It is a strange quirk of history and economics that a nation’s taxation regimes change the beer that each country drinks. In the US, beer needs to contain at least 25% malted barley and so mass market brewers push the lower limit using rice, corn or anything else that can contain sugars and is cheaper than malted barley.
In taxation terms, Japan has three kinds of beer. Japanese booze blogger Jim from MoIpai outlines:
Regular beer which must contain at least 67% malt is taxed at the highest rate.
Happoshu (which means “Sparking Spirits” 発泡酒 in Japanese) contains less than 25% malt and is therefore taxed at a lower rate (which obviously means it’s cheaper to the customers).
There is a Third-Category “beer” called 第三のビール (Daisan no Biru) which basically doesn’t have any malt and is made from “other” ingredients (I believe corn, peas, soy, etc), which has an even cheaper tax rate.
Along with attempting to juggle a fickle drinking market, Japan’s brewers do so within a three tiered tax regime. Asahi Style Free is beer of the third kind, which is to say, that it is not beer. It’s tax-dodging beer simulacra for drinkers who primarily choose their brew by price. Asahi make the claim that this beer is zero sugar which they do by some sort of prestidigitation around what counts as “sugar” in this chart. It contains no part of some subset of sugar.
The beer is as expected – yes, it’s thin and watery, headless and virtually clear, with a metallic edge and the thinness that you get from brewing with rice rather than some other grain – you can’t confuse it with an actual beer but it is surprisingly refreshing.
The bugbear of all brewers is consistency. While most of Southeast Asia’s lagers are dull, watery and forgettable, they can’t be faulted on their brewing process. Every beer comes from the factory with a taste that is of invariable quality. For all the poor base ingredients and surplus of rice malt, Asia’s biggest breweries manage to churn out the same product ad infinitum. When you pop open your can of Anchor or Tiger or Singha, it will taste the same as the last one. Not remarkable but infinitely dependable.
Lao Cai Lager however manages to not place a heavy emphasis on regularity. The first bottle came out as the expected crisp bland lager. The second tasted like someone had dropped a sizeable chunk of rock candy into the bottle. The third was skunky and strange, possibly left out in the blazing sun for a few weeks. I didn’t make it to a fourth as things seemed to be progressing in a bad direction.
My theory is that there is no Lao Cai Brewery. Lao Cai, situated a few kilometres from the Chinese border, would make a great staging post for Chinese beer smuggling runs. The enterprising ale pirates then rebottle their contraband booty under their indigenous label as not to attract attention from the Vietnamese authorities. The perfectly unpredictable beer crime.
Alcohol by volume: 3.5%
Location: Lao Cai, Northern Vietnam.
There’s two ways to enjoy beer. Firstly, the late and sorely-missed Michael Jackson in his apophthegmatically-titled Beer suggests that for proper close examination, beer is best enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own home, lest the neighbouring drinkers think that he or she is the sort of person that would be pompous enough to sniff at their glass of ale:
A gentle swirl disturbs the beer enough to release its aromatic compounds. This level of study is best pursued in the home, as serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious when conducted in a bar or restaurant.
Drinking at home alone however, tends to take on negative connotations rather than being the preserve of the connoisseur. If I told people that I spent my nights at home alone with my Little Creatures, they’d probably associate me with the wrong Michael Jackson. Some beers are meant to be savoured and considered. They are designed to be flavourful and thought-provoking but still best enjoyed in the second way, in public. I tend to think pretension be damned. Swirl your beer rampantly. Drink your Belgian lambic from a beer bong for all I care.
Of all the manifestations of public drinking, none are more out in the open than that of Vietnam’s bia hoi. For all the keg partys and beer gardens in the world, nothing is easier to find than a simple keg of bia hoi in any shopfront in Hanoi. Bia hoi is a beer designed to be drank in public and nowhere else. It’s simple and straightforward, comes only by the keg and relies on a huge informal network of shambolic streetside vendors for its success. Larger vendors have their fresh beer delivered daily by the factory, smaller vendors pick themselves up a keg as soon as theirs runs dry. The vendors themselves range from dedicated beer halls to little more than a keg on a stand and a collection of ankle-high plastic stools. Some have elaborate tapping systems for their kegs, others have a clear plastic hose that they suck upon to create a siphon.
A glass of bia hoi
The beer itself is so uncomplicated that it is almost transparent. It has the barest of effervescence, hops but a little hint of maltiness. The head is soapy and can barely be sustained long enough for it to arrive in front of you after the beer’s short journey from keg to your plastic stool.
Locations: Everywhere up north in Vietnam. Hanoi Bia Hoi has handy maps and reviews of various bia hoi joints around Hanoi. In the countryside, the big kegs of beer at the front of the stores are hard to miss.
Brewer: The Hite, South Korea
Beer is not good for you. In large enough quantities, it has the invariable tendency to kill you and thus gussying it up as a health food defies explanation. Labeled as the “Stylish beer with fiber”, Korea’s Hite Exfeel-S attempts to market a beer that is just as good on the way in as on the way out, and as far as I could detect, fails on both accounts. According to the press releases, “Exfeel” is meant to be a portmanteau of “excellent feeling” and the “S” is meant to stand for S-line, a strange Korean term for having the perfect hourglass figure rather than a letter to be appended to the start of “Hite”.
Hite says: “Smooth & light premium beer exclusively designed for well-being of young generation.”
I say: By adding an invisible fibre, Hite seems to have rendered the beer almost perfectly flavour-free. Lightly carbonated, no head retention. Golden colour cleverly distinguishes it from water with Braille embossed onto the bottle to help the visually-impaired come to the same conclusion. Perfect argument against low-calorie beer.
Presentation:1600ml plastic bottle