Wednesday, June 5, 2013

They Don't Like Good Beer

It Amazes me that most of the people I know in Cambodia prefer cheap, average to awful beer to the good stuff. But first, before you start feeling insulted because I may begin to lambaste your taste in beer, let me state very clearly that, 1) I’m a highly opinionated person, so take that into account, besides how else can you be a critic? and 2) As the French would say, chacon a son gout, (I hope I got that right, it’s been more than 50 years since I took French in college) which loosely translated means, There’s no accounting for taste. No matter how atrocious your taste in beer may be, you not only have a right to your opinion, but your taste buds may actually signal a swooning adoration for what, in my opinion, or even the wider opinion, is swill.
I’m certainly no expert in brewing aside from spending a lot of time in Oregon, one of the hot spots of microbreweries in the states, and having a long and enduring relationship with the suds. There aren’t many days that go by without me downing at least a couple of beers. In fact, the only time I won’t imbibe is the night after a blowout when I can’t bring myself to drink even one. It’s not even that I drink all that much, six or seven beers over a long night is about my maximum, not a lot by a serious drinker’s standards. In fact, I’ve saved tons of money over the years just because my intake is so limited. I do like spirits and other alcoholic beverages occasionally, but 90% to 95% of the time I’m after a cold, thirst-quenching beer.
We will certainly disagree on the quality of different beers but the one thing we (me and all you dedicated beer drinkers out there) can agree on that beer is the elixir of life, or one of the most important ones at least. It opens up our happiness centers, smoothes out the hard edges in our daily grinds, breaks down our inhibitions and allows us to relax and have fun. Even if we are not plagued with daily grinds as such, it still gives life an ease and pleasantness that’s difficult to achieve otherwise. The world is nuts, whatever it takes to surf through the big waves is good enough.   
Admittedly, all that happy, happy has its drawbacks. There’s only so many good times allocated to us before the happy, happy turns into total washout. It’s so much fun, you don’t know how to stop. That’s the way it is here in Cambodia… the bar culture is so much a part of the scene, and it’s so cheap, and all your friends are also out there having a good time, and… well, ‘nuff said.
Still, the quality of the suds has to make a difference to people spending hours and hours in imbibing mode, thus I’m baffled by the widespread indifference bordering on disdain on the part of many friends towards Kingdom beer, the only widely distributed craft beer in Cambodia. It’s far from the greatest of craft beers and equally far from the worst, coming up somewhere in the middle I would guess compared to the range of Oregon beers, which still makes it pretty good. Before I go any further, let me say I have no financial or other personal interest in Kingdom beer other than the desire to see it prosper so it stays available, so I can drink it whenever I can afford it.
What exactly are the complaints? One friend called it too hoppy. For me that’s the point. I like a rich, full-bodied hoppy flavor. Another, along the same line said, Yes, it’s got lots of flavor, but I don’t like it. A bar owner friend said, Nobody buys it, why pay $2.50 for a Kingdom when you can get a Beer Lao for half the price? (I can’t believe he chose Lao to make that comparison, more on that later.) Indeed, why drive a Lexus when a Corolla will get you there just the same for a quarter the price and maybe more on topic, why drink Johnny Walker Blue when Red will get you where you want to be at a small fraction of the cost? On the other hand, it makes total sense to drink down-market if you haven’t got the dough. But we’ve carried it too far, we’re so deep into a cheap canned beer culture we can’t deal with quality beer. However, cheap beer is also one of Cambodia’s strong points; you can have a good time every night without pissing away your life savings.
The dislike of Kingdom has gotten so strong it is widely rumored to be going out of business. They definitely were disappointed at the beer’s reception and were forced to make corrections in their business plan but I doubt if they’re about to fold. First they lowered the price of a case of bottles to $20 from $26, which definitely makes it easier for me to buy it. They also went into the cheap beer competition by producing Kingdom Gold in cans and pricing it about the same as the big three - Anchor, Angkor, Cambodia. They’ve recently set up a tent on a main street in Kampot to promote Gold, which doesn’t look much like they’re going out of business. The Gold is a lager and is competitive in quality and taste to the big mass produced beers – I like it better than those, though Cambo is hard to beat.
Another friend said, Sure it tastes good, but it’s not a beer you can drink all night. He actually had a point, though he didn’t realize it. That’s what I do, start with Kingdom then switch to cheaper beer, though that’s mostly because I don’t want to spend the extra money. However, I certainly wouldn’t do that in Oregon: I’m there so infrequently, the cost be damned, I’d never switch to Pabst or Miller from drinking quality beers unless I was in the direst of straits.
Well, what is it that makes Kingdom cost $20 per case as opposed to the mass produced beers that cost half as much, and the off brands which cost as little as $7.00 per case? In addition to the extra cost of putting beer in a glass bottle – in the case of Kingdom a custom bottle – as opposed to an aluminum can, there are only two basic factors that account for cost. Quality beer is the direct result of more expensive ingredients and the extra care taken in the brewing process. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll taste better, only that it has the potential to taste better.
The other valid reason for not drinking Kingdom exclusively is it’s a lot more fattening. Based on American-sized 12 ounce containers – about 350ml – an average cheap beer has about 140 calories; light beers contain about 100 calories; craft beers about 250 calories. So my friend, who can easily down 10 beers a night would be getting a full day’s calories just from beer if he only drank Kingdom, compared to 2/3 of his necessary daily intake from cheaper beers. Craft beers have more calories because they use richer, higher quality ingredients, like the difference between ice milk and ice cream. And they generally taste better because they use, for instance, more expensive malt and more than one type of better quality hops. An award winning Oregon craft beer uses a blend of five different varieties of hops; that’s not something you will find in a cheap beer.
