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Intoxicating Bangkok

Intoxicating Bangkok

In the capitol of Thailand, there’s a new kind of temple in town dedicated to matching traditional dishes with beer and food styles more common to points west.

Since the House of Beers opened its doors, Bangkok has seen the arrival of upscale beer bars and brewpubs with English, Belgian and German themes. Not to be outdone, Thailand’s flagship brewer Boon Rawd is leading a homegrown movement with Est. 33 – a $1 million brewpub.

Would you like a Copper ale made with germinated brown rice to accompany your buffalo wings and  chili lime sauce?

I stared at the glass in front of me in utter disbelief, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Minutes earlier I’d ordered a bottle of Chang, eager to quench my thirst after a long afternoon of sightseeing. But fatigue had dropped my guard.  By the time I noticed the waitress pouring my beer it was too late. She had already added ice cubes to the glass.

In just about any other city I could have demanded another drink, or at least asked the waitress to remove the offending chunks of frozen water from my lager. But in Bangkok it would’ve been rude. She was simply serving beer the way thousands of Thais drink it every day.

Intoxicating Bangkok: HOBS

At HOBS, a Chimay Red pairs well with the thom kha gai soup and its spicy coconut milk broth.

Without writing off the region entirely, Michael Jackson succinctly summarized the brewing traditions of Southeast Asia with a single sentence in his “Pocket Guide to Beer:” “In most countries, the climate, culture, and standard of living favors nothing more elaborate than straightforward, international-style lagers.” His description essentially remains apt today, except I don’t recall reading anything about serving lager on ice. But I wonder what Mr. Jackson would say about Bangkok’s beer scene if he could visit again?

Fortunately for connoisseurs in Thailand’s cosmopolitan capitol, the landscape is rapidly transforming. In a city where cocktails and sophistication were once a power couple to be reckoned with, a handful of new beer bars and a stylish brewpub have appeared in a matter of months, ready to compete with trendy clubs and rooftop lounges. First there’s House of Beers, or HOBS. After finding success in Soi Thong Lor, founder Chris Foo brought his upscale Belgian beer concept to the hip neighborhood of Ari, giving the city a second location for Trappist ale lovers.

A grumbling stomach and a desire to wash down my lunch with something different led me to stop by the newer of his two locations one afternoon. Casting aside any expectations, I climbed to the second floor establishment at the back of the quiet Aree Garden dining complex on Ari Samphan Road. Large windows flooded the bistro with natural light, white tablecloths topped every table, and from the corners of the room, subdued music floated from ceiling-mounted speakers. This was clearly a step up from the watering holes most Thais frequent. Satit, my waiter, informed me that Stella on tap was well liked, but I went with a Chimay Red. Its silky, slightly tart complexity paired nicely with thom kha gai, a delicately spiced soup that I picked from the HOBS menu of Thai and European dishes. A coconut milk broth spiked with chili peppers, galangal, thinly sliced chicken, leafy cilantro, red bell pepper, citrusy lemongrass, bay leaf, and chunks of mushroom, this soup demands a beer that won’t be overwhelmed by its layers of taste. My Chimay was more than up to the task.

On my first visit to Thailand several years earlier I hadn’t paid much attention to food and drink. My goal was to get to a beach and stay there. But when I turned up in this Buddhist country again in November, I knew I’d never last without at least one beer that could stand up to the cuisine’s infamous heat. Never did I expect to stumble into a place like HOBS though. For decades the options have been decidedly limited. When Phraya Bhirom Bhakdi founded Boon Rawd, the country’s first brewery in 1933, he unwittingly determined the beer palate of generations of Thais. Singha, his pale, German-style lager has dominated the domestic market ever since, spawning competitors at home and in neighboring countries that have grown their own business by producing strikingly similar variations on a common theme: light-bodied, relatively low in alcohol, and not overly bitter.

A few entrepreneurs did start brewpubs in the mid-1990’s, but lasting success eluded most, the Tawandang German Brewery and the Londoner Brew Pub being two notable exceptions. In spite of the quality of its classic weizen and its malty dunkel however, Tawandang owes some of its local popularity to generous plates of Thai food and a somewhat outlandish nightly stage show. Call me old fashioned, but sequined cabaret dancers and Dixieland jazz bands aren’t exactly the sort of entertainment I expect to find at a German (or even a Thai-German) beer hall. The smaller Londoner, on the other hand, pours pints of its house-brewed pilsner and a ruddy, respectable Londoner’s Pride Cream Bitter to clientele that is largely farang (or foreigners).

Intoxicating Bangkok

Signs, signs, everywhere signs at typical Thai street bar. ‘Thank you for only…’

But times have changed, and with HOBS leading the way, foreign-brewed styles have made inroads. Rising prosperity along with a younger, socially networked drinking class has brought about a shift in the tastes of Bangkok’s citizens—all of a sudden, strong Belgian ales seem to be gaining ground on watery Asian lagers.

