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Best Beers of Southeast Asia 2010 (That’s It) December 9, 2010

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink, Reviews.

By Alex Sawit

09 December, 2010


A jovial German customer of ours tells this joke whenever someone orders American beer at the shop.

“What does American beer have in common with canoeing?” he likes to ask with a big grin before the punch line. “They’re both just above water.”

It’s an unfair generalization, I must say, one that accounts only for those watered-down U.S. brands that are being dumped on the world’s supermarkets in the name of globalization (our shop, by the way, only serves the good stuff from coast to coast, from Boston’s Samuel Adams to San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer). Unfortunately the Germans with their Old World heritage dismiss all American beers as a symptom of a culturally challenged way of life. As far as they are concerned, grown-ups – meaning Germans – bask in the glory of what they call Oktoberfest, while juveniles – meaning Americans – go nuts for that annual beer-and-bikini riot they call Spring Break. End of discussion.

Seriously, my Teutonic amigo is right about one thing. That is, if a beer can be poked fun at then it isn’t worth the time and effort to accord proper respect.

So I’ve come to a sobering decision. This shall be my last “Best Beers of Southeast Asia” post.



Screenshot of “a laid-back place with a laid-back beer.”


I’ve thrown in the towel. I now acknowledge that keeping an annual review is a pretentious thing when the pickings in Southeast Asia are painfully few and far between. How few? For me, only TWO beers deserve to be recognized for genuine excellence.

Beer Lao is an enigma to me. I’m echoing the amazement Time Magazine expressed when it declared Beer Lao as the best beer in Asia. Like most of my countrymen, I grew up believing that the Philippines had a lock on making beer in the region. All this changed years ago once I had a taste of that beautifully clear, golden Laotian brew. It was humbling but I am grateful that my preconception was overturned.

Yet Beer Lao is not the best in Southeast Asia. That honor goes to Cerveza Negra San Miguel of the Philippines (this is the domestic release of San Miguel’s dark lager and must not be confused with the mediocre export versions). With its supple balance of semi-bitter chocolate and sweet toffee flavors, I have always thought more highly of it than the brewery’s flagship, San Miguel Beer. Though Negra was plagued by unreliable quality in the past due to the token attention it gets as a “toy brand” in the company portfolio, I now believe consistency is no longer a deciding factor (to read the back story on this, click here).

There you go, Beer Lao and Cerveza Negra San Miguel.

Sorry but major brands like Singha of Thailand and Tiger Beer of Singapore don’t cut it. Nor is there any hope for Anchor Beer of Malaysia, Angkor Beer of Cambodia, Bintang Beer of Indonesia, Beer Mynarmar of Burma, Saigon Beer of Vietnam and whatever else is floating out there. Drinkable? Yes. Good? At least they’re above water.

The truth is that the big breweries of Southeast Asia don’t show the kind of passion and craftsmanship that are the foundations of great beer making. There’s a kind of indolence in this, reminiscent of those colonial-era comments that self-righteous Occidentals used to make about Southeast Asians, saying that we are too laid back, that we don’t have the drive to do more or keep improving things (how ironic that Beer Lao, which is made with superb effort, markets itself by promoting Laos as “a laid-back place with a laid-back beer”). Southeast Asia is a lucrative beer market yet breweries are pulling big profits with lousy but popular stuff. Why fix what ain’t beer-roke? With no incentive to elevate local palates, they’re happy to keep brewing the same barnyard flush for consumers, who don’t know enough to ask, “Why the hell are we paying good money for bottled horse piss???”

The biggest disappointment is the Philippines, which has the proudest brewing tradition in Asia but is now drowning in a sea of equine fizzy relief. What a sinking feeling. What I feel just from glancing at brands like San Mig Light or Manila Beer is comparable to what I feel whenever I see our politicians running yet again for national office.

Let’s be honest, my fellow Filipinos. We know in our hushed thoughts that these political gargoyles always reveal themselves to be the same unholy thing – ineptly out of their depth or corruptly self-serving or, as is normally the curse, both (while the good people stay in the private sector as far away from the inferno as possible). As I tell all my foreign friends, the Philippines is a feudal society masquerading as a modern Western-style democracy. Unless we Filipinos first destroy our deep-rooted feudal culture, then democratic elections will merely perpetuate our socio-economic problems, not solve them.

Sigh…forgive me. I digress.

Many nights ago our Cyrano friend, Bobby, was at the shop lamenting how disenchanted he is with San Miguel Beer. A retired ad man with an educated taste for drink, Bobby, after polishing off a great Czech beer, went on to say that he has written off this Filipino classic. “It’s beyond salvation,” I seem to recall him saying.

“San Miguel makes Pale Pilsen on the cheap now,” I said, as Bobby switched to a Dutch lager. “The key ingredients are imported and expensive, so they’re cutting corners. They’re cutting down on barley malt and increasing the use of cereal extenders.”

We proceeded to talk about other local brands but it only made him more miserable. Feeling the need to switch to cheerful conversation, we closed by agreeing that San Miguel Premium is for gullible, status conscious posers and that the newly resurrected Manila Beer should have remained entombed in Asia Brewery’s graveyard of dead brands.

That’s it. End of story. If memory serves me right, we moved on to an intellectually discriminating, emotionally gratifying discussion about the ever expanding list of hot babes who hang out at the wine shop.

Haha…now, THAT is something worth making an annual review of.



POSTSCRIPT: Here’s a consolation prize. San Miguel Super Dry tastes better now, a whole bloody lot better. Though it still doesn’t taste like it did when it first rolled out some twenty years ago, the heft and richness are noticeably superior to its immediate sibling, San Miguel Pale Pilsen (I venture to guess that its malt content was restored to a higher level). Does this have to do with Super Dry’s repositioning as the premium beer of the two, reflected in its higher pricing? Go Super Dry, baby!







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