The tagline on the blog is Raw Travel, Mischief, Street Food and Beer. With that in mind I figured it was time to do a beer post. So here we go….Everything you ever wanted to know about beer in South East Asia but were too drunk to ask! Everything? Nah not really, just a few facts, maybe a bit of fiction and your humble bloggers opinion. Yes, I will admit that I have overindulged once or twice on the various beer offerings within South East Asia, but this was merely the result of thorough and exhaustive investigative research on the authors part!
It’s safe to assume that geopolitics, i.e. colonialism, created the beer industry within SEA, as much of what is on offer consists of lagers and pilsners. However, most people would be surprised that on a continent basis, Asia now drinks more beer than Europe or the Americas. SEA’s citizens are pounding down more beer due to economic growth and increasing numbers of younger people with higher disposable incomes. Obviously, there is a clear correlation between the consumption of beer, economic dynamics and western influence. Western influence should not be under estimated. The traveler’s circuit within SEA is brimming with watering holes serving up beer at bargain basement prices. Drinking ages vary a bit but enforcement is virtually non-existent when a white face with money walks in. The younger European travelers hit it hard but in my experience, the Brits always come out on top of the over-indulgence contest. Who would blame them when their governments have taxed alcohol into the stratosphere and a pint of local piss is 25% of what they were paying at home.
The beauty of drinking in Asia is that the controls and over regulation implemented by the Nanny State mentality of the West are virtually non-existent. Want a beer to go? Fancy a walkabout with your beverage? No problem. Partial to a smoke with your drink? Fine, go ahead and fire up. If there are smoking regulations they are rarely enforced. Thailand bans smoking in bars but almost all the bars have ashtrays on the table. Industrious folk’s setup bars on the corners and establishments have tables on the sidewalk. In Bangkok pop up bars open on the sidewalk when the regular establishments close and serve alcohol until the sun comes up. Plop yourself down on a plastic stool or a chair designed for an 8-year-old and have a drink. No roped off areas, no dick standing guard waiting for you to cross some imaginary line with your drink. National holiday or restricted hours for alcohol sales, easily defeated by finding a local mom and pop store who are more interested in revenue than bureaucratic bullshit.
I tend to frequent the places where I can grab a stool and maybe a table on the sidewalk or street corner and enjoy my drink and entertain myself with the street scene while satisfying my inner cheap bastard. Why pay more? Sometimes you just happen to be in the quantity over quality mode! Beer tends to be a bit cheaper in these places vs a bar and the prices listed below will be on the low side of average. Last but not least, Asia loves beer in 640ML bottles which improves your drinking efficiency, enhances the drinking experience while not having to screw around with 330ML servings and the associated downtime waiting for replenishment.
Most beer in Asia is perfectly suited for the hot and humid environment that it is served in. The mass-produced lagers and pilsners are similar to what is sold across the USA and are the basis of this post. There are some great brew pubs in Thailand and Vietnam and a burgeoning scene in Cambodia which caters to a moneyed local crowd, expats and travelers.
Vietnam is probably my favorite place to drink beer. This place gets a solid for access, efficiency and price. It also helps that Vietnam is one of the leading beer consumers in Asia behind Japan and China. Beer in Vietnam is very regional. There are dozens of offerings but the mainstays are Saigon (south), Huda (central) and Hanoi (north) as well as Bia Hoi available almost everywhere but extremely popular in Hanoi.
Saigon Beer: Bia Saigon is the flagship product of the Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corporation (SABECO). The beer is produced in Ho Chi Minh City which is still referred to as Saigon by most locals. There is still a North vs South thing going on in Vietnam but they are not shooting at each other anymore. Bia Saigon comes in the Red labeled and Green labeled versions. It is a nice light, crisp golden lager, with a touch of honey sweetness and very drinkable. Saigon Red, at 4.9% (355ML bottle), has a higher alcohol content and is labelled for export, while Saigon Green, at 4.3%, comes in a bigger bottle (450ML bottle) and is for local consumption. Price: Both are 10,000 Dong a bottle (50 cents USD) in most places in Pham Ngu Lao. Go with the green bottle for quantity.
Huda Beer: Produced in Hue in partnership with Carlsberg. A typical Vietnamese beer that is light and crisp-tasting lager with a small head and a malty nose. I was drinking Huda in Dong Ha in central Vietnam for 7,000 Dong (33 cents USD) for a 450ML bottle. It was exceedingly cheap at a hole in the wall joint across from my hotel. Enjoying my beer and attempting to converse with the gal who ran the place, I had to contend with an older drunken Vietnamese guy speaking terrible English who was attempting to get me to take his female companion to my hotel. It was bizarre but between the beers and laughs I had a pretty good time.
