Local beer, local food
Given this wonderful cuisine, centuries in the making, what to drink?
Conventional wisdom says that local beer goes with local food, and that’s not a bad place to start. In the old beer-producing nations, some “natural selection” over the years must shape commercially successful beers to suit national cuisine.
But—unlike Europe—in the tropics, the food and the beer have not grown up together. The cuisine has developed over the years out of local ingredients, but the beer has generally arrived with colonizers or expatriates. Most beers brewed in the tropics are the lightest of light lagers. Unfortunately, when the local dishes are strongly flavored, the beer does little except quench thirst.
In contrast, and unique among Asian countries, Thailand happens to have a few strong and flavorful beers that are a match for the cuisine. A bite of hop bitterness can cut the richness of coconut cream, or refresh the palate after a gaspingly hot mouthful of green curry.
The Lion and the Elephant
Singha, named for a mythical lion, is the quintessential Thai beer brand. It’s been brewed since 1933, when Thailand was still called Siam, by Boon Rawd Brewery Co., a family company, owned and managed now by the third and fourth generations of the Bhirom-Bhakdi family.
The brewery looks to Germany for its brewing traditions, beer styles, equipment and ingredients. Even the brew master is German-trained.
Boon Rawd makes a range of beers but the flagship beer is Singha. Compared to other beers from Asia—Asahi, Kirin, or Sapporo from Japan; Tsingtao from China; Tiger from Singapore; Thirty-three or Saigon from Vietnam—Singha has more hop bitterness, more juicy malt flavor, and, at 6 percent, more alcohol content to sustain both. The result is a beer that can stand up to the pungent, sour and spicy flavors in Thai cooking.
“Singha is a very enjoyable beer, but it is not a mainstream beer because of its higher alcohol and higher hops,” said Palit Bhirom-Bhakdi, managing director of Boon Rawd Trading International. “Why a 6 percent beer? Singha is a German-style lager. Coupled with that is the flavor of our food: German culture meets Thai spices. If you focus on the beer, then any cuisine that is spicy and rich is a natural fit.”
“Singha is the country’s oldest beer,” he continued. “It tends to be pitched at middle-aged drinkers. The company plans to re-position the brand to meet the challenge from Heineken—out of the traditional to a more modern lifestyle, moving away from Thai cultural festivals into pop bars.”
In fact, the biggest challenge to Singha in terms of volume is not Heineken, but a new Thai beer called Chang, first launched in 1995. Through low price, good timing, and aggressive business practices, Chang has overtaken Singha as the biggest-selling brand in the country.
The TCC Group, Chang’s parent company, developed the beer in a joint venture with Denmark’s Carlsberg.
“Chang means ‘elephant’ in Thai,” said Chulatip Nitibhon, president of Pacific Spirits, the American importer of Chang Beer. “Carlsberg owns the right to use the elephant symbol, and gave permission for Chang to use the name as part of the joint venture. The head of Carlsberg even designed the logo.”
Like Singha, Chang is a relatively strong beer, with 6.4 percent alcohol, although it is not as heavily hopped as Singha. Chang was designed to be an economy beer. Chulatip doubts that the Thai tradition of higher alcohol beers has much to do with the character of the cuisine. “Thais are new beer drinkers. They cheat in the way they drink beer. They put ice cubes in it or put it in the freezer, so a 6.4 percent beer is actually watered down.”
TCC Group has built the success of the beer on the back of its main product: lao khao or white spirit, a strong, cheap, distilled drink that actually outsells beer. The company bundles the two products together for retailers, allowing them to price Chang below cost, according to Mario Ylanen, the Vancouver-based North American importer for Singha.
“Relative to the purchasing power of the average person, beer is expensive, so cheap distilled spirits have always been more popular. TCC Group had a virtual monopoly until 2000,” says Chulatip Nitibhon. “When the government liberalized the distilling industry, Khun Charoen [the owner of TCC Group, Charoen Siriwatanapakti] simply told all the potential bidders that he’d double or triple his production, flood the market and undercut them. No one bid. His hold on the market is legendary.”
Boon Rawd brought suit for unfair practices, accusing Beer Chang of forcing their agents to purchase a set amount of beer for every order placed for white spirits. Boon Rawd lost.