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Best Beers of Southeast Asia 2008 March 14, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink, Reviews.

By Alex Sawit

14 March 2008




“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

When a brand name beer is also a national drink, it means that the locals have a strong emotional attachment to it. To the Irish, nothing could be more defiant than Guinness. For Filipinos, nothing unites us more than San Miguel Beer. “One of the world’s best beers,” was an old advertising slogan that went hand in hand with another boasting that this was “Asia’s best beer.” All Filipinos shared in this belief. It’s the beverage that bridges our class divisions. Rich or poor, Filipinos find more unity through our common experience of San Miguel than in all the efforts of our kleptocratic politicians put together. Through thick and thin, it was the taste that never wavered.

So why did the folks at San Miguel change it?

I repeat: San Miguel Pale Pilsen tastes different. It’s been this way for many months now. And it didn’t happen by accident.

When I first noticed it last year, I merely assumed that the beer I was drinking must have been from an inferior batch. It just didn’t taste that good, I commented to my friends at the table. “You can taste the difference?” asked one of them, a former colleague who has links to the brewing company and hence became concerned due to my unenthusiastic reaction (we used to work in the same team developing campaigns for the company’s beer brands). “They changed the formulation,” she felt compelled to confess. “San Miguel changed it.” After that night, I tried it several times more just to see if I would eventually come around and start liking the new taste. I never did.

Try it yourself (if you’re accustomed to drinking beer straight from the bottle, please use a tall glass instead or you won’t be able to taste it properly). The reformulated beer is a shortchanged version of the old one. It’s not as rich or as balanced; it’s thinner and less creamy, magnifying the beer’s less than pleasant metallic aftertaste. Granted, the brewery throughout its history has from time to time made tiny adjustments to the original recipe, but they never got it this badly before. Since San Miguel isn’t going to own up to it in public, I have to guess that the reformulated brew reflects a cutback in imported ingredients – they’re using less barley malt and making up the difference with a less expensive cereal like rice.

It’s sad. To a degree, this review is my way of calling out the penny-pinching pinheads at San Miguel who managed to break something that was already fixed. But this is also an opportunity for Cyrano friends to get to know some beers that you might otherwise neglect. Who knows? Maybe someday we might even try serving them at the wine shop – maybe if we run out of vino or if the espresso machine breaks down.




Note: Only beers available for retail were considered for this review.


Best Pale Beer, Philippines – RED HORSE EXTRA STRONG BEER

Producer: San Miguel Brewery

Alcohol Content: 6.9% vol.

The country’s original “strong beer” has come a long way since its introduction in the 1980s. For most of its history, it was just a respectable beer – before they improved it, that is. The beer is now quite nice. It’s got more body, better consistency and a sharper malt taste.


Best Beer Overall, Philippines – CERVEZA NEGRA SAN MIGUEL

Producer: San Miguel Brewery

Alcohol Content: 5% vol.

This has to be the best beer in the Philippines today and it will stay unchallenged unless Pale Pilsen returns to par. Despite paltry annual sales, Cerveza Negra is one of the company’s most cherished brands, its place in the portfolio guaranteed for years to come (corporate managers who tried to kill the brand in the past were always put in their place by a “higher authority” in the company). I just wish they’d put the beer back in its old stumpy bottle because the current look is both pretentious and generic.

Batches tend to be inconsistent due to the low priority given to the production of Negra, although this is less of a problem now than in years past. The export version is labeled “San Miguel Dark Lager” but is inferior to the locally retailed product (this is generally true for export versions of the company’s beers).


Best Dark Beer, Southeast Asia – CERVEZA NEGRA SAN MIGUEL

British visitors who try Cerveza Negra San Miguel tend to compare it to Guinness, the world’s most famous bitter stout. It’s understandable, but it’s an “apples for oranges” comparison. Guinness is a top-fermented beer whose list of ingredients prominently includes roasted barley; the brew is intensely flavored and has a pronounced bitterness. Negra, on the other hand, is a lager; being bottom-fermented, its flavor characteristics follow a different approach even though the beer is made with roasted malt. Its taste is milder only when compared to bitter stout, otherwise it’s a rich beer as lagers go. Remember to serve it well-chilled; unlike bitter stout, a dark lager is much better suited to being served at colder temperatures.


Best Beer Overall, Southeast Asia – BEERLAO LAGER

Producer: Lao Brewing Company

Alcohol Content: 5% vol.

Although I question the Hong Kong website’s infatuation with promoting this product by telling us that Laos is “a laid-back place with a laid-back beer,” I won’t dispute the other boast that Beerlao is “Southeast Asia’s finest beer.” Not this year at least. And it’s not because Time Magazine in 2004 named it Asia’s best beer. It’s because Beerlao is somewhat closer to what San Miguel Beer used to be. Though not nearly as rich and full-bodied, the national beer of Laos is crisper and more refreshing. The claim that this is an authentic Laotian rice beer is misleading, however, since local rice is used in conjunction with barley malt (imported from Belgium and France) and hops (imported from Germany along with the yeast). Beerlao is as easy to come by in the Philippines as fresh snow, so ask friends headed for Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to grab a can or two to bring back home for you (it’s now also available in Hong Kong).





POSTSCRIPT: Beer savvy readers may be wondering why more brands weren’t listed. “What about Singapore’s* Tiger Beer or Thailand’s Singha?” some might ask. I had intended to include some honorable mentions, but after careful consideration I decided against it. I just didn’t feel persuaded by the other beers available both here and in the rest of the region. But I would have done so if the Philippine brewing giant was still offering San Miguel Premium All Malt Beer, which disappeared from the domestic market more than a decade ago.

* Text corrected 27 April 2008. Original text mentioned this as “Malaysia’s Tiger Beer.”





1. Mags - March 17, 2008

I’m not much of a beer drinker these days, but when I found out recently that my cousin is a chemist (or something) for San Miguel Beer, I think I may need to reconsider.

I’m impressed with your comparative tasting of Filipino beers. I think it’s about time The Beer of Our People got more attention. Kudos to you.

Thanks for stopping by my blog! I’m going to poke around here for a while and read more of your stuff, if you don’t mind. 🙂

2. Alexander Sawit - March 17, 2008

Thanks Mags… as the old San Miguel slogan used to say, “Iba Ang May Pinagsamahan!”

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