Bia Hoi: Found throughout the country, but its existence is legendary in Hanoi where it is pedaled from basic beer joints up and down the street. The folks in Hanoi can’t get enough of this stuff. Bia Hoi is a foamy, light, low alcohol beer (3-4%) that is made fresh each day and has a shelf life of about 24hrs as it has no preservatives. The kegs are trucked out to the nondescript beer joints daily and I have even seen kegs of the stuff strapped to the back of moto-bikes. The Bia Hoi joints open around 4PM and serve until they run out of beer, typically around 10PM. Bia Hoi is tapped from gravity fed kegs that have no carbonation, but the beer has just the right amount of head. The attraction of Bia Hoi is sitting on the street corner and watching Hanoi drive by on moto-bikes while chatting up some of the locals. Bia Hoi goes for 5000-7000 Dong (25-33 cents USD) per glass. The cheaper places sell it in smaller glasses in an attempt to lure folks in with the cheaper price. Go for an established Bia Hoi joint with signage and a menu, splurge for the extra 8 cents and get the pint-sized serving! If you visit Hanoi and don’t stop at one of the Bia Hoi joints you are missing a truly Vietnamese experience.
Many places near the major population centers serve draft beer. Beer drinking in Myanmar normally takes place in what are called “beer stations”. They resemble a beer hall with teenage boys running about serving up drafts. Most beer stations are marked by a large green Myanmar Beer sign out front and most also serve Myanmar BBQ, which is great with beer. Myanmar beer dominates the scene in this under-visited country. Beer is expensive in Myanmar for the average local who tends to consume the various types of liquor sold in country for roughly half the price of a beer.
Myanmar Beer: The number one beer in the country sharing the same name. Myanmar beer is one of the better lagers I had in Asia. Slightly fruity, pours with a white head with little taste of malt or hops. Expect to see more of Myanmar Beer as it will likely be exported with the lift of sanctions on Myanmar. Comes in at 5.5%. Price: 1600 Kyats (1.65 USD) per 640ML bottle, Drafts 1200 Kyats (1.25 USD) a pint.
Mandalay Beer: Sold as a “Strong Ale”, this rice lager comes in at 7.5% and is one of the cheapest beers available in Myanmar. I decided to drink this for the novelty of the namesake. Mandalay had the edge of a malt liquor and was a pretty tough swallow. I had it paired with some mystery meat floating in oil which was marketed as some sort of curry. A curry it was not! So you have been warned, do not try this, driver on a closed circuit. Price: 1000 Kyat (1 USD) for a 640ML bottle.
ABC Extra Stout: This is a pretty solid offering if you are in the market for a stout. Dark brown with a tan head and coming in at 7%, it is one of the stronger beers available in Myanmar. This is definitely worth drinking, but as with most stouts, after a few bottles it feels like you just ate the entire Thanksgiving turkey. Price: 2000 Kyat (2.10 USD) per 640ML bottle.
Beer Lao is the national beer of Laos. As in most thing communist, the Lao government owns a 50% stake in the company, with the other half owned by Carlsberg. The logo of the company is omnipresent in Laos, it adorns almost everything from restaurants to bars to soccer jerseys. Beer Lao owns a 99% market share in the country and I have never seen any other labels for sale other than its two derivatives (light and dark) and your typical imports. It is one of the best beers in Asia. I am a big fan!
Beer Lao Dark: Much more difficult to find outside of the major cities, of which there are few in Laos. The dark comes in at 6.5%. Beer Lao has a very limited distribution outside of the country and it is sought after by expats across Asia. Easy drinkability with a slightly sweet after-taste. Price: 2000 Kip (2.60 USD) per 640ML bottle. The dark is also about the same price for a 330ML bottle. Lao beer prices are some of the more expensive in SEA.
Drinking in Cambodia is a pretty inexpensive affair. Most of the areas on the travel circuit are littered with bars and restaurants serving up 50 cent ice-cold Angkor, Anchor and Cambodia brand draft beers. If you are paying more than that you are probably hanging out in an aircon bar or a hostess type joint or eating some upscale chow where drafts will run 1-2.50 USD. Depending on the bar or resto, a can of beer might run 1-2.50 USD. The interesting point with Cambodia is that you can go local or go 4-5 star depending on where you are it. But if you are trying to get your drink on, just check the sign boards outside of most places, cheap beer is designed to lure you in and who would I be bullshitting if I claimed it didn’t work on me!
If you find yourself in Phnom Penh you must go down to the Riverside and hit the Foreign Correspondents Club, FCC as it is known by the expats, and have a beer from their second story bar that overlooks the Mekong. They have good food, wood fired pizzas and usually run a happy hour. It is an expat and western crowd so prices are adjusted accordingly.
