I’m sitting here besieged by a thick smog and there’s absolutely no escaping it. It’s everywhere. It attacks my eyes, my nostrils, my clothes – everything. I am mostly depressed but I find a strange pleasure in returning to this little restaurant located at the edge of a busy touristy street, thus offering respite from the overwhelming buzz. Another thing I love about it is its proximity to a local school. Therefore, despite the unbearable conditions, I always grab a seat outdoors so that I can take in all the screams, laughter and wonder at this somewhat disorganized way of schooling. As a teacher I can’t help myself. It also occurs to me that the beer laid in front of me is served in a way which I used to despise utterly. I don’t know if it is this, or the smog and its effects on my brain, that prompts me to write about the evolution of my beer drinking habits in Asia, but it certainly offers a trip down the memory lane compelling enough to take my mind off the way too smokey holiday coma.
Strong beer background
We Czechs have the best beer in the world. Germans and Belgians don’t even try to argue. Thanks. I grew up in a country with the best beer in the world. Oh, I’ve already said that. What’s more, my first serious and well paid summer temporary job ever was in a local brewery in my town, literally a 10-minute walk from my house. I kid you not. At the age of 16 I could expertly tell the difference between a 12 or 16-degree lager. In fact, once it had been established that in terms of manual work I wasn’t as effective as with tasting and providing moral support to male workers, I became quite a popular staff member and a rarity as well. She can drink like a master and she is cute too they would say as my reputation of a teenage village girl who likes tasting beer grew among the brewing masters. Truth be told my returns home were at times worryingly wobbly and I always had to make sure I’d sneak into our small house unnoticed. It was your idea, what did you expect?! I’d simultaneously inwardly argue with my father, mentally preparing for an unwanted confrontation should I be busted upon coming home.
But this story from my teenage years only confirms how bloody important beer in my country is. Even my tiny in-the-middle-of-nowhere town has a brewery which is still in operation. That’s how strong beer culture is. It’s not about the consumption only, but also preserving the small local breweries. I still remember how difficult a decision each visitor to our local pub would have to make upon ordering – Novopacky lager or Pilsner? From what I remembered though and despite Pilsner being a household brand worldwide, the local draught always scored higher. The brewery needed a patriotic approach to survive so most villagers and visitors alike wouldn’t think twice about it. What’s more, making the wrong move during the ordering stage could earn you unpleasant labels too. Outsider, traitor, snob from city would be some nice examples.
First encounters with the Asian style
Obviously, after years of living in my country, indulging in effortless beer drinking – just for the record having a glass during the lunch break would be perfectly normal for most locals with or without your boss joining you – I got lucky (obviously not in the beer drinking sense) and landed an amazing job in Kuala Lumpur. I jumped at this opportunity like crazy. It was all I’d ever wanted. While in terms of overall life, career and development my progress knew no bounds, in terms of beer drinking it was clearly a significant drop. Not so much when it comes to quantity but quality for sure.
Forget the rich taste
While you would assume that many world-famous beers are imported and you’d therefore be getting the same quality thousands of kilometres away, I can confidently burst this bubble for you. Yes, some beers are imported as they simply can’t be (re)produced in Asia but many brands are actually brewed locally. Carlsberg is a good example. Whether you like it or not, your pint of lager will taste mostly like diluted leftovers from the previous night. In fact, diluting lager is a usual practice in many established pubs, at least in KL. I bet other cities follow suit.
KL beer scene
In KL bars you could mostly see Tiger, Carlsberg, Heineken. Tiger on tap was always diluted and it’s one of my least favourite beers. Guinness would be always the safest bet as it’s hard to dilute I’d always reason. And while it often tasted reasonably well, it was still miles away from the original Guinness in the UK. Oh gosh, I’d kill for that taste now. My most favourite brands remained Hoegaarden and Kronenbourg aka 1664 Blanc. Occasionally Stella. While these are hard to cheat as well, sometimes they would taste really foul. But I always kept going out for a pint or two on my weekend. I must admit that I couldn’t imagine life without beer in KL.
