Life awakens before dawn in Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River—the River of Kings—that bisects the city. Bridges hum with automobile traffic that will turn into a modern jam once morning comes. The passenger ferries are quiet, waiting for first light to bring commuters from the older quarter of Thonburi on the west side to the business districts on the east, where the capital city was established over two centuries ago.
It seems that every house, grand or modest, has space for hanging pots of orchids, birdcages, or paths laid out in pieces of colored tile.
On the river itself, three linked barges haul rice from the fertile central plain to the north. In the dark, they slide past modern high-rises and hotels; past the Grand Palace on the east bank, the sprawling complex of temples and royal residences built by Thailand’s former kings; and on the west bank, Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.
On the Thonburi side, activity stirs along the klongs—the small canals that thread from the river through the city. Bangkok lived on the water until recent times. The river and canals determined patterns of building and trading, until the last major klong was filled in in the fifties. One look at Bangkok traffic and you might wonder if a modern road system was really progress.
The famous floating markets are almost gone, although some still operate outside the urban center. Here in the city, the klongs carry limited trade. A few small, flat-bottomed boats glide from the night flower and vegetable markets with fresh goods to sell to the individual houses, small shops and shanties that stand on stilts above the water.
Some homes are very humble, with one room and a corrugated tin roof. The older homes are built of teak panels, carved on the outside. Spirit houses, models of traditional Thai homes, sit atop pillars with offerings of fresh flowers and food for the earth spirit that was displaced when the human house was built. It seems that every house, grand or modest, has space for hanging pots of orchids, birdcages, or paths laid out in pieces of colored tile.
After a morning on the river, the visitor takes away an impression of contrast: old with new, spiritual with secular, east with west, and lavish with squalid. It’s hard to say what real “Thai-ness” is about.
Images of Siam
In the West, the image of Thailand has been shaped almost entirely by non-Thai forces that are inaccurate or incomplete: “The King and I,” which is banned in Thailand for its disrespectful depiction of the king; “The Beach,” the Leonardo di Caprio film of Western backpackers seeking an Asian utopia; or Pat Pong, the garish and notorious red light district that developed to cater to soldiers on R & R during Viet Nam.
In the past decade, however, the most faithful and influential ambassador for the country has been its cuisine. Western countries “discovered” Thai food in the eighties and nineties, and Thai beer came along for the ride.
In some countries the challenge for a beer lover is to taste the whole range of traditional beer styles—a tough task in England, and a downright daunting one in Belgium. In Ireland, by contrast, one style dominates the beer scene, and the real pleasure is to explore all the varied settings for enjoying a good pint of stout.
In Thailand, you can’t talk about the beer without starting with the food, since the place of Thai beer is to play the supporting role to one of the world’s most varied cuisines.
The Flavors of Thailand
Thailand is at a culinary crossroads of Asia, with Burma to the northwest, Laos and Cambodia to the east, Malaysia to the south, and the giant neighbors of China and India to the north and the far west. All these cultures have contributed to Thai cuisine over the centuries and the result is unique.
The food is a balance of hot, sour, spicy and sweet notes. Pungent fish sauce combines with creamy coconut milk and tangy lime in an aromatic curry; fiery seasonings pair with crisp, fresh vegetables in distinctive salads; fresh fruit for dessert is served with sugar for dipping, dusted with powdered chili.
The Thai cook draws upon a huge range of spices and flavorings: ginger and the related galanga, garlic and shallots, coriander leaves and roots, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, fresh lime juice, and over a dozen types of chili.
In the tradition of palace-style cooking, hours are lavished on multi-step dishes, that are then beautifully garnished with fruits and vegetables carved into intricate leaf and flower shapes.
But good flavor is not the prerogative of the rich. Thais seem to cook—and eat—everywhere. At all hours in the cities, on the sidewalks, under the bypasses, next to the water, cooks are slicing fresh ingredients for the world’s best fast food.
In many cases in US restaurants, Thai fare has been dialed back to appeal to American tastes. The results are somewhat sweeter, richer, and certainly less spicy than the same dishes in Thailand. The same is true even in the restaurants in Thailand that cater to foreigners. The legendary heat of some dishes is an acquired taste, even among the Thais; children are given milder food than adults.