“Consumers of beer grow every year,” says Chaiyapat Chaturongkul of Boon Rawd. “People are willing to pay a premium just to try those specialty beers, and I think the trend will continue to grow.”

If anyone should know, it’s Mr. Chaturongkul—he played a key role in Singha’s project to bring a brewpub to Bangkok in December of 2009. Working with brewmaster Markus Jungblut, he oversaw the design of Est. 33, a small but modern space featuring the work of local artists as well as a unique centerpiece behind the bar: a pair of glass brew kettles, the only vessels of their kind in Asia. As a nearly $1 million investment, the brewpub was an expensive gamble, but it’s paying off. By making the production of beer an attraction itself and then developing a menu combining Thai ingredients like chili lime sauce with western dishes such as buffalo wings, the new venture quickly outgrew Chaturongkul’s modest expectations.

“Thai food goes well with Belgian white beer, with  its citrus notes and subtle sweetness. I’d love to get the line of Brooklyn beers in here, or Dogfish Head, or something else that’s well-hopped and fruity, bitter and strong.”

– Jarrett Wrisley, owner of the new Soul Food Mahanakorn

“From the fourth or fifth month it started going—mostly by word of mouth—so we extended the deck. Occupancy grew from 60 to about 200.”

The only problem with Est. 33 is its location in a mall out of reach of public transportation and many miles from my own neighborhood. It almost didn’t seem worth the trip until I realized that The Crystal Design Center, or CDC for short, had quickly become one of the hottest destinations in Bangkok.

Built to be the “ultimate lifestyle design district” with dozens of showrooms peddling fine furniture, expensive kitchen and bath products, luxury house ware, and modern home entertainment accessories, CDC has surprisingly emerged as an oasis for beer buffs as well. Restaurants soon followed interior design companies to this shopping complex, and then at the beginning of the year, Est. 33 was joined by the Aston Gastro Bar and Beerology. These specialty bars aren’t trying to compete with the typical Thai beer garden crowded with tin tables and taste-alike beer; they’re aiming to attract tastemakers. In a city where a bottle of Chang is usually about 70 Thai baht or $2.30, they charge closer to $8 for a bottle of Tripel Karmeliet.

Jungblut can hardly keep up with demand at Est. 33. Of the three beers on draft on any given night, the Copper is by far the favorite. Pouring a bright reddish orange owing to the addition of GABA rice, or germinated brown rice, this mellow ale has a fruity character, and to balance the gentle bitterness of Perle hops, a hint of caramel sweetness. A “sweet peak” as Jungblut calls it. Numerous sugary beer cocktails like the Bier Royale (lager with a shot of black currant liqueur) and the Shandy Noir (lager and Coca Cola) also have their admirers.

“I didn’t expect the success,” he told me during my tour of the brewpub in late spring. “But the Copper is a good match for the climate in this heat,” he said.

Following the excitement surrounding Est. 33, Boon Rawd plans to unveil a second, larger brewpub in Bangkok later this year. And Chaturongkul mentioned eventually expanding to other tourist towns like Phuket in the south or Pattaya to the east. He’s not ruling out the possibility of bottling one or more of the Est. 33 beers down the line either. Their Weiss bier was apparently a strong seller when it was on draft, but I lobbied for the Black Beer, a roasty, aromatic, light-bodied schwarzbier brewed with sweet black sticky rice. Either way, the notion of a brewing giant like Singha adding a new beer to their product line is an enticing one.

Thana Jiraratana, owner of the Aston, wants to introduce his fellow citizens to international beers by pairing them with an elegant dinner menu that includes inventive dishes like the Foie Gras Supreme, a tower of seared scallop, tuna steak, and foie gras in a soy emulsion. He maintains that because Thais don’t have a long history of brewing, the culture hasn’t yet learned to appreciate the drink’s diversity and potential complexity, and many don’t immediately recognize the differences between beer styles. Tired of the same handful of brands, he said that Thailand’s beers all tasted the same to him. “It’s pilsner, bad pilsner actually, so when I make my list, I choose the best.” With the aim of changing attitudes, Aston eschews domestics in favor of Trappist ales, golden ales, and Flemish reds.

Intoxicating Bangkok: Beerology

Intoxicating Bangkok: Est. 33

Beerology and Est. 33 are prime examples of the new Bangkok scene.
(Photos courtesy of Est. 33 and Beerology)

For someone with such a strong opinion about what to drink, I was surprised when Jiraratana told me about the experience that inspired his own conversion. “Like most people, I drink Singha. Then I go to HOBS,” he remarked with a grin. The beer disciple became an evangelist. His youthful face should have tipped me off. He wasn’t a seasoned businessman or a calculating investor. This was a guy who had fallen for a bottle of Weihenstephaner. Recognizing an opportunity and hoping to elevate the perception of beer in Bangkok, Jiraratana shrewdly decided to open his own gastro bar at CDC.

