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Asian lagers deliver tasty twists on American beer

If you'll indulge me for a moment, I'd like to discuss Asian lagers, specifically the corn-and-rice adjunct variety popular in Southeast Asia. Before you dismiss me as an adjunct lager apologist, I'd like to offer a defense of these brews, which are rarely taken seriously by enthusiasts.

The main problem with Asian lagers is their judgment in relation to other classic styles, despite often being intentionally basic and unremarkable in comparison. Southeastern Asian countries do not have as much of a beer culture as the Europeans — and now Americans — with many beers designed primarily as an accompaniment to a meal, rather than as a sensory experience of their own.

As such, the simple utility of the Asian lager is never more apparent than when served alongside a spicy Thai dish or steaming bowl of noodle soup. Many Asian regional cuisines focus on crisp, fresh ingredients, and these beers are designed with that goal in mind.

Good examples are easy to find in the area, such as Singapore's Tiger lager, the Philippines' San Miguel, or 33 Export from Vietnam's Tien Giang province. The 33 is a crisp lager, with a light body and high carbonation — a nice compliment to the bright, fresh flavors of a Vietnamese meal. The name refers to the original bottle size of 33cl; if you want to make a flimsy attempt to impress your server, try ordering it phonetically: ba moui ba.

Chinese beers make up a sizable chunk of the Asian beer market. Tsingtao, brewed in China's second-largest brewery, is a typical adjunct lager, with a prominent skunky aroma owing to its green bottle packaging. When sampling Tsingtao, I was impressed by a nice hop presence, which is not necessarily characteristic for the style.

I also tasted Kingway, produced in Shenzhen. It was quite malty, with a mildly sweet body and almost no hop flavor to speak of. Interestingly, Kingway advertises that their beer is free from formaldehyde, an additive that was fortunately made illegal in Chinese beverage production about 10 years ago. Phew!

Two major contenders in the Thai beer scene are Singha and Chang. Singha is a crystal-clear, effervescent lager that used to come in a malt-liquor variety but was converted to its current 5-percent-alcohol lager incarnation in 2007. Unlike many Asian beers, this one is made with 100 percent barley malt, as its signature full-bodied flavor demonstrates.

While Singha's label bears the likeness of a mystical lion, Chang's label depicts an elephant, a very important animal in Thai culture, and also the literal translation of the brand's name. Chang was designed to be consumed with spicy food, according to the manufacturer; they also claim that the well water used in the lager's production is so pure that it's sold as bottled mineral water in Thailand. The beer itself is also adjunct-free, with a slight nuttiness, light grain notes, and a mild hop profile.

And then there's the curious case of the Japanese beers, which are often actually brewed domestically or in Canada, rather than being imported from Japan. Sapporo, a light, clean lager, hails from the city that it's named after, but the domestic version is brewed by Sleeman Brewery in Ontario.

If you're ever on the west coast, you may have luck finding imported versions, which come in a wider variety of styles, from schwarzbier and a traditional pilsner to special seasonal releases. Still, the Canadian version tastes nearly identical and is often available in a cool steel can, to boot.

Asahi Super Dry cashed in on the "dry" beer craze of the '90s, quickly becoming one of Japan's top-selling brands. This simple, straightforward lager is a good match for the subtle flavors of traditional Japanese cuisine.

This domestic variety comes from Canada's Molson Brewery, but the Japanese facility also produces a wide range of additional styles, such as Asahi Stout.

Perhaps the most well-known Japanese beer is Kirin, which is often found in regular lager and Ichiban varieties. The latter translates to "best quality" in Japanese and is a reference to the brewery's "First Press" brewing technique, using only the first run of wort produced during the mashing process.

Both varieties use corn as an adjunct, and as such are similar in taste to many major domestic lagers, although perhaps a bit more drinkable. Appropriately, the U.S. version is produced in Los Angeles by Anheuser-Busch, under the supervision of Kirin's Japanese brewmasters.

The final entry in my Asian beer exploration was Beerlao Dark, a pleasantly roasty dark lager from Vientaine, Laos. This light-brown lager had a nice molasses flavor, with a touch of hops but little bitterness. I was surprised by the quality of this one, especially considering its usage of jasmine rice adjuncts. It was considerably more full-flavored than the others; it's stronger too, at 6.5 percent ABV.

My endorsement notwithstanding, it's doubtful that Asian lagers will ever replace the favorite styles of the average beer enthusiast.

Still, I think that they should not be written off so easily. Sometimes the occasion calls for a simple, crisp, clean lager, and more often than not, these beers deliver.


Asian lagers deliver tasty twists on American beer 11/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 3:28pm]
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