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.
“Chang entered the market earlier at a lower price point, but it only gained market share once the economy was in trouble,” said Chutinant Bhirom-Bhakdi, Boon Rawd’s vice president. “The economic crisis in the mid-90s was very hard. It forced our company to change.”
He insists that Boon Rawd just wants a level playing field. “Singha has no desire to get into distilling. In fact, alcohol of any kind is somewhat at odds with Buddhism.”
Chulatip Nitibohn traces Chang Beer’s success to its roots in the countryside. “In the economic meltdown in 1997, farmers were selling in dollars, so they did surprisingly well. Rural areas got electricity for the first time. Farmers bought refrigerators, then they needed something to keep in their refrigerators. TCC Group used its massive distribution network to move Chang Beer. The product grew from the countryside. It used to be difficult to find Chang Beer in Bangkok, just Singha.”
Beer consumption tripled in Thailand in the nineties, which should allow enough room for the many products of both Boon Rawd and TCC Group, and the rather different niches they’ve carved out for their respective signature beers. Both brands, however, face new challenges as they move overseas.
Thai Flavors in America
Americans have embraced the flavors of Thailand. You’ll find packaged Thai entrees in the international aisles of mainstream supermarkets, not to mention the Thai influence—lemon grass, sateh, basil—that is slipping into fusion cooking. Chances are, there’s a Thai restaurant in your town, and there wasn’t one 10 years ago.
Singha has been imported into the US for 25 years, where it finds its natural market among the Thai restaurants—85 percent of its sales are in restaurant and bars. Beer Chang was available briefly and will re-enter the US market later this year.
Mario Ylanan articulated an interesting challenge for Singha: how to continue to be the beer of choice for Thai restaurants, by stressing Singha’s unique compatibility with Thai food, but also how to expand that base to other national and pan-Asian restaurants and beyond.
“The challenge for us is to grow beyond the Thai food-Thai beer box, and get diners and beer lovers to think about flavor, not nationality.”
“There are other Asian beers in American Thai restaurants, usually Tsingtao (China) and a Japanese beer (Asahi, Kirin or Sapporo). Thai restaurants are more open to other Asian beers than, say Chinese or Japanese restaurants, which makes it difficult for us.”
Chulatip Nitibohn is blunt: “There’s a north-south split in every part of the world. Singha might expand into Vietnamese or Pan-Asian restaurants, but no North Asian restaurant will ever serve a Thai beer.”
Both brewers have taken a hard look at America’s fondness for light beer. The new Singha Gold, with less alcohol and less hops, is hardly “light” in the American mode, but it is more like mainstream American premium beer. “Singha Gold is not in general distribution,” says Ylanen, “but it’s catching on in Thai restaurants whose customers find Singha a little too alcoholic or a little too hoppy.”
And when Chang re-enters the US market, it will be a new formulation that is—you guessed it—lighter than the Thai original.
“In the typical Thai restaurant,” says Chulatip Nitibohn “you’ll find Bud, Amstel Light, Heineken, and Singha. Most people who drink Singha are men. Women don’t like the bitter, hoppy taste of Singha, and the high alcohol, so they drink the non-Thai beers. With Chang Beer, we can expand the whole Thai beer segment in America. Chang Beer in America will eat into the non-Thai brands.”
“Thai men are very macho, so they like the idea of strong beer and spicy food. But 50 percent of the US market is light beer, so people don’t think of strong beer as refreshing. Chang’s new formulation for export will be very refreshing.”
The real leap forward will be the acceptance of these beers across a wide range of cuisines. As Mario Ylanan puts it, “Singha is not a Thai cuisine beer only; and it’s not an Asian cuisine beer only. There’s no reason why it can’t go with other cuisines that are rich in flavor, with a lot of spice. Indian, Cajun. There’s a psychological barrier, but imported beers can overcome it. After all, you don’t just drink Heineken with Dutch food.”
Whether or not Singha and Chang enter into the same bruising competition they’ve endured in Thailand, or exist side by side as stronger and lighter alternatives for beer drinkers; whether or not they join the ranks of international imports with Heineken and Corona in American bars, they will always have a natural home alongside one of the world’s finest cuisines.