistently find Typhoon beer is the Globe in Central. That also happens to be one of the best bars in town for beer lovers.
There are a number of imports available in Hong Kong. Fresh Mill Street Tankhouse from Toronto can be found at Canadian bars in Lan Kwai Fong; a wide range of Belgian and Japanese micros are at City Super grocery stores; and American micros including Mendocino White Hawk IPA can be found at shops in Mid-Levels and other ex-pat friendly areas. So despite a shortage of great local microbrew, you can drink reasonably well.
Across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong lies Macau, the other SAR. The former Portuguese colony is perhaps better known for casinos, pork chop sandwiches and egg tarts but it also has its own brewery. Under other circumstances, a national brewery would be considered a macrobrewer, but Cervejeria Macau is too small for that designation. And besides, their beer is too good. They make only one now, a Blonde Ale, and it is one of the hoppiest “national” beers in the world and one of the most flavoursome mainstream beers in Asia. It’s hard to find outside Macau, too, which adds to its allure.
Taiwan is the island to which the Kuomintang fled at the end of the Chinese civil war, and has never been part of the People’s Republic. So it was able to develop its own culture and economy, including its own beer traditions. Sadly, this has not amounted to much (beer wise!). There are, however, several fledgling microbreweries that the intrepid beer hunter can track down. What looks like 2-3 brewpubs in Taipei mainly produce Germanic beers, something typical of Asian brewpubs. Taipei has a familiar face in Gordon Biersch, which has a production brewery and also a restaurant.
Perhaps the most interesting venture is the North Taiwan Brewery, which brews a pair of abbey ales, a witbier and some sticky sweet fruit beers. The Abbey 6 is at least a somewhat faithful rendition of the style and the White is a perfectly reasonable example. Neither is spectacular, but I love seeing attempts like this made in Asia because so many of the region’s breweries lean on German or Czech kit beer, which gets monotonous after a while. So – there is room for optimism in Greater China after all.
Next week – Southeast Asia]]>
Beijing is home to one of the largest collections of brewpubs in Asia, ranging from a branch of Paulaner to the Tsingtao Beer Palace. Many of the brewpubs are concentrated in the upmarket Chaoyang District, home to embassies and branches of literally hundreds of foreign firms. This brings in a large ex-pat population and the more well-heeled locals as well. PolyPoly has a good reputation among Beijing brewpubs but many score moderately well. Selection can be limited, however, to just pale and dark lagers, as is typical all over Asia.
Shanghai has several brewpubs as well. The best of these might be China’s best brewer period. Boxing Cat is a relatively new entrant, with Texan brewer Gary Heyne running the brewhouse. Heyne came to Shanghai with Henry’s Brewery, but when that venture went under he decided to stay in town to soak up the excitement of China’s great leap towards global supremacy. There is something of a crackle of electricity about Shanghai. Boxing Cat, like most of the other brewpubs in Shanghai, is situated in the ex-pat friendly French Concession, which also contains several high-end shopping districts and most of the other good drinking spots in town. Boxing Cat is a strictly American experience, from the vibe to the menu to the beer and for China that is a great thing. Their Pilsner and IPA are the hoppiest beers I’ve had in Asia, and that’s just the starting point. Shanghai also has a Paulaner, along with other brewpubs serving German styles brewed to varying degrees of quality. I have heard through sources that a Korean district in town has “Korean-style” brewpubs catering to that community, which have apparently slipped entirely under the radar of the English-language media.
Beyond the two largest cities, there are only a few successful craft breweries in China. The Kawei Beer House is a Wuhan-based chain that has spread to several other cities. They make decent German styles. The best place by far to sample their work is at Café Brussels on the Hankou side of the city. This gorgeous heritage building houses a small brewery making Kaiwei’s standards and it also sells a large range of Belgian ales in impeccable condition. Belgian beer is becoming available in China, with a focus on the Trappists and other high-end brands. The ones available at Café Brussels are imported by Morels in Beijing. In Shanghai, Kaiba is the place to get your Belgian fix.
Wuhan also hosts China’s national brewing academy, the Wuhan Brautechnische Akademie. This Sino-German venture teaches young Chinese about the art of brewing; sadly most of the students go on to make watery Chinese macrobrew. Still, if you visit the Akademie they can sell you some of their own Zentrumsbier Weizen, which when fresh is one of the best hefeweizens I’ve had, and by far the best one in Asia.
When economic reform began in the late 1970s, Shenzhen was a fishing village near the border with Hong Kong. Today, its population is exploding so quickly that it is difficult to know just exactly how many people live there, with estimates ranging between 10-15 million. Shenzhen is hardly a beer mecca but does have three brewpubs – Löwenburg, Galleon and a Kaiwei. Lowenburg is situated on a cruise ship that has been parked permanently in the ex-pat oriented Shekou district, which is best accessed by ferry from Hong Kong. The Galleon is in the Intercontinental and its beers are reported to be better than those of Lowenburg.