At Beerology, Gant Pookaiyaudom is of the opinion that some Thais are tempted to order a strong Belgian pale ale like Kwak because of its glassware. “People want to try when they see the glass,” he explained, referring to the goblets, snifters, and flutes lining the shelves. “They take the picture and post on Facebook,” he went on. And while his theory may have some truth to it, the Tuesday night crowd sharing the second-floor space suggested that the drinks themselves have their fans, too. Inside the narrow, dimly lit room, well-dressed bar-goers occupied every table and kept the waiter busy, sending him back to the tap for round after round of Leffe, Hoegaarden, and the occasional Guinness. Still more patrons filled the available seating outside on the balcony, happily swilling and snapping photos.

Changes are afoot elsewhere in Bangkok, too, not just in the posh CDC locale. Some restauranteurs who once might have simply pointed diners to a wine list are now also offering a handful of Belgian beers. For Jarrett Wrisley, the owner of the new Soul Food Mahanakorn on Thong Lor Road, “Thai food goes well with Belgian white beer, with its citrus notes and subtle sweetness.” His classy yet casual restaurant, which serves entrees like a Burmese-style curry with braised pork belly and an incredibly flavorful khao soi, a curried noodle dish from Northern Thailand, carries Duvel and Vedett. When pressed however, Wrisley admits that his favorite pairing is the region’s own malty Beer Lao Dark with his sticky tamarind ribs. Nonetheless, he hopes the options available continue to expand. “I’d love to get the line of Brooklyn beers in here, or Dogfish Head, or something else that’s well-hopped and fruity, bitter and strong.”

“Consumers of beer grow every year. People are willing to pay a premium just to try those specialty beers, and I think the trend will continue to grow.”

– Chaiyapat Chaturongkul of Est. 33.

Whether or not the Brooklyn Brewery chooses to export to Southeast Asia’s City of Angels (it currently distributes to Tokyo and Hong Kong), the beer scene in Bangkok is likely to continue evolving for the foreseeable future. In the three years since HOBS opened its doors in 2008, it has become possible to track down a Rodenbach or a Waterloo Triple 7 Blond at nearly a half dozen other places around the city. Even the Londoner has taken to stocking Duvel. Plus, the number of beer bars seems to expand on a regular basis. The Four Points by Sheraton brought its Best Brews program to downtown Bangkok by opening BeerVault, a sleek, modern space with more than 50 international beers to choose from, and then, with next to no publicity, BLOC Beer & Bistro appeared in the City Viva mall in May.

Intoxicating Bangkok: The Londoner

The Londoner usually pours its Pride Cream Bitter to farang, or foreigners.

Traveling to Sathorn in the southern part of the city, I turned up at BLOC with a couple of friends on a recent evening. We were seated promptly beneath a large glass case filled with dozens of bottles of beer, backlit as if in a museum display. Green Day and Guns & Roses played over the sound system, and as we looked over the menu, groups of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings steadily arrived to claim spots in the air conditioning or at tables on the open-air balcony.

Scanning my options, I briefly contemplated their unusual beer cocktails like a Black Hoe (Guinness and Hoegaarden) or a Beerita (lager, tequila, and limeade) but ultimately reconsidered. The rest of the menu told me BLOC wasn’t a gimmicky place—they even had bottles of their own branded wheat beer. If I had brought more money, I might have splurged for the $25 bottle of Cuvee de Chateau. In the end, I opted for a Floris Chocolate, an enticingly described drink produced by Brouwerij Huyghe. In six months in Thailand, I hadn’t seen a single chocolate beer, and I jumped at the chance to try something from the fruity Floris range. Fragrant and a rich brown color, it tasted like a tootsie roll. To my delight, it was poured into a glass free of ice.

Planning a trip to Bangkok? Make sure you check out these beer landmarks:
bangkok map

BLOC Beer & Bistro
City Viva, 3rd Floor
58 Narathivas Road, Yannawa, Sathorn, Bangkok 10120

Crystal Design Center, L3 Building, 2nd Floor
Soi Lad Prao 87, Klongun, Bangkapi, Bangkok 10230

Four Points by Sheraton
Sukhumvit Soi 15, Bangkok 10110

Est. 33
Crystal Design Center
Bldg. E, Crystal Design Center, 1420/1 Praditmanoontham Road
Bangkapi, Bangkok, 10240

House of Beers
522/3 Thong Lor Soi 16
Sukhumvit Soi 55, Wattana, Bangkok 10110

Tawandang German Brewery
462/61 Rama 3 Road
Yannawa, Bangkok 10120

The Aston Gastro Bar
Crystal Design Center, L4 Building, 2nd Floor
Soi Lad Prao 87, Klongun, Bangkapi, Bangkok 10230

The Londoner
591 UBC II Building, Basement B 104, Sukhumvit 33
Sukhumvit Road, Klongton Nua, Wattana, Bangkok 10110 Thailand