Samui Wining & Dining
Thai Brewsi

The curious and still-evolving story of beer in Thailand.

The curious and still-evolving story of beer in Thailand.In the larger scheme of things, Thailand is not a beer-drinking nation. And by that I mean beer has never been a part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Whereas there are ancient orders of monks tucked away in the mountains of Austria (such as Weihanstephan Abbey in Bavaria) who have been famous for their beer for the last 1,000 years, the same can’t be said of Thailand. Even America’s oldest brewery (the Yeungling Brewery) has been at it since 1829. But Thailand only began brewing beer a few years before the outbreak of World War Two.

On the other hand, Thailand’s staple food is rice. So it has come about that many alcoholic tipples over here have been rice-based. Beer (the Thai for this is ‘bia’) was a suspicious foreign thing, fizzy and sour, and an expensive imported luxury beyond the reach of all but the upper classes – but then they preferred the status of drinking costly imports like Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels, anyway.

The Thai nation loves everything American, thus it occurred to one Thai entrepreneur that with the right sort of marketing, beer (that trendy and affordable fall-back of American males everywhere) might just be successful in Thailand. And in order to do this, Khun Boonrawd Sreshthaputra interestingly turned towards Europe, spending several years living in Germany and Denmark while learning the techniques of beer making. The result was the appearance in 1933 of the Boon Rawd Brewery, and the famous lion of ‘Singha Beer’.

It took many years (this was pre-television and mass-media marketing) to get the idea to take hold, but the campaigns were initially aggressively pitched at Thai working men as a novel and affordable alternative to the traditional ‘lao khao’ (rice wine – although hardly ‘wine’ at around 40% proof!). And everything was working out fine until suddenly a competitor knocked Boon Rawd back on its heels, in 1995. The competitor was the now-very-unhappy ThaiBev group, which had been enjoying years of uninterrupted sunshine, selling all the nation’s spirits (rice wine, whisky, brandy) under a monopoly deal with the Thai government which made them the sole producers in Thailand. Out of the blue, suddenly, they jumped on the beer wagon with ‘Chang’ (elephant) beer.

And to make the whole thing more interesting, within a few months both Heineken and Carlsberg were granted government licences and opened their own breweries here. Suddenly Thailand had four beers. (Actually it was five as, in retaliation, Boon Rawd took over two breweries in Germany and began a huge marketing campaign with ‘Singha Gold’.)

But here’s the interesting thing. All of this beer was the blonde and gassy European kind that’s often referred to as ‘lager’. It was certainly the kind of beer that most of the rest of the world was drinking. And, in keeping with the new trend of supping straight from the bottle, it was only available bottled or, later, in cans. But that was hardly surprising. Bottles and cans, when sealed, don’t need the quality control or maintenance which beer on tap does, and they also have a long shelf life. And, remember, 20 years ago, 95% of beer the world over was being produced by a comparatively small number of big national and international breweries.

But in Europe and America this all began to change in the first decade of the 21st century. The general feeling was that beer had now become bland, all very much the same, at best indistinguishable from other brands and at worst, tasteless. In towns and cities, here, there and everywhere, small independent brewers (often working in garages and back rooms to begin with) began to appear. And the demand for the products of these new ‘micro-breweries’ was huge.

Thailand, however, is a nation which is famed for its rules, regulations and endless red tape, more so than ever when it comes to foreign businesses operating on Thai soil. Thus the idea of small, independent microbreweries, and their unusual and often startlingly-invigorating beers, took a long time to get off the ground. Bangkok led the way, with a non-stop succession of small, illegal, mini-breweries appearing, being fined and closed, then opening again under different names. And from this small beginning, everything grew.

Times have changed. The antique lions and elephants of Thai beer are now retreating in the face of very much more-cosmopolitan and complex brands, images and brews – ales, stouts, browns, porters, malts, wheats, India pales – and long may it continue!

          

Rob De Wet



 


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