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Oakes Weekly - December 16, 2004
BANGKOK, PART TWO
December 16, 2004
A long time ago, after my first year of university, around the time I first discovered Orval, I was pretty hard up for cash and took a job as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. While not the worst job I ever had, it was pretty bad, mainly because I’m not very good at sales.
When I was first unleashed on the streets of suburban Vancouver, I was given a territory. At the end of the day, I was so proud of myself - I covered off the entire territory! That’s wonderful, my boss told me, except that I had it backwards. A good salesman would take a week to cover the same territory. While I was walking and knocking, they would be talking and hawking.
When I returned to Bangkok after a week’s R&R at the beach, I faced precisely this scenario. The Asian Brewpub Research Team had found new leads for me, and given me more specific location information on a couple of my old leads. I myself had built a list of establishments specializing in Belgian ale. I had a lot of work to do.
So I started right away. I figured it would take at least two days, maybe more, to get through my list. But like in my salesman days (there were about three of them), I covered off everything in one shot. The brewpubs were gone. Harmannsdorfer, Royal Hofbrauhaus, Tony’s, Brew Pavilion - done like dinner. A new lead turned out to be a Heineken-only establishment.
As for Belgian ales, I visited the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, Mingles, Khun Kho’s - not a Belgian to be found. Khun Kho’s was especially sad - staring at the glassware for the Belgians they used to carry. Duvel, Palm, Tongerlo, Bush, Rodenbach - all gone. A newspaper article on the wall dated Dec. 13th, 2003 heralded the place and its Belgian beers. What happened? The nearby retail outlet/tasting room Belgian Beer Paradise, run by the importer, was also MIA. So, no Belgian beer importer, no Belgian beer. The Bangkok beer scene - thriving just one year ago - is in dire circumstances. Good beer establishments are dropping like flies. Indeed, since I visited the nightclub/brewpub Orbit, that place has closed and will be reopened under a new banner, casting doubt as to the future of craft brewing on that site as well!
I had scheduled for myself a day trip to the nearby sin city of Pattaya. There were a couple of brewpub leads and a stack of Belgian beer bars to investigate. I presumed the latter would be empty, based on my findings in Bangkok. This was almost true. I started at Belgium Beer Bar, a cruel joke of a misnomer as they never had Belgian beers. It’s just that "beer bar" is a generic term for any dive in Pattaya and most European countries have a "beer bar" dedicated to them, despite having nothing related to that country.
One exception is the Pattaya institution Patrick’s Belgian Restaurant and Cafe. This is run by former Belgian bantamweight champion ("the guy who beat me used a head butt!") Patrick Van den Berghe. Patrick’s cooking skills bring the dishes of his homeland to Thailand and when he can, he brings in the beers, too. The importer is gone, though, and only four brands remain in his fridge. Three were new to me, which I thought good luck. When they’re gone, they’re gone, but I have every confidence that when Belgian beers return to Thailand, Patrick’s will once again be a prime beer destination.
Pattaya, amidst an endless stream of whiskey-soaked go-go bars, has a couple of brewpubs, both of which were to my amazement still in operation. They are typical massive entertainment venues, built to cater to rich Bangkokians down for the weekend.
Hopf Brauhaus, right on the beach, is easily the better of the two, with tasty beers, a better location and attentive staff. The staff at Brewery House Pattaya, except for a very helpful duty manager, were some of the most useless I’ve ever seen. They totally ignored me, even when I was trying to pay for my food! The beers are weaker across the board, too, the German food lacked authenticity as well. Hopf is warm and wooden, but Brewery House is open and bright - more Thai in style to be sure, but that style of brewpub does not agree with me.
A third brewpub in Pattaya, also of German pedigree, is in the works just down the street from Brewery House. Simply named Brauhaus, this venture to my eyes looks about six months away, as the owner deals with red tape. Apparently the Thai government, under pressure from macrobrewers Boon Rawd and Chang, is making life difficult for all other players in the beer business, no matter how small.
This sounds about right, given how badly the beer scene in Thailand has been gutted of late. Minor brands, brewpubs and importers are all disappearing. As the selection narrows down to nothingness, I will take this opportunity to remind the government of "progressive", "modern" Thailand that microbreweries are a staple of modern life - in the USA, Germany, Scandinavia, UK, Japan, Canada and just about anywhere else in the developed world. The lack of readily available good beer (and Singha does not qualify as "good beer") is indicative of an underdeveloped backwater. So snap out of it and open up the beer market again.
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