The heat and the humidity really weren’t helping but over the years I learned to control my strong urges to quench thirst by beer. It wasn’t easy but slowly and surely I managed. Moving to Hong Kong had certainly helped. While summers are incredibly hot here too I somehow don’t enjoy the beer drinking scene here. In Malaysia having a pint was enjoyable. Here’s it’s mainly a pain in the ass mostly because of the surroundings. I can’t explain it but as you know from this post, going out here is just a weird show. It saves my health and money, so it’s a win-win. But let’s go a couple of years back of my beer journey.
Control your vices before they control you
In 2017 I travelled to Thailand, starting with Bangkok. As you already know, these trips didn’t exactly go smoothly. And when it comes to beer, it wasn’t fantastic either. While in KL I could at least find Kronenbourg or Hoegaarden on tap, in Thailand, and for a first timer, the beer selection was severely limited. Though I did find a craft beer spot which was a different ball game. It was either Chang, Singha, or Leo.
Chang, Leo, Singha
Like most newbies I started with Chang. Till today I still call it unpredictable beer. Why? Well, I don’t know but for some reason it always gave me either a headache or a funny stomach feeling. I suspect though that I might have brought that upon myself. You know … There is this bloody concept called ‘quantity’ and I hadn’t grasped that then. Yet uncontrollable downing of Chang with its merciless consequences was nothing compared to what was coming. Once I sat in a restaurant near Khao San Road and logically ordered beer with my food. To this day I strictly accompany great Thai food with beer. This remains my favourite part of trips to Thailand and it’ll probably never change. As I indulged in my spicy papaya salad, fried rice and Chang I noticed two Thai guys smiling at me from another table. They seemed friendly. And they kept smiling and giggling. It felt weird until a note written in bad but cute English landed on my table. You join we. You and we friend it read. I was touched. They had the waitress translate their idea and inconspicuously put the note in front of me. As I read it and lifted my head the two guys both raised their glasses to say cheers and to accompany their eloquent note by a smooth head gesture translating into Come, join us. How could I have refused.
New friends in Bangkok
These are lovely moments on solo travels. They really seemed friendly and despite not being able to speak much we understood each other perfectly. But in terms of beer it was a disaster! Sodom and Gomorrah. They drank Leo and so I had to join. This wouldn’t be so serious, though I admit Leo is really very low on my beer preference list. À propos, Budweiser is at the complete bottom. I don’t have enemies but if I had, and if there was a need to punish them, they would drink this on a daily basis. Terrible beer. I always suspected they brewed it from grass that dogs peed on. Anyway. Where was I? As my new Thai friends tried to show their hospitality they placed a tiny glass in front of me, filled it with ice and were about to pour Leo inside.
Given the language barrier I couldn’t get into details and explain that pouring and drinking beer on ice practically equals crime and should be absolutely banned. Worldwide. But the only thing I could do was to quickly stop them from pouring by covering the glass with my hand. I used facial expressions heavily, turning my head left and right, indicating that I couldn’t do that. I politely returned the ice to the small ice bucket on the table, smiled from ear to ear and let one of my new acquaintances pour the beer. Now it was their turn to shake their heads in disbelief, wondering how I could possibly drink it. To me their way was disgusting and to them mine. Nevertheless it was one of the best moments I ever experienced in Bangkok. First timer’s luck before the chain of scams that I so expertly got myself into. After this evening we stayed in touch for quite a long time via Facebook but as it always happens it faded away eventually as I couldn’t communicate with either of them much.
In terms of beer drinking, since that time it all went downhill. Everywhere I went from Thailand through Cambodia, Indonesia to Vietnam, locals around me were drinking beer on ice in tiny glasses. Holy mishmash. Beer criminals I would often think accusing them of not knowing what real beer drinking is. I had been invited to tables by strangers many times but always adamantly refused the hospitality in the form of beer served with ice. I would also strictly oppose to drinking from a bottle – even a plastic cup would be better as long as there was a head – and insisted on always pouring myself. If a waiter poured for me I would return it to them without batting an eyelid.
