by Rick Green
Beer and travel often go hand-in-hand. Perhaps that's what Frank Zappa had in mind when he said, "You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline." While I'm indifferent to flying on a national carrier if there is one, I am interested in sampling the local brew in the company of curious citizens or fellow travellers. It's a great way to chill after a day of active exploring, engaging in grassroots international relations or exchanging information.
Being a beer geek, a topic of discussion that always interests me is where to find good beer. However, cold beer is cold, cheap beer is cheap. When people say cold, cheap beer is "good", they usually don't mean the flavour. More often than not, it's because of the context – the walls are sweating and you can beat the heat over a few bottles without putting a big dent in your limited budget. Feeling refreshed is good. The price is good. So why isn't that good beer?
A Matter of Taste
In Asia (and most other parts of the world), cold, cheap beer is universal because it's the alcoholic beverage of the masses – straw-coloured, fizzy lager made from barley and rice, or genetically-modified corn, on an industrial scale. Imbibed from a chilled bottle or can, the taste is usually a complete afterthought for the drinker. Light on flavour to begin with, you'll taste even less because of the cold liquid numbing your taste buds and the narrow opening of the neck limiting your ability to smell the beer. So how can you say it's good if you can't properly taste the beer?
There are occasions where you probably don't want to taste your beer with that much contemplation, for example, if it comes in a clear or green bottle. That's because if the beer hasn't been kept completely out of the light, it could become light struck, turning your beer skunky. I found this to be a common problem in Southwest China where you would find ignorant shopkeepers proudly displaying stacks of beer wrapped in translucent plastic in full daylight at the front of their store. If you see that, don't buy their beer if you can help it, no matter how fresh it is. Find another place.
Even memorable beers are often not really that good. I'll never forget the end of my Mustang trek in Jomosom, Nepal. My friends, Erik and John, and I were able to finish the last segment of our route in less than half the time stated in Erik's trek guide. To celebrate this momentous occasion, the first thing we did was find the nearest guesthouse with a patio. Then, we kicked back in the sun, surrounded by a cathedral of majestic Himalayan peaks, to each enjoy a refreshing 650ml bottle of Everest Lager. It was right for the time, but I haven't been hankering for an Everest Lager since.
Then there was the time that Brian and I took a two-hour boat ride to Chong Khneas, a floating Khmer-Vietnamese village just outside Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap, known for its resident girls with pet pythons. We were visiting during the off season, so the typical daytime temperature was over 35°C with high humidity for some added texture. In anticipation of the need for refreshment, we picked up some chilled cans of Angkor Lager at a supermarket, which our guide, Onn, kindly added to his cooler. Then, when we found ourselves in the midst of the Great Lake's expanse with our pores collectively weeping, quaffing the Angkor spared us from sure madness.
The Blessed Barley
To me, good beer is craft beer. It's not brewed to maximize shareholder profits. It is made by someone with a passion for their craft. Their soul is put into their beer, and it comes out in the full experience of properly appreciating it. That means, at its most basic, drinking a craft brew from a suitable glass at the proper serving temperature.
Most craft beer available in Asia is imported from either Europe or North America. I usually bring some British Columbia brews with me on my Asia travels to share with locals. However, the brewing renaissance that has taken North America by storm is radiating out to the rest of the world. It has begun lapping up against the distant shores of Asia in the form of expat brewers, foreign owners/investors, brewpub franchises, and foreign-trained locals. Here is a selection of Asian craft beer to look out for if you want something more satisfying than cold and cheap:
Great Leap Brewing
Units 407-9, Oceanic Industrial Centre
2 Lee Lok Street
Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong
Red Dot Brewhouse
More Recommended Resources
According to the US Brewers Association, there are more than 140 different beer styles. And with all the experimenting going on today, even more styles are being created, like Cascadia Dark Ale. If you haven't explored much beyond mass-market lager, chances are you haven't even tried 10% of what is considered beer. Here are some resources to set you off on an adventure of the palate: