Two years ago Randy and I blogged about our “Beers around the world” research trip. This year we took another blog-worthy beerventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia. True, neither of these countries is known for its beers, at least not in the craft beer circles in which we travel. However, during our research we came across an intriguing and insightful article, “In Vietnam, Traveling An Unlikely Beer Trail,” by Russ Juskalian (NYTimes 2/21/2010), which introduced us to Vietnamese Bia Hoi and further whet our curiosity about beer culture in Indochina. Juskalian writes that Bia Hoi, “sometimes called fresh beer but literally meaning gas beer, is an unpasteurized, unpreserved brew made before the sun rises, and often imbibed in before the sun sets.” That was enough to seal the deal. We knew we’d find a brew we’d never encountered in our previous travels. As soon as we had our plane tickets and — due to the language barrier — a travel agent, we planned our trip. We didn’t really know what to expect but we knew it would be an unusual beerventure, which it was. Hopefully you’ll find our travel blog beer-worthy. Cheers!

Want to be overwhelmed by funky architecture, great food, fabulous wine and cool people all in one gorgeous urban environment that blends old and new with seamless cool?  Head to Barcelona, a 9 letter word that translates to SEXY.

Though most people think of wine when they think of Spain and Spanish cities, Barcelona’s a great place for a beer or few.   So when you need a break from the dazzling Gaudi architecture and it’s beer time, what will you find?  Products from Barcelona’s own Damm Brewery, first established by August Kuentzmann in the city center in 1876.  Until recently Damm beer was the only beer produced in Barcelona (more about this below). Their omnipresent flagship beer, Estrella Damm, is a light-bodied, balanced beer that pairs well with food and also works as a session beer.

We also tried two of Damm’s lesser known beers — Voll Damm and Inedit.  Voll Damm is a double malt beer that registers 7.2%abv.  Ingredients: water, barley malts, yeast, rice and maize.  While we found this to be the most flavorful beer so far (with Efes Dark running a close second), the beer lacked esthers and had an astringent/bitter character on top of the maltiness.

Inedit is Damm’s entry into the exotic beer market.  It comes in an elegant bottle with an elegant little booklet hanging on the neck.  A very delicate wit beer, registering only 4.2%abv, Inedit is slightly cloudy, low on bitterness.  Randy noted its esthery character, and a hint of rosewater flavor and subdued spiciness.  Clean finish. Intrigued by its unusual profile we tested this beer over several days, without refrigerating.  The flavors became more complex.  While not offensive in the least, this beer is definitely an attempt to appeal to wine fanciers and food lovers.

After we gave our best uneducated guess at the text on the booklet, we found someone to translate the neck tag booklet which reads, Tasting Notes: High intensity and complex aroma, lightly turbid, very fruity and floral on the nose with fresh yeast sensation and memories of sweet spices [check].  Premium fresh texture, soft volume and delicate carbonation [check].  Long aftertaste and affable, friendly memory[really?]…Estrella Damm Inedit is a unique mix of malted barley, wheat, wheat with hops, cilantro, orange peel, licorice, yeast and water…Estralla Damm Inedit was created by Damm’s masterbrewers, from heritage and tradition…This beer is born from a need to have a beer that can accompany the best cuisine with the maximum respect for flavors.  This is what makes it special, unique, different…We recommend serving the beer in a white wine glass, only have full to appreciate the bouquet…This beer will develop new flavors and aromas with age.

During our tastings we did not get a hint of a long, lingering finish.  The affable memory, yes, but that probably had more to do with Barcelona than the beer.  The memory might not be so affable in Afghanistan.

But wait! There are more Spanish brews than those produced by Damm.  On the very narrow C/Sant Agusti 14, in the Eixample, we found Barcelona’s only brew pub, La Cervesera Artisana, which produces Iberian beer.  (It also offers a wide selection of Belgian beers on tap and in the bottle.  Could this be due to the InBev influence?)  On our visit only two of their house brews were available on tap, Iberean Pale Ale and a Blonde.

House Brew Taps

Randy found the Pale Ale to have a profile similar to an Oregon Pale Ale, but much milder.  It was full of hop character; malt tastes were present but mild; cloudy; thin-bodied.  5%abv; 28-30 IBU. Dry and hoppy finish.  Slightly cloudy, the blonde had a citrus top note, thin body; grapefruit and light peach flavors with a dry finish.  4.5%abv.  High on the quaffability scale.  Want to learn more about this lone brewpub?  Visit their website: http://www.lacervesera.net/eng/localfsn.html.

During our walk back to our hotel we passed an interesting place with unusual gleaming taps: Bar Mut.  Though we didn’t stay for dinner, we learned once back in the States that they NYTimes recommends their tapas.  We were surprised by the taps, two of which were from a Madrid Brewery, Mahou.  The Mahou Negra exhibited flavors of dark malt and licorice.  In fact, under the creamy head and roasty malt bouquet we discovered a complex malt profile of licorice, chocolate, cocoa and molasses.  Light bodied and well balanced, the beer had low bitterness, soft flavors, nice acid balance evidenced by a short, crisp finish.  The second Mahou beer, Clasica, had a hop edge with a grainy, husky character and almost liquor-like malt flavor.  It was light-bodied, finished dry with a hint of sweetness and light, lingering bitterness.  Each beer had distinguishing flavors and scored high on the quaffability scale.   BTW: If you like to hang with well-heeled locals, Bar Mut might just be the place for you (Carrer de Pau Claris, 192, Barcelona).

If you have time and care tear yourself away for a surreal experience, hop on the RENFE for a brief trip to the Dali museum in Figures.   Originally a theatre in his hometown, Dali turned this space into a museum filled with a wide array of his art including conceptual sculptures, jewelry and paintings such as this one:

A gorgeous city filled with magnificent Byzantine mosques, artisanal mosaics, a wonderful modern art museum and delightful people, Istanbul is a fabulous destination lacking only for some really distinctive beer.  That´s not to say they don´t have beer, or reasonably tasty beer, just nothing that will knock your socks off.  Efes Pilsner is everywhere.  We preferred draft to bottles (not much of a surprise), and had the best in the Istanbul airport (a bit of a surprise).

We ended up in a very nice small hotel (Sireki Konak) within walking distance of the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sophia, in the Old District close to all the major sites and the Bosphorus. Just on the corner a few steps from our hotel we found a Pub that clearly catered to tourists, especially rugby lovers.  This bar boasted of three tap lines, three times as many as any others in Istanbul, but the only Turkish draft was Efes Pilsner.  Budweiser was not as prevalent here as elsewhere, which is to say we encountered a lot of Miller, Corona and other SAB Miller products. The bar offered an extensive list of not necessarily hard to find bottled beers at hefty tourist prices (e.g. 10 Turkish Lira, ~$8USD; our hotel down the street only charged 5TL for the same product).  We selected two that seemed unusual — Efes Dark and Taps Red Ale.  Efes Dark surprised us mostly because of its complex flavors.  This light bodied beer distinguishes itself with soft flavors of cocoa and semisweet chocolate.  Smooth and quite a pleasure to drink, Efes Dark is a surprising 6.1%abv.

We were not overly impressed with the second suggested beer, Taps Red Ale, until Randy noticed the brewmaster´s signature: Will Kemper.  We asked the bartender to translate the label for us.  Reading from the the label, the bartender told us Kemper created the recipe, and the beer is manufactured in Istanbul with ingredients imported from Washington state.   The Taps website offers a different story: Taps opened Turkey´s first brewpub in Istanbul in 2002.   Taps began bottling in 2006; their first of five franchise restaurants opened in Ankara in 2008.  The website also states that they brew all malt beers with ingredients “imported from suppliers in the EU.”  We´ll have to check the labels and get the final verdict — did the ingredients for Taps Red Ale in the bottle come from the EU or the USA?  Stay tuned, an answer will be forthcoming.

As for Taps Red Ale – According to the website, Taps beers are designed to pair with food.  Since we tried it without any accompaniment, perhaps we missed a dimension.  Light-bodied as expected, the beer had a dry finish and malt profile with more bitter hops than we encountered in our tastings thus far.  ABV 5%.

To be continued…time on this public computer has expired.

Our Druk Aır flıght from Paro landed ın Bangkok around 4:30pm after an ınıtıal stop somewhere ın Indıa.  Havıng only 24 hours before our flıght to Istanbul and the ongoıng Red Shırt protest agaınst the government, we needed to move quıckly.   That evenıng we enjoyed a couple of Sıngha beers durıng the hotel’s happy hour.  Though another Thaı beer, Chang, was also avaılable, beıng tıred travelers we decıded to stıck wıth a beer we knewand apprecıated.  Also, sınce the locals we spoke to seemed almost dısmıssıve of Chang, we decıded to heed theır warnıngs.

Later that nıght Randy headed out to get some eats and check out the Old World German Beer Bar a few  blocks from hotel.  He returned soon after he left, havıng dıscovered that the food vendors shut down around 2am as do the pubs.  Though many places of busıness close by 2am, the gırls remaın actıve and ınvıtıng.  But sınce they weren’t sellıng beer we’ll save those storıes for another blog.

Up late on Wednesday mornıng, we ate breakfast then started our day as true Germans – wıth an Erdınger Weıss at the Old German Beer Bar.  The bar had quıte a tap system and a set up that made ıt look as ıf ıt could be an actıve brewpub.  Though easıly drınkable, other than beıng refreshıng the Erdınger lacked any character whatsoever.    On hot Bangkok nıghts ın thıs faux German pub settıng,  sales of thıs beer are probably huge.  But ıf you’re lookıng for a beer ın Bangkok to wrıte about,  Erdınger ıs not ıt.

After fınıshıng our mornıng beer we headed down the Soı to the Sky Traın whıch we took to the canal.  We ıntended to hop a barge and vısıt Wat Pho, but short of tıme we opted for a quıck trıp on a hotel ferry whıch took us to an area of town great for shoppıng.  The cloudy skıes opened and ıt began to raın and raın hard ın ıntermıttent squalls so we headed back to the ferry dock and back onto the Sky Traın headed for the Sukhumvıt dıstrıct.

Before descendıng the exıt staırs to the Sukhumvıt we heard the voıces and the horns.  And then we saw them — thousands of Red Shırt protesters.  Now ın ıts 5th day, the protests were quıetıng down a bıt. ( Of course “a bıt” ıs relatıve. The prevıous day protesters held a blood drıve that resonated as a powerful symbolıc gesture.  The Red Shırts marched 1,000 lıtres of donated blood through the streets before throwıng them at government buıldıngs. ) On thıs day we dıdn’t feel threatened ın the least.  The general tone was more lıke that of a parade rather than an anger ımbued rally.

Wıth tıme runnıng short we grabbed lunch on the street then ducked ınto a grocery store where we purchased Leo and Chang Draft ın cans for taste testıng at the hotel.  Leo, whıch we’d not seen on any beer menu, ıs produced by Sıngha.  Tasty, yes, wıth much the same profıle as other beers weive trıed so far on thıs trıp: 5%abv, very smooth, well-balanced wıth lıght malt and hop fınısh.

Chang Beer surprısed Randy.  Based on what locals had told us about Chang our expectatıons were quıte low.  Another 5%abv lıght laer, Chang turned out to be smooth wıth more body and a maltıer fınısh than most we’ve trıed.  Randy enjoyed ıt as much as the Sıngha.

One note:  Wıth the exceptıon of the Bhutan beers, all beers have been served quıte cold.  Sınce temperature affects flavor profıle, we’ve taken thıs ınto account and let beers warm over the course of the tastıngs.  However, our revıews have focused on theır taste profıle at the temperature served. In very warm clımates such as Balı and Bangkok, cold beers quıckly become warm beers so a cooler servıng temperature makes sense, especıally wıth the beers we’ve trıed as they are desıgned for quaffabılıty and to paır well wıth lıghter cuısıne that packs ıts own heat.

Next stop: Istanbul, the magıcalbrıdge between  East and West.

 

DRAFT ONLY.  COMPUTER TIME LIMITED. 

In the eastern Himalayas lıes Bhutan, a lovely land-locked country surrounded by mountaıns whıch some refer to as Shangrı-La for ıts prıstıne landscapes and kınd people. Now ın ıts thırd year of rule by K5, a 30 year old kıng whose father passed the crown to hım ın 2008, Bhutan retaıns a homogenous population dedicated to preservıng theır cultural herıtage and theır natural resources.  The tool they use to measure: Gross Natıonal Happıness.  The country’s bıggest export ıs hydroelectrıc power; tourısm ıts second largest ındustry.  Bhutan ıs heavıly relıant upon Indıa for many of ıts daıly products, ıncludıng most all foods durıng wıntertıme.  In the summer Bhutan’s fıelds and orchards come alıve and the trade ıs reversed: they export rıce, fruıt and vegetables to Indıa, theır largest tradıng partner.  Interestıngly, theır produce ıs 100% organıc whıle the produce and meats shıpped from Indıa are not.

Two beers are produced ın Bhutan: Red Panda, a lıve yeast weıss beerö and Druk Beer, eıther a lager or 11000 (a “Strong Beer”).  Red Pand ıs prouced by Frıtz Maurer ın Boomtang.  Accordıng to our guıde (btw: as part of theır sustaınıblılty efforts, the Bhutaneses requıre you have a guıde and drıver wıth youat all tımes durıng your vısıt), K3 (the present Kıngis grandfather) vısıted Swıtzerland ın the 1960s.  Durıng hıs vısıt he fell ın love wıth Swıss cheese and convınced Maurer to move to Bhutan and produce the cheese ın hıs country.  Maurer and Red Panda brewery are locatedın Boomtang ın the center of Bhutan; our travels were lımnıted to Paro and Thımpu ın western Bhutan so we weren’t able to vısıt the brewery.

Red Panda ıs 5% abv and cloudy due to the lıve yeast.  At the Gantry Palace hotel ın Pare we thoroughly enjoyed our fırst bottle for ıts flavor, balance and character.  Thıs beer dıffered from all beers we’d prevıously trıed on thıs trıp because ıt had body and a bıt of cıtrus along wıth a soft wheat flavor.  However, ıt would be unfaır to extapolate from that one bottle that all bottles or drafts of Red Panda were equally good.  We trıed a draft at Benzar ın Thımpu and were less ımpressed and surprısed because the draft lacked the character we’d found ın the bottle.  Randy conjectured that they may lack Co2 so we were drınkıng tap beer that had been tapped too long and not kept cold enough.

On our return to Paro we stopped ınto a local store and purchased two bottles of Red Panda (50 each rather than the 150 charged at the hotel<).  The fırst bottle was true to form, but we found the second undrınkableç  It turned out the latter was bottled ın 2009, suggestıng ıt was tooo old and not properly stored.  The fırst bottle we enjoyed had a bottlıng date of February 2010 and was brought up from storage ın a cool basement.  Our experıences confırmed what ıs true about lıve yeast beers – they are quıte fragıle, not the best choıce for a thırd world country wıth small stores relıant upon nature for refrigeration. 

The Bhutanese we spoke wıth found our beer tastıng mıssıon somewhat amusıng.  They told us Red Panda ıs a beer made for tourısts whıle they prefer Druk 11000.  Druk Brewery ıs three years old and located ın southern Bhutan.  It ıs owned by the famıly of the wealthıest man ın Bhutan (he passed away ın 2005).    We tated two beers produced by Durk, the lager – nothıng much there to wrıte about – 5% abv, lıght-bodıed, lıttle flavor, no fınısh; and Druk 11000 “Strong Beer,” whıch had not more than 8% abv.  It ıs sold ın dark and clear bottles, whıch mıght cause some confusıon but ıt ıs the same beer regardless of the packageç  Lıke Red Panda, Druk ıs bottled ın recycled bottles.  Why the Bhutanese are so fond of 11000, we’re not sure but we suspect ıts more ın lıne wıth theır palatte or the flavors they’re used to.  Prıce mıght also be  consıderatıonbecause Druk sells for consıderably less than ıts competıtors, especıally ımportsdç  At our hotel ın Thımpu we had a 330ml can of Tıger beer from Sıngapore (150), and then trıed a lıtre of 11000, whıch we learned cost 100.   

11000 ıs an ale wıth unıque flavor, one try as we mıght we could not ıdentıfy.  Not all bottles have labels on them and none of the labels lıst ıngredıents so we could only guess.  In addıtıon to barley, water and culture we thought perhaps rıce, maybe even red rıce.  The Bhutanese produce a lot of rıce both whıte and red.  We’d eaten both wıth our meal and conjectured that they used red rıce as an adjunct.  However, our guıde was certaın thıs was not the case sınce red rıce ıs expensıve, too expensıve to use for beer.

We only had 36 hours in Bangkok before our departure so not much time to sample many beers in this amazing city offering much to experience.   We did enjoy, really enjoy, a couple of Singha beers, about which we’ll report when we return to BKK on the 16th.  It also happens that there is a German beer bar just down the soi (lane) from our hotel so we expect to have more beer reviews in our BKK portfolio.  In the meantime…

We visited the Grand Palace — magnificent.  So much art: paintings (frescos), sculpture, statues, architectural details including millions+ diamond-shaped mosaic mirrors on the outside of the buildings and on statues; mosaics underfoot.  Endless amounts of creativity and talent in service of Thailand’s history, the monarchy and Buddha.  However, we did not make it through the gates without being subject to tricks the locals play on tourists.  Though the cab driver dropped us at the entrance to the Grand Palace we did not walk right in.  A man came up to me and pointed to a picture indicating I wasn’t properly clothed, then wrote that I could borrow a free sarong at the next entrance.  So, we walked there, where another man dressed in the same official-looking blue shirt told us with some insistence,  “they’re closed for lunch,” …Yeah, right.  A national monument closed for lunch?  But wait!  There’s always opportunity.  “We can take you on a tour of some shopping centers while you wait for lunch to be over.”  Sure…People really fall for this bullshit?  We walked back to the gate where the cab driver dropped us off, walked in and I went toward the room for a free sarong until a woman stopped me and assured me I was adequately covered.  Since she worked in the official information booth, I believed her.  We continued through the magnificent gardens, paid our fee and encountered a truly spectacular complex of monuments.

On thing you’ll find in BKK is many independent operators trying to get you to visit shopping plazas.  Cabs w/0 meters and tuk-tuks will give you a pretty good rate, but beware.  They all want you to visit a shopping center “for just 5 minutes.  I get 5 litres gas from my company if I take you there.”

We also visited Jim Thompson’s house.  Thompson is the man who introduced America to Thai silk in the late 40s, early 50s.  A trained architect, he assembled a very beautiful house from several older Thai houses, modifying them with Western touches and creating a unique harmony among all the elements.

A night we visited with our friend Babar who works for the UNDP.   Because the cab didn’t know the restaurant where we wanted to go, he dropped us at another one just a short cab ride away.  Big surprise to us.  Nonetheless, we met Babar, had a good chat and a good Thai meal for not many Baht, and then headed to Scirocco’s on the 65th floor of the State Tower.  True, you pay for the view, and what a lovely view it was.  Unfortunately the photos do not do it justice since the air was slightly hazy.

We returned to the hotel after 1am, then headed to the airport at 3am for our flight to Paro, Bhutan.

The word “warm” fits the Balinese people well but is an understatement when referring to the weather.  Even the pool water is around 90 degrees F.  This kind of weather I enjoy.  Randy, however, prefers it cooler.  Nonetheless, the temperatures are conducive to our project because it’s pretty good beer weather all in all.  Our first day we went to Kuta, one of the main surf and party capitals in Bali.  On our way to town the cab driver informed us that tourism is way down ever since the bombings (2002 and 2005).  Other than the empty storefronts he pointed out, we wouldn’t have known since there were so many people on scooters, in cars and walking about.  BTW: Even though traffic in Bali is nuts, all the drivers go with the flow despite the hyper-crowded roads.  It takes forever to travel what appear to be short distances.  You can either take a car service for an hourly rate or hop in a freelance taxi and negotiate the price as you drive along.

Our first stop: Mamma’s, a German restaurant established in Kuta in 1977.  There Randy ate some pretty good sausages; I had pea soup.  Supposedly the Best Pea Soup in the world, emphasis on the word supposedly.  At Mamma’s we had the ubiquitous Bali beer, Bintang, on draft.  Though a good pilsner and one with high quaffability, it almost appears to be the only beer around.  You really have to look hard to find signs of any other beer, such as Bali Hai (which is made elsewhere in Indonesia).  We also tried two beers from Storm Brewery, Storm Pale Ale and Storm Iron Stout.  Randy’s take on the PA: ~12P, 45-50IBU, and 35L.  Straw colored and light in body, this beer is slightly fruity in a good way.  ~5%abv, perfect for this weather.   He enjoyed the Storm Iron Stout, which reminded him of Shea’s Stout from Australia.  Flavors of molasses, burnt malt, hint of chocolate. Slight sweet bitter finish.  Suggestion of black patent malts, no hint of burnt coffee.  This beer holds a head; color of dark brown sugar.

Nowhere else during our Bali travels did we come across Storm beers, which are only produced in Bali and have very limited distribution.  According to the website, Storm beers have their origin in England where Thomas Storm (great grandfather to brewery owner Robert Storm) brewed ales for the royal court, ales whose recipes were kept secret “on pain of death.”   The tale of how Robert Storm established Storm Brewing in Bali is indeed a tale of stormy passion and exotic adventure on the high seas, in the islands, on land.  After several generations and brewing in many locales, Robert Storm chose a spot somewhere in the central mountains of Bali with a pure spring water.  Check out the website to learn more: http://www.stormbrewing.net.

Later on Saturday we hopped in a cab and headed to one of the better surfing spots, Pedangpedang in Jimbaran.  On Sunday we went to Tenganan, an original Balinese village known for producing ikat, a double woven cloth.  Only local beer at a nearby hotel where we stopped for lunch: Bintang.  In addition to Bintang, the hotel offered a selection of global brands, eg, Heineken, Corona, much like everywhere else.

Monday’s journey took us to Ubud, known as the heart of Bali.  Everywhere along the roadside you’ll see numerous carvings and furniture stores, but when you arrive in Ubud and its surrounds you feel like you’ve hit the motherload.  Some paintings are fairly disposable, not art of any quality or distinction.  However, there is a plethora of remarkably good art — from wood carvings to paintings.  It left us wondering what’s in the water that makes such creative and talented people, and so many creative and talented people.

We had a delicious Balinese lunch complimented by Bali Hai beer at Cafe Wayan.  Randy preferred Bali Hai to Bintang (our cab driver voted the reverse.  He’s not a fan of Bali Hai).  Randy found Bali Hai had less bitterness, great quaffability, nice hop finish on the back of the tongue.  Very light body, short clean finish. 11.5P, 20L, 16-18IBUs, 5%abv.

On our way back from Ubud we stopped at a grocery store.  Again, Bintang was so prevalent at first we wondered whether the store carried any other beers.  Finally we found a few, including a very good Guiness Stout for Foreign Export.  The others we’ll test today: Anker Lager and Anker Stout from Jakarta, and Bintang in a can.  The total cost for the four beers: 59,000 IDR. Figuring ~9,000 IDR to $1USD, that comes to about $6.50.  Not bad considering the Anker lager is a large bottle and cost 16,000IDR (at a restaurant a large bottle of Bingtang is ~20,000-25,000IDR).  The small bottle of Guiness was our most expensive purchase, ~17,000IDR, or roughly 33% of the entire bill.  Beer in Bali is not very inexpensive, certainly not when compared with the prices in China or the wages here.  Several people told us what they made, just as part of the conversation.  The cab driver who picked us up at the airport was the first to disclose his salary ($60/month),  and the young waiter last evening the last to make us aware of his monthly income (1,000,000IDR).

We’ll try the Anker beers and the Bintang in a can later today, before we hop our flight to Bangkok.

***Still unpacking and looking for my notes on the Anker beers.  In the meantime, a little research on Bintang reveals that it is Indonesia’s largest selling beer.  Not only that, the beer first came on the market in 1929, when Indonesia was still under Dutch rule.  In 1936 Heineken became the largest shareholder.  After several name changes, in 1981 the company became known as PT Multi Bintang Indonesia and went public.  The breweries also produce Heineken, Guiness Foreign Extra Stout and Green Sands.  Knowing that history, the prevalence of Bintang throughout Bali comes as no surprise.   PT Multi Bintang Indonesia is a member of Asia Pacific Breweries Limited, a company begun in 1931 as Malayan Breweries Ltd (MBL).  In 1932, MBL opened its first brewery in Singapore and launched Tiger beer, a beer that Singaporeans can be rightly proud of.

We had our first taste of Tiger on our Singapore Airlines flights from Beijing to Bali, and then again in Bhutan.  Definitely a lighter style beer with a good flavor profile.  It has a light hop aroma, was pretty typical of the beers we’ve encountered; nicely balanced.  About 18L, 5%abv, 20IBUs.  This is a good warm weather beer whose pale malt flavors become more defined when accompanied by spicy food.  Little did we know until we read the APB website that, “The distinctive taste of Tiger Beer is favoured by the modern man of today. Tiger Beer is synonymous with self-progression, manliness and social engagement. ”   Wow! That is a supremely elegant way of saying “Man in a Can.”   I hope they develop a Tigress Beer.

Beijing was cold and hazy the two days we visited but clear, cold and slightly hazy on the days we landed and departed.  Day 1:  We took the opportunity to walk along a section of the Great Wall, which was very steep, especially the final stairs leading to the end tower.  On a clear day the view of the surrounding mountains would be phenomenal.   then we stopped by the 2008  Olympic site (Bird’s Nest, Water Cube) <– haze or no, very impressive architecture.  Last stop, the Summer Palace.  When you think of the beauty of Chinese architecture and careful placement within the landscape, this is what comes to mind.  Day 2: We walked to the Forbidden City via Tiananmen Square.  Our route took us through an open mall packed with luxury stores such as Longchamp and Cartier, to name only two of many.  Tried though we did, we were not able to hire a cab so we continued walking toward the Forbidden City.   As we walked the streets got wider and the stores and buildings bigger, kind of like a rivulet leading into a river and then into an ocean.  When we landed on the main boulevard (Wangfujing (?)), we were blown away by its massive proportions — wide streets, large hotels and monumental buildings.  Truly, the scale blew us away.  Not surprising considering we spent our downtime in a hutong (small narrow alleyway with buildings scaled to people-size (one story)).

Our journey to the Forbidden City took us past military with M-16s ready to fire and a brigade of people with red and yellow arm bands that said “Volunteer Security,” and numerous policemen.  We were unaware until we read the paper that evening that the national congress was in town for the next few days.  Protests had been planned, hence the security. 

We turned down a side street and walked through a lovely quiet garden that paralleled the large avenue.  Then back onto the avenue to the entrance of the The Forbidden City.  What a marvel, and so gorgeous.  Seemingly endless buildings and courtyards, detailed paintings and carvings (wood, stone, marble, brass).   The scale made one feel small in relationship to the architecture, and also the history.   Construction of the Forbidden City began early in the 15thc, during the Ming Dynasty, long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  Perhaps the most delightful thing about Chinese architecture is that it is punctuated by landscaping that brings a sense of quiet and harmony, such as the Garden of the Forbidden City, which is the last thing you experience before walking out the North gate. 

Le Cote Cour, our hotel, would have belonged to a wealthy person.  It was built in courtyard style, with the rooms built around a central garden.  We could only imagine the springtime beauty of this setting and other gardens we saw.  Buds were apparent, but it will be several weeks before they bloom.  But what about the beer? 

Our first night we ate at a local restaurant and split a bottle of Tsingtao draft.  Not bad.  Light.  Nothing special, except along with all the Chinese characters the NBA logo was clearly stamped on the neck label.  Day 2, after the ride back from the Forbidden City on a motorbike (that rocked!), we sat down and tried some beers we purchased at a local grocery store.  Five 330ml cans, total price: 13.05Y, ~$2.00USD.  Note: Bud and Heineken were also available, but at roughly 3 times the price. 

First up, the most prevalent beers, light lagers.  Beijing Beer.  3.6abv, 10P, brewed by Asahi Co., Ltd.  Light straw color, about 18L. Ingredients: water, malt, corn starch, rice, hops.  Touch of fruitiness, very light on the palate.  Fairly clean finish. (Anne thought the finish a little sticky, something left on the back of the tongue.)  Beer 2: Yanjing Superior Dry Beer.  Yanjing makes several styles of beer.  The can design on this one is remarkably similar to a Heineken can.  3.6abv, 10P, brewed by Yan Jing.  Ingredients: water, malt, rice, hops.  Light beer.  Clean, refreshing, not much distinctive but balanced with a touch of fruit.   Beer 1 and 2 are decent choices for drinking in quantity, especially in warm weather.   Suitable for Beijing, which gets very hot and sticky in the summer.  Beer 3: Harbin.  Also 3.6abv, 10P.  Harin Brewery was established in 1900.  Other than that, we know little about the beer because the text was all in Chinese.  Similar in color, mouthfeel and weight to the other beers, we liked this one the least because it had a corny tasting finish.

Onto the dark beers.  We chose two — Yanjing Dark. 4.3abv, 12P, 70-80L.  Reddish-brown color.  Ingredients: mineral water, malt, hops.  This light-bodied beer had a smokiness and a long flavorful finish.  Instead of a roasted malt finish, Randy detected a touch of licorice root.  It was well-balanced, round on the palate.  Much different from the other beers we tried and what we think of as the typical Chinese beer.  Our 5th and final beer, one off the beaten path: Blue Diamond Stout.  Blue Diamond makes a few different styles of beer, but Randy selected their stout out of curiosity.  abv? 13P, 70-80L.  Chinese text, so we don’t know much about the beer, other than it was thin, watery and our least favorite. 

At dinner that evening at a Taiwanese restaurant we tried Taiwan beer and a Tsingtao Draft.  The Taiwan beer was light, as expected, 4.0abv, and very good. 

We planned to go to two beer bars: Beer Mania and Tree, but due to the impossibility of getting a cab and the damp cold we wandered back to our hotel, packed up and got ready for our very early flight to Bali.

In 24 hours we’ll be on the plane headed to Beijing.  As excited as we are, we’ve also been sobered by the Chilean earthquake and its devastating effect on so many people.  Not to mention all the power outages and trouble caused by snowstorms in the Northeast.  Our hearts go out to those who are struggling with the consequences of natural events beyond their control.

A word about this blog: early on I’ll probably do most of the writing. Also, we won’t be able to add pictures until after our trip because whatever entries we’re able to post will be done via computers in internet cafes.  So follow us on version 1, and stayed tuned for the added bonus of pictures in version 2.

Beijing.  The weather in Beijing will be the coldest of anywhere we visit, including Bhutan.  Highs = 50F, Lows = 25F.  We’re staying at a small hotel in a hutong, an alleyway, with only 14 guestrooms.  No big flashy chain hotels for us.  According to Lonley Planet (LP), beer is “Beijing’s favorite tippel.”   We know of three Chinese brews:  Yanjing Beer, Beijing Beer and Tsingtao.  Randy also wants to try the Pabst produced in China.   On the street these beers cost about 2Y-3Y per bottle, about 15Y in a restaurant or bar.  At 7Y to the $1, that’s pretty affordable.  We’re going to be careful about drinking too much because it’s important to keep our wits about us.  Not only do Beijingers “not do English well,” they drive like maniacs.

Cheers to the ‘b’ trip!

Anne Sprecher here —

Randy and I are taking a “b” trip around the globe.  On Monday, March 1,  we depart from San Luis Obispo for Beijing, Bali, Bangkok, Bhutan, Istanbul and Barcelona.  The purpose of our trip: to test the hypothesis that American brewers make the best beers on the planet.  Lots of research needs to be done and we’re the ones to do it.

Randy started Sprecher Brewing Company 25 years ago.  First beer available to the market: Winter Brew.  What motivated Randy to establish the first microbrewery in Milwaukee since Prohibition?  Several factors (entrepreneurial drive, great water, a population that appreciated good beer), but most importantly, his frustration that Europeans were making such great beers while the US macrobreweries were falling short.   He decided to make the type of beer he wanted to drink.  After many years of homebrewing, special studies at UC-Davis, working at Pabst, and sheer grit and determination, Randy opened his own microbrewery that made complex and satisfying all malt beers.

Flash forward 25 years and the American craft brew seen is rockin’.  Time to test a new hypothesis and enjoy beers around the planet.   First stop Beijing, a city that loves its local beer and imports as well.

Cheers and back to packing