There are a handful of other brewpubs scattered throughout the country. A long-running brewpub is Le Vôtre, run by a Frenchman with a Chinese brewer amid the jaw-dropping scenery of Yangshuo, near Guilin in southern Guangxi Province. Brewpubs appear from time to time in other cities, but China’s brewpub industry seems fairly unstable and many operations close quickly.
There is little to talk about with respect to Chinese macrobrews. Once in a while you find a dark lager, but of those only Tsingtao Dark is truly worthy of mention. China grows a lot of hops, mostly in the Xinjiang region. You’d be hard pressed to actually taste a distinctive hop note in any of the beers, however.
There are a lot of ethnic minorities in China, some of which have grain-based session drinks. Lijiang Yinjiu is a wine-strength drink fermented from three types of grain by the Naxi people and sulima is a lighter grain-based drink from the Mosuo people, both in Yunnan Province. The prospect of finding such drinks makes serious beer exploration in China fun, even if the country as a whole is awash in 3.3% alcohol pale lagers.
The one thing I should also mention is that it is believed most halfway wealthy Chinese cities have a brewpub or two. There is often little information in English, as most of these establishments will be for local clientele. They will serve pale and dark lager and probably nothing else. However, it is worth a search of English-language resources for anybody visiting any of China’s other major cities because English-language documentation is fairly poor. Not all cities have good beer, though. Hangzhou surprisingly has nothing, so a visitor to China should definitely be prepared to suck back nothing but swill.
Next in the Beer in Asia series – Greater China, Mongolia and Korea]]>
Most brewpubs in Vietnam have been set up with the assistance of the Czech government or with German technology and equipment. The result is that Vietnam’s large number of breweries belies the actual selection of beer available. These brewpubs typically offer just a pale (vang) and a dark (den) lager. The quality also is quite variable. The best ones, such as the Hoa Vien chain or Windmill in Hanoi, are wonderful breweries (and the Hanoi Hoa Vien and Windmill are both architectural treats as well). Some other ones make one good beer, maybe both are ok. But in general, touring the brewpubs of Hanoi (or Saigon) everything becomes very samey. That said, the good stuff is genuinely good and there are other reasons for optimism about the Vietnamese beer scene as well.
The first other reason is the craft beer that bears other influences besides Czech. Smack right on the beach in the resort town of Nha Trang is the Louisiane Brewhouse, where you can rent a beach lounger and have craft beer brought to your umbrella all day long. There are very few brewpubs actually on the beach with sand up to the door so this place is special right away. The brewmaster is Australian and the beers bear that same character as well, which makes Louisiane unique among Vietnamese brewpubs. Australia’s take on craft beer is fairly mellow and balanced, maybe not so interesting if you’re from there but for those of us who’ve never been it is a nice break in Vietnam. In addition to its own private beach (complete with security to keep the hawkers away) Louisiane also has a pool, pool table and other delights. If it had rooms, you’d need nowhere else in Nha Trang.
The other non-Czech micro is located in Saigon. The Fifth Ocean brewery originally hails from Moscow (where it is rightfully known as Pyatiy Okean) but the communist Vietnamese still have strong ties with Russia. So, in light of those ties and in light of the large amount of Russian tourists in both Saigon and the southern beach resorts (like Mui Ne), Fifth Ocean has set up shop in southern Vietnam to provide “live beer” to Russian vacationers and other beer fans in the area. The beer is the same as the Svetloe (“pale”) from Moscow and makes a welcome addition to the Vietnamese beer scene.
Lastly, Vietnam has a tradition of “people’s beer” called bia hoi. This is dirt cheap beer served from barrels in shops on the street corner. It’s not very good, but it is an interesting tradition that adds to the pleasure of beer drinking in Vietnam. Bia hoi is widely available in Hanoi, but it harder to come by elsewhere. San Miguel makes a good bia hoi in Nha Trang; bia hoi from an unknown brewer in Da Nang in the central part of the country can be found there an in the nearby UNESCO town of Hoi An; and bia hoi from Sabeco can be tracked down in Saigon, although it is thin on the ground in the city center.
The nation has a number of macrobrewers as well, roughly one in each major city. Their names are uniquely communistic. In Hanoi they have Habeco (Hanoi Beverage Company) and in Saigon they have Sabeco (Saigon Beverage Company). In Hue they have the Hue Brewery, with three beers (plus a malt liquor for export) and one macrobrewer even makes a dark beer. Most importantly for the beer lover, SAB Miller sends some Castle Milk Stout which can be found in the bigger supermarkets and in ex-pat stores in places like Nha Trang. Hanoi has some beer bars in the My Way chain and Saigon has some Belgian and English stuff available in high end shops, so it’s not that hard to find good beer in the cities, even if the countryside is dominated by swill.
Next up: Beer in Asia, part Four: The People’s Republic of China]]>