Samui Wining & Dining
Elephants, Lions And Tigers

An excursion into the heady world of Thai beers.

 

14-15“Avoid discussions about religion or politics.” This was one of the seeds of paternal wisdom that my father planted in me many years ago. It’s now had about half a century to germinate. And, yes, I can’t help but agree. These are subjects that everyone’s got their own ideas about. And they’re passionate ones, pretty much guaranteed to cause a fuss. But they’re not the only topics. I’d put another couple of things on the ‘strife list’, too. Football can usually make for an over-lively conversation (or make that baseball/ice hockey/basketball, if you’re from the other side of the pond). And so too can beer.

    It’s quite surprising how many different countries in the Western world are populated by dedicated beer fanatics. Much like wine, there’s an entire subculture to be revealed, complete with its own esoteric jargon. Which is hardly surprising, as a significant number of European breweries have their origins back before the Middle Ages. There’s a wealth of tradition and history here, spreading over numerous centuries. However, in Thailand, beer production did not start until 1933.

      There’s a good reason for this. The nation’s staple diet is rice, of which a huge amount is produced annually, in the cooler farming regions in the north and north-east of the Kingdom. Hops, malt and barley are not indigenous. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that all the traditional tipples have evolved from either rice, or fermented fruits, or a blend of both together. Every local supermarket on Samui carries bottles of the ubiquitous rice wine, either lao khao or sato. For a very long time after its appearance, the alien brew of bia (beer) was not accepted by the local people. It was then an upmarket item, correspondingly more expensive, and also an acquired taste.

 

For a very long time
after its appearance, the
alien brew of bia (beer)
was not accepted by
the local people.

 

      The whole business of brewing beer in Thailand seems marginally confusing at first glance. Certainly the nation’s first brewery, the Boon Rawd Brewery, which was established in 1933, has long-since perfected the beer-maker’s art, and import their hops and other raw materials from Eastern Europe and America. The company’s founder, Phraya Bhirom Bhakdi, initially spent several years in Germany and Denmark studying their methods and traditions. And the result was the appearance of Singha beer (bia sing in Thai), which has since become something of an international symbol for Thailand. This has come about not solely due to its national popularity, but more because of energetic marketing, international sports sponsorship and recent close collaboration with Japanese breweries

       But, in the period around the turn of the new millennium, several more names appeared on the scene, particularly that of the German Kloster beer and the Danish giant, Carlsberg. Herein lies another confusion. The real, imported brews were readily available, but expensively so, due to the higher levels of taxation they attracted. And Kloster beer was also made under licence in Thailand by the Boon Rawd Brewery. But in 1995 Thai legislation changed, liberalising the then-embryonic Thai market. Carlsberg and Heineken both took advantage of this to open their own breweries in Thailand. And each of these breweries, sometimes producing beer for local consumption yet also maximising export production, used slightly different methods and ingredients. The result was, that for quite a while, bottles which appeared to be the same had different contents. And this melting pot was stirred further by Boon Rawd’s purchase of two German breweries which, until 2001, produced Singha Gold for the European Market!

      But throughout all of this Singha continued to be Thailand’s top seller, with, at one time, over 90% of national sales. Then, in a bout of aggressive marketing, Chang beer (translated as ‘elephant beer’) arrived in 1995, produced by the company which previously had held the government monopoly on the spirits sector, the ThaiBev group. And things became serious when it was revealed that this company had teamed up with Carlsberg to initially launch Chang as a home-spun down-market rival to Singha, promoting it (and even subsidising it to begin with) at a lower price as a beer for the ‘ordinary’ Thai person.

      Boon Rawd watched their market share slump before countering it with a ‘working man’s beer’ of their own, Leo beer. Chang then splashed its way into European homes via its widely promoted four-season sponsorship deal with Everton Football Club. Singha responded by aligning itself with a far more impressive name – Manchester United. And the competition continues to this day, with each vigorously vying for wider international acclaim.

      However, there are more than just two beers produced in Thailand, as any aficionado will be aware. Singapore’s famous Tiger beer is now made here and has become widely popular. Chang has even sprouted a small cousin as a sort of ‘budget’ working man’s beer, the little-known Archa beer. And, of course, you’ll find just about every brew known to man, on the shelves of the importers. But Singha beer is the one you’ll find in every Thai restaurant outside of Thailand; Boon Rawd’s marketing team have made sure of that.

      And so it would seem that finally Thai beer has come of age, with one of the judges at the 2008 World Beer Championships enthusing about Chang beer, “…honeyed raisin-toast aromas with a hint of lychee follow-through on a crisp, smooth entry to a dryish medium body, with a hint of apple, nut, and a solid roasted grain character. Finishes with a crisp, balanced earthy hop and pizza dough fade.” Interesting. A poetic, if somewhat emotional, assessment. I’m not sure that my father would have agreed about all that. But then, as I mentioned to begin with, he was never keen on passionate arguments – especially about beer!

 

Rob De Wet


 


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