Angkor Beer: The largest beer seller in the country touts itself as the national beer with a pretty catching slogan, “ My Country, My Beer”. Nothing special here, it’s drinkable and meets mission. Cans and bottles will run anywhere from 1-1.75 USD in a bar or resto, about 60 cents a can in a grocery store.
Anchor Beer: Seems to be a rip-off of the Angkor brand. It’s similar to both Angkor and Cambodian but seems to be a bit lighter in the taste department. Similarly priced but cans and bottles can be a bit cheaper in some places compared to its competition. Comes in at 5% and is found as draft, 330ML and 640ML bottles.
Angkor Extra Stout: Yep it’s sold as a stout with 8% alcohol but it really seems like another dark beer to me. I tend to associate stouts with oatmeal and I don’t get that with this stout. It is very drinkable, and not a bad option if you are down for just a beer or two. This is not a beer most people could drink all night. Price is 2-2.50 USD per bottle.
Cambodia Beer: Angkor beer’s main challenger in the mass production beer market. Cambodia Beer has its own slogan to counter its competition, “Nothing says Cambodia more than Cambodia Beer” or “Cambodia Beer, National Beer, National Pride”. For beer and country? Kind of have to like that! There is no real difference here between Angkor and Anchor as it is another mass-produced beer that if served cold does what it is designed to do. The beer is brewed just north of the Choueng Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields) and you will pass it on your way. I am not sure if the brewery offers tours but it would be a nice stop after Choueng Ek. Cambodia comes in at 5% and is served in draft, 330ML and 640ML bottles. Priced about the same as Angkor and Anchor.
The holy trinity of Thai beers is composed of Singha, Chang and Leo. These mainstays are found throughout the country. In Thailand you can’t go more than 2 blocks without seeing a 7-11, they have the third largest number of the 7-11 stores behind the USA and Japan. Most travelers save a few bucks and buy their beer at 7-11 or at a Tops, Tesco-Lotus or Big C if there is one nearby. The sale of alcohol in Thailand is banned between 2PM and 5PM and again between midnight and 11AM seven days a week. This rule largely affects supermarkets and convenience stores as bars and restaurants can continue to serve. If you need a carry-out during these hours, locate a local mom and pop who will gladly set you up and place your purchase in a discrete plastic bag!
Singha Beer: Probably the most renowned beer brand in Thailand as it has been brewed since 1933 and is also known as Thailand’s first beer. If you have ordered Thai beer outside of the Kingdom in a Thai restaurant, chances are it was Singha. It is a good beer, crisp, light and clean and a great match for spicy Thai food. It’s the most expensive Thai beer sold in the country and comes in at 5%. Price: 50 Baht (1.66 USD) for a 640ML bottle at 7-11. Expect to pay 60-120 Baht (2-4 USD) for a 330ML can or bottle in a bar.
Chang Beer: Chang is the number 1 selling beer in Thailand. Chang means elephant in Thai and the label proudly displays two Asian elephants, I mean come on, what is there not to like about elephants.
Correctly pronounced in Thai as “Chong”. This beer is pretty flavorful and has a bite, many of the locals drink it over ice which tames it a bit. I prefer it straight and ice-cold! This stuff packs 6.45%, you are getting your money’s worth! I have suffered from more than my fair share of chang-over’s during my time in the Kingdom. Price: 42 Baht (1.40) per 640ML bottle at 7-11. It is also sold as a 2 Pak in some 7-11’s for 89 Baht (2.96 USD). Expect to pay 50-90 Baht (1.66-3 USD) for a 330ML can or bottle in a bar.
Leo Beer: Produced by the same brewery that makes Singha. I guess the name is short for Leopard as the beer label features a leopard as part of its branding. It is popular among the working class Thai’s as it tends to be cheaper than Singha and not as strong as Chang. Tastes like a Singha to me. It is a light, crisp lager that comes in at about 5%. Price: 45 Baht (1.50 USD) per 640 ML bottle at 7-11. Can also be found as a 2 Pak in some 7-11’s for 92 Baht (3.06 USD). Expect to pay 60-100 baht (2-3.33 USD) for a 330ML can or bottle in bar.
Drink Up…..It’s Hot
The heat of SEA will undoubtedly make you thirsty. So the next time you reach for a bottle of water to quench that thirst, just grab a beer and recite the beer prayer!
Which art in barrels
Hallowed be thy drink
Thy will be drunk
(I will be drunk)
At Home as in the tavern
Give us this day our foamy head
And forgive us our spillages
As we forgive those who spill
And lead us not into incarceration
But deliver us from hangovers
For thine is the beer
The bitter and the lager
For ever and ever