Believe it or not, some would re-pour the beer from the glass back into the bottle, turning it into absolutely disgusting bile without foam. Criminals. I have even witnessed bartenders removing head by a spoon from soon-to-be-mine draughts. Horrendous tragedies have I encountered, indeed. I can’t even recall how many conversations I had with people in bars and restaurants about this and how many waiters were surprised if I recognised bad beer. Oh yeah. Way too many to count, indeed. As a woman, they always suspected I could be cheated easily. It has happened to me in KL and Hong Kong too. But I quickly showed them who the boss was.
Relentlessly defending my cause
Oftentimes I would also impose convincing arguments about beer drinking on people around me, highlighting not only my country of origin but also my unforgettable brewery background. Similarly to my fun night in Bangkok, it mostly aroused suspicion, pity or disbelief. It was always mutual but it never interrupted the fun vibes. Years have passed. I travelled and smiled at this, always being adamant about not stooping to that level of beer ignorance and refusing ice. And from Thailand through Cambodia, Indonesia to Vietnam, locals around me would always shake their heads, wondering how I could drink it like that.
Becoming less militant
Well, today I understand more than well why they were so shocked. There’s is this something called nonstop heat and humidity which turns beer in a glass into a piss in no time. I realised that in order to protect my cultural heritage I had drunk beer in glass without ice but its taste wasn’t that great either. And so the only option was to actually reduce the consumption. I simply realised that it was better to drink no beer than bad beer. I wasn’t so harsh on myself because after years of close relationship with this amazing potion I couldn’t do miracles and for example go cold turkey. But I became more selective and basically strictly abandoned lager and started to drink wheat beer only. In the heat it was the best. Kronenbourg and Hoegaarden led the charts again. And while moving to Hong Kong has almost made me abandon this pleasure of mine completely, I still haven’t escaped unscathed.
I mean, look at some of the photos here again. Yes, that’s what happened to me. I guess after years of exposure to Asian beer drinking, I have finally adapted properly. Not only did I stop objecting to beer served with a glass filled with ice throwing the ice ostentatiously on the ground, but I have grown to actually LIKE drinking beer like that. Holy mishmash! Especially on holiday where Hoegaarden or Kronenbourg might be unavailable. Actually the whole situation is even worse today. Honestly, when sampling local beers on my travels I can’t even imagine drinking it without ice. It simply seems too odd. A bit like a reversed crime, considering the heat.
There’s one thing though I will keep forever, probably. And that’s head. Beer without a solid head is like soup without salt. What’s the point? On one of my recent trips to Thailand I met a friend, Stuart. Great guy but well, British. So you can imagine the pain of explaining that good quality beer needs a nice foamy head. Just because a nation is composed of heavy drinkers doesn’t really mean they got it right, does it? Obviously, it was therefore inevitable for Stuart and I to enter this pesky debate, given the amount of time we spent together, me with a glass and he a bottle of beer in our hands.
While we generally had a great vibe and joked around endlessly, the conversation about beer didn’t go down that well. Stuart was even so meticulous to send me a video about the proper head and other measures such as what angle was best for pouring and so on. I watched a second or two of the nonsense and then considered the matter a lost case. I worked in a brewery for god’s sake, I must know, mustn’t I? Stuart I like you but I won’t budge. After all, Guinness is the only solid beer British have. But hang on! Isn’t that actually originally Irish? I guess that leaves you UK guys at square one, though I know Ireland is part of the UK but when it comes to beer it doesn’t count.
Well, here you go guys. People can change, indeed. I mean look at me. From a loud anti-ice militant beer drinker I have turned into a docile forever pro-ice lamb. Life is really funny, isn’t it? I guess if I could manage this, I will adapt to anything. And what about you? How do you like your beer?