The friend who accepted that Kingdom has more flavor but still didn’t like it is able to down Anchor draft without grimacing. Until recently, I could barely drink it and started looking for more expensive and less ecological alternatives. The quality seems very erratic; recently, it actually tasted good a few times, but then descended back into its normal bitter awfulness. It is advertised as smooth because there isn’t much to it, though it’s not the fact that it’s a pilsner, since Kingdom in bottles also has a pilsner along with a dark lager. I tend to think it wasn’t my taste buds playing tricks on me, but rather that they accidentally, mistakenly produced a better tasting beer, then realized they’d better get back to their regular awful taste so as not to confuse their customers. Anchor in cans is not that bad, though if faced with a choice between Anchor and Angkor, I’ll choose Angkor about 2/3 of the time, it’s got more to it.
I felt Cambo was better from the first taste, and thankfully the two bars I most patronize both have it on draft. Cambodia is sweet and light without a hint of harshness or bitterness. A friend who doesn’t like it called it too sweet, but sweet’s the opposite of bitter so that’s what makes it good. Cambo recently won third place in a category of 4% to 5% lagers in a beer tasting competition in London. I wasn’t surprised as it’s exceptional for a cheap beer. What did surprise me was that Tiger came in second place, which required that I buy one to include in this essay. I’ve drunk a few Tiger’s over the years but somehow it never impressed me as being worth the extra cost, but after drinking one for the purpose of describing it I’d have to say it’s pretty good and more flavorful than average. It’s clearly higher quality, but probably not enough for me to choose it above Cambo, for instance.
   Then there’s the environmental aspect. Draft is easily the least damaging to the planet, at least in Cambodia, since the kegs can be reused practically indefinitely, so I’ll nearly always go for draft first. But it does have its negatives since it has to be kept cold once it’s tapped and there’s a need for gas to bring it out of the keg. It’s also less consistent than cans or bottles depending on how long it takes to finish the keg – after three or four days the quality plummets. Cans are next on the environmental scale since aluminum is valuable and easily recyclable. But beer in cans simply cannot taste as good as in bottles or properly handled kegs. Nobody producing a quality beer would ever put it in cans, but that’s a problem here in Cambodia since the empty bottles aren’t recyclable, nobody wants them.    
Not saying many of the bottles couldn’t be designed to be washed and reused. Except for Kingdom, the bottles used by Angkor and Cambodia and other local breweries are all standard and interchangeable. However, they’d need to be purposely designed for washing since that requires a thicker glass than disposable bottles. Reusable bottles last an average of twenty washes, and if the energy necessary for the process were renewable then their ecological footprint would be about the same as draft, with better consistency and quality.
While we’re at it a discussion of other locally available beers is in order. My bar owner friend who thoroughly dislikes Kingdom and has Cambo on draft, sometimes prefers Klang, which I find astounding, sort of the outer limit of chacon a son gout, since I find it harsh, heavy, bitter and it leaves an unfriendly aftertaste. I don’t want to use up my entire repertoire of  negative adjectives on it or the list would be a lot longer. Klang which means strong in Khmer originally had a big 7% on its can but that caused a problem for some in power – I’m not sure why since the stouts are all at 8%. As a result they lowered the content to 6% and ceased to make a big deal of it. Even if I thought it tasted good I’d try to avoid it since I’d drink it just as fast as the 5 percenters, but it’d get me drunker sooner and send me home that much earlier. It’s super cheap, that much I can say for it - lately as little as $7 case. While we’re on the topic of nasty brews, Zorok, from Vietnam and Special deserve mention. Once I’ve paid for and opened a beer I’m going to drink it as a matter of principle, but man is it difficult with those two; both taste like weak dishwater with Special especially grotesque.
I recently tried a can of Phnom Penh beer; it was actually kind of bright and tasty, nothing like the cruddy suds that I remember from the last time – I’d actually buy it again. There’s a new beer called Ganzberg, which bills itself as German style. It’s good quality with a subtle, gentle taste, but not as flavorful as some of the others available. Beck’s is available at a reasonable price in a few places. It’s a good example of a hearty, strong tasting brew without a hint of bitterness, definitely worth the small extra cost.
I recently came across City beer. It’s available in only one place that I know of in Kampot. It’s brewed in Kampong Chhnang, though I had to get a Khmer friend to translate for me since there’s no info as to its genesis in English. It’s super cheap at $7.50 per case and is my favorite local beer aside from Kingdom bottles. After me going on about equating good beer with expensive ingredients you might rightly question how I could like one of the cheapest beers available. And I still wonder myself, but as often as I drink it, thinking maybe I’m missing something, it still comes out as one of the best; it’s light, bright, sparkly and full of flavor. It doesn’t have the quality of Cambo, but I like it better. And besides it’s cheap, which, when balanced out, makes it a bit easier for me to justify spending all that extra on Kingdom.
As I was touting City amongst friends at the bar, one fellow scoffed and said the motodops think it’s so bad they won’t touch it. Now this fellow often prefers Beer Lao to Cambo draft, so I retorted by saying, I’ve drunk lots of Lao over the years but I’ve never, ever thought, Gee, I’d like a Beer Lao tonight, it just never occurs to me. Just to make sure it was indeed as I remembered it I bought a can and yes, it was thick, syrupy, bitter and seriously lacking in bubblies. So chacon a son gout to you too buddy!