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Oakes Weekly - November 25, 2004

Laos & Cambodia
Oakes Weekly November 25, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

As Asian beers go, amongst the general populace three stand tall with the best reputations. One is Tsingtao, another Singha. These both have a direct German pedigree and brewers who have stuck to the original recipes. The other is Beer Lao, which has a Czech pedigree and similar dedication to tradition. None of these beers is going to set my heart on fire of course, but Beer Lao is one of the best, if not the best-made macrobrews I’ve ever come across. This is a good thing, since it’s the only beer in Laos for the most part.

In Luang Prabang - a very touristy place - I was able to find a couple of interesting beers. One was at an upscale restaurant called 3 Nagas. I was walking by and took a gander at the menu - Beer Lao, Heineken, Budweiser, Corona, Guinness. Yippee, all the international standards. Hold up. This is Asia. Guinness here is Foreign Extra Stout. I love that stuff. I asked to see it. It was the one from Singapore. That’s a new one for me, and a very good one. In fact, it’s as good a foreign stout as I’ve had, with incredible complexity including the classic touch of brettanomyces that even the great Lion Stout doesn’t have.

Also in Luang Prabang, Martin of Martin’s Pub is Norwegian and brings in a supply of Ringnes Pilsner. It’s not exactly a microbrew, but it’s pretty cool to see and at $1.50 per can it’s probably cheaper in Laos than it is in Norway.

In the capital city of Vientiane, there are more discoveries to be made. At a Western grocery, I found some Thai beers, an Egyptian lager of all things, plus The One That Got Away. For ten years, I’ve suffered the pain of missing a golden opportunity. When I was a novice beer lover, one of the beers in my local store was ABC Extra Stout from Singapore. I always figured I’d get it next time, as it was a little pricey. Next time came and it was gone. Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve developed a real taste for foreign stout and the fact that I’d blown my chance to have this beer has been a real issue. It helped shape the determination with which I conduct my beerhunting. Ten years later, I found ABC Extra Stout staring back at me from a fridge in Vientiane, Laos. Relief was the only thing I could feel. The albatross was gone.

I also found a beer most interesting - Lao Bia. This translates to Beer Lao but it is not at all the same thing. It is a microbrew from a project in the south of the country that makes beer from the sap of the sugar palm. This sap, along with malt, cane sugar, and hops produces a chewy, yeasty, bottle-fermented beer. The beer is decent and offers a distinct sugary note. The brewery is listed as being in Champassack, which is both a town and a province. I was headed to both, but was unable to find the brewery. I did, however, find a second beer from them, a similar but cleaner offering called Golden Palm.

Leaving Laos, through the village of Veun Khan, I had some time to kill while I waited for a boat to take me across the Mekong to the Cambodian border post. There is a bar down by the river that carries five Cambodian beers, all new to the outside world. I had time, but no more Laotian money, but I was encouraged - not the least of which because two of the five were stouts.

In the first town, Stung Streng, a group of travellers were debating taking a bus onwards. We eventually decided it was more trouble than it was worth. One person remarked, "but there really isn’t anything to do in Stung Streng." Well, maybe the rest of them were bored out of their gourds, but I was dipping into all of those unknown Cambodian beers.

The best two were stouts - Black Panther and Super Klang. Both of these, as well as the super-premium but rare Angkor Extra Stout, are made by Cambrew, one of two main brewing companies in Cambodia. They make the flagship Angkor Beer, which is crap, and a drinkable strong lager called Klang ("elephant").

The other brewing group operates under two names - Cambodia Brewery and Singapore Brewery. This is the local arm of Asia Pacific Breweries, the Singapore-Malaysian outfit that is part of the global Heineken family. Singapore Brewery was one of the companies that formed Archipelago Brewing Company (the ABC in ABC Extra Stout). Archipelago became Asia Pacific and operates breweries across the region. Aside from ABC Extra Stout, Cambodia Brewery’s best beer is Gold Crown Lager, and the Malaysian brand Anchor Smooth Pilsner is the flagship.

San Miguel is also active here, sending their flagship brand and a budget brand, Valor, in from their brewery in Guangzhou, China. I was unable to find any microbreweries in Cambodia, but with foreign stout so readily available, in still represented an improvement in my fortunes this trip.

In Siem Reap, I popped into an Irish pub. In some parts of the world, Irish pubs can be a valuable beerhunting source because you might find FES. This place, Molly Malone’s, has the Singaporean FES, which I like a lo


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start quote It is a microbrew from a project in the south of the country that makes beer from the sap of the sugar palm. This sap, along with malt, cane sugar, and hops produces a chewy, yeasty, bottle-fermented beer. end quote