Five great Asian beers

Joel Quenby 23 August 2010 4 comments

From Bia Lao to Asahi Black, we round up the region’s top ales

Asia is producing more beer than Europe for the first time since records began, says Japanese brewing giant Kirin Holdings. It sounds like a bar trawl is in order…. But where does the well-intentioned novice drinker start? Here’s a rundown of experts’ handpicked favorites.

A picher says a thousand burps, at an Asian beer festival (By Graham Hills via Flickr Creative Commons License)

A picher says a thousand burps, at an Asian beer festival (By Graham Hills via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Economists say Asia bounced back from the financial crisis quicker than in the West, while its beer production also surged 5.5 percent from the volume produced in 2008, according to researchers from the Kirin Institute of Food and Lifestyle.

“The guzzlers of Munich’s beer halls are the stuff of bacchanalian legend: now they have to contend with rivals hailing from the bars and street stalls of Hanoi and New Delhi,” claimed the BBC.

While Asian drinkers still consume less on average than Europeans, Vietnam led the region’s boozy surge, followed by India then China. The popularity of Vietnamese labels like 333 (pronounced “ba ba ba” locally) leaped 24.3 percent. Two other labels—Hanoi Beer and Saigon Beer—were official beverages at this year’s Berlin International Beer festival.

Joe Tucker, president of RateBeer.com, recently hand picked his recommendations for Men’s Health magazine. Here are his top picks—plus the mandatory inclusion of an honorary member: a perennial, trusted golden elixir—from a relatively unexpected font of beery wisdom.

Asahi Kuronama Black

Dusky jewel: Asahi Black (by James Cridland via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Dusky jewel: Asahi Black (by James Cridland via Flickr Creative Commons License)

“Crack this open for a rich, roasted accompaniment” to meaty dishes, says Tucker. Never mind the likes of Guinness, Asahi Kuronama Black is billed as Japan’s favorite dark beer. Brewed in Osaka, this silky textured and shadowy toned brew blends three different roasted malts. This wanton mix-and-match approach apparently gives Asahi Black a unique nutty flavor and warming, smooth-drinking characteristics.

Baird Rising Sun Pale Ale

"Today's the day when teddy-bears get utterly paralitic": Baird Beer (main pic: Jeremy Deades via Flickr Creative Commons License; insets from BairdBeer.com)

"Today's the day when teddy-bears get utterly paralytic": Baird Beer (main pic: Jeremy Deades via Flickr Creative Commons License; insets from BairdBeer.com)

“Infused with a citrus aroma, this brew will balance the tartness” of acidic, pickled foods, apparently, according to the expert. “This hoppy, brisk and refreshing Pale Ale is indescribably complex,” exclaims the website of Baird Beer, founded in 2000 in Numazu, Japan, by the husband-and-wife team of Bryan and Sayuri Baird. RateBeer.com, meanwhile, says the 5.2% percent “quenching brew” fits the “American west-coast style.”

Kiuchi Hitachino Nest Beers

Hitachi Nest beers, as seen on Kiuchi Brewery's website

Hitachi Nest beers, as clinically presented on Kiuchi Brewery's website

Tucker vouches for the Belgian White Ale, but “load up the fridge with Hitachino’s crisp, clean Real Ginger Ale and Japanese Classic Ale, too.” Kiuchi Brewery (est.1823) in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, produces beer, sake, and shochu. The Nest Beer brand—with its distinctive owl logo—started producing “top-fermented ales” in 1996, blending European beer-making technology with some traditional sake brewing methods (its XH Hitachino Nest Beer is matured in wooden shochu casks, for example). The quaff became available in the US in 2000 and has won numerous international awards.

A century old and still going strong: San Miguel, the result of Spanish-Filipino brewing smarts

A century old and still going strong: San Miguel, the result of Spanish-Filipino brewing smarts

San Miguel Premium Lager

Filipinos love a beer: it is the most commonly consumed alcoholic drink in the country. The San Miguel varietal is “easy to drink and a good palate cleanser,” says Tucker. The first such beer was produced in Manila in 1890 via a royal grant from colonialists Spain—hence it being named after a brewery in Barcelona. A hundred years later, San Miguel Corporation is one of the country’s few global conglomerates.

Honorary Mention: Bia Lao

Bottled since 1973 on the outskirts of Vientiane by the Lao Brewery Co., Bia Lao has drawn plaudits from the esteemed likes of Time magazine—which described it as “foaming magic” in its Best of Asia Awards 2004—and The New York Times. Perhaps those ancient stone jars were actually ancient beer kegs. Time describes the pilsner as “an arrestingly crisp brew and also the universal accompaniment to the local cuisine.

“There’s no stinting on quality,” its plaudits continued. “Bia Lao is made from Pilsen malt imported from France, Hallertauer Magnum hops and dry yeast from Germany, and local rice and spring water.”

Time reckons that these factors “propelled Bia Lao to the top of Asia’s beer league. So have the brew’s emotional connotations. For wherever you are in the world, one sip of Bia Lao and you are instantly transported to a riverside bistro in Vientiane. The long lunches, the French-colonial streets, the wats [temples] and murmuring monks: it all comes back with exquisite precision.”

"Mmmm...Bia Lao" (by garycycles via Flickr Creative Commons License)

"Mmmm...Bia Lao" (by garycycles via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Joel Quenby

Joel Quenby

A British writer working and traveling in Southeast Asia since 2002, filing words in support of exotic fripperies beyond his means. More can be had at: joelquenby.yolasite.com

4 Comments For This Post

  1. RJtravels RJtravels Says:

    Reading this blog whilst enjoying a (Belgian) Leffe abbey beer, I must agree that there are some very good beers in Asia. Even the mass produced Tsing Tao (Chinese) and Singha (Thai) are very decent beers that I much prefer to my native Heineken (which, ironically, is a premium brand worldwide apart from in Holland itself – but that’s a different story).

    Well done with the honorary mention of Beer/Bia Lao – a fine high quality beer indeed. My favorite is the dark version though – just a little harder to get in Thailand, but worth the search (in Thailand, ask for Bia Lao see dum). It’s got that typical smooth caramel/roasted flavor that many of the special Belgian beers have.

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