Australian wayfarers have long enjoyed a deep affection for South East Asia: a region that is the very apotheosis of all things exotic… unless, that is, you are talking beer. South East Asia’s brewing reputation has largely remained altogether unbothered by the craft crusade, save for Vietnam which is forging ahead into bold new territory.
It was only a few short years ago I asked an upmarket Bangkok bar whether they had anything other than local or imported lager, to which a rather tired looking bottle of London Pride was exhumed, no longer so proud. So, on a recent transit through Bangkok and a pit stop at Brewski (radissonblu.com), the bar perched atop the Radisson Blu skyscraper, it was impossible to not be enraptured by the beers on tap – Thailand had officially caught craft fever.
Once a wholesale lockup between brewing behemoths Singha and Chang, today a new league of bar is emerging: temples to contemporary craft, boasting brews by the most exhilarating producers on the globe, from Mikkeller in Denmark to Goose Island in the US. Fuelling this tectonic shift has been an impassioned collective of local brewers who are finally emerging from the shadows to forge a fledgling domestic Thai artisanal beer industry. Many brew their product clandestinely, as small-scale beer production remains illegal in Thailand, with the government mandating a minimum annual sale of one million litres for a brewing licence, while others have taken to artful (and legal) measures, including brewing offshore in Australia.
One such producer is Bangkok’s Bootleg Brothers (bootlegbrothers.co.th), whose Island Hopper Hoppy Lager has become synonymous with Thai craft. It’s a beer that plays to the country’s historic love of lager but with a zestful smack of Citra hops that imbue a winsome tropical edge, reminiscent of lychee and kaffir lime. While the recipes are conceived in Thailand, brewing takes place at Holgate Brewhouse in the Macedon Ranges village of Woodend, with the finished product then legally imported back into Thailand and sold at imported prices.
“This beer has come a very long way, but it is still Thai beer,” the bartender at Mitr (mitrcraft.com) offers, one of a new crop of hole-in-the-wall craft beer bars emerging across the sprawling city. “If you really desire something, sometimes the long journey is necessary.” This maxim is of course true, although the downside is that the beers are most certainly pasteurised – stunting the brightness of the raw ingredients.
Most in the local Thai bar and brewing industry remain optimistic that a regulatory change concerning small-scale artisanal alcohol production – including the country’s ‘tropical winemaking’ industry to the north in Khao Yai – is inevitable, and would finally enable domestic production and a fresher, more unique product from the tap.
Until then, Australia remains the preferred destination for local Thai brewers, including the infectiously named Happy New Beer (facebook.com/happynewbeerhaoyaiTH), whose distinctively ‘happy’ packaged products are brewed by BrewPack in Sydney. At Brew (brewbkk.com), a bar in Bangkok’s kaleidoscopic entertainment district Sukhumvit, a number of local drinkers are enjoying Happy New Beer’s flagship Pilsner. It’s invigoratingly fresh, slightly cloudy and fragrant with a distinct hint of lemongrass – a quality drink emblematic of the country’s verve.
Sitting pride-of-place amongst the line-up of leading global producers on the menu at Craft (craftbangkok.com) – an inviting outdoor beer garden in Sukhumvit, replete with 40 individual beer fonts – is Stone Head (stonehead.beer), another maverick Thai producer fashioning anomalous (if occasionally daredevil) beers embracing local flavours.
Having set up production just over the border in Cambodia, the label’s Coconut Cream Ale is unexpectedly soothing in the unrelenting tropical humidity – reminiscent of a viscous ‘real ale’, but with fresh lashings of ice-cold coconut cream. The brewery’s Pale Ale is boldly infused with both rosella petals and jujube berries, creating an amber-hued beer with a deep plum flavour that lives up to the region’s heady and exotic promise.
Your next trip to Thailand just got a fresh new perspective.