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Oakes Weekly - July 28, 2005
What About the Rest of the World?
July 28, 2005
Written by Oakes
The question was simple – what’s your highest-rated country? The answer to the question is simple mathematics. Sri Lanka, of course. How does a country like Sri Lanka end up at the top of the heap? Well, they make a great beer, and have the good sense to export it. But a lot of countries don’t export their good beer. Sometimes it’s because the good beer only comes from brewpubs. Other times, they haven’t thought of it. And once in a while it could just be that they don’t really think people in other places want their funny beer, just the top-of-the-line yellow fizzy stuff. For whatever reason, a lot of great beer is out there, living a life of obscurity in the eyes of anglophone beer lovers. So what else is out there?
Let’s start by looking south. Mexican and Latin America have a few microbreweries, making respectable beers. After that, it gets a little light. Most South American countries only have one or two brewpubs and micros are rare. But get across the equator and things liven up a bit. Brazil has a small beer scene with a few reputable breweries. Argentina, however, has a scene that has exploded over the past few years. When their currency collapsed in the early part of the decade, it took the country’s purchasing power with it. As the price of imported beer skyrocketed, demand plummeted. Thankfully, there were many budding entrepreneurs ready to fill that market void with locally-made premium beer. Now, it seems like every town in Patagonia has a brewery, and craft beer is starting to really take hold in other areas as well. Many of these breweries produce German-accented ranges.
Heading west, most Pacific islands with a decent number of people have some sort of craft brewery – Fiji’s main island, Guam, Tahiti and a few Hawaiian islands as well. But when you get to New Zealand, that’s when it gets fun. It only has a population of three million, but there are some sixty breweries there. Like anywhere else, the quality can vary but some have earned a solid reputation. The focus is on English styles.
Australia has quite a few micros as well, though they aren’t necessarily well-distributed. Also, it seems like a scene similar to Canada’s, where an inordinant amount of craft brewers really aren’t very good at all. But like with New Zealand, some Australian micros have gained attention outside their homeland, even if the beers themselves haven’t been abroad.
From there we go northwest into Southeast Asia. Vietnam has a tradition of local beer called bia hoi, which is served draft at basic corner bars. (Tracking down the brewery information on bia hoi may be difficult, though). There are also several brewpubs in both Hanoi (one source claims a dozen) and Ho Chi Minh City.
The Thai beer scene has taken a beating lately, but there are still a few brewpubs holding on, in Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Hua Hin. Laos has one microbrewery with very limited distribution. Cambodia has no micros or brewpubs, but does have four widely available foreign stouts. Singapore has the venerable Brewerkz, but there doesn’t seem to be much craft beer in the other countries of the region.
Moving north, China has a smattering of brewpubs, though I found more closed ones than open ones on my visit last year. So it’s still a bit of a beer wasteland there. Amazingly, North Korea has several brewpubs, mainly brewing lagers. Japan has had a micro scene since the mid-90’s and the Japanese seem to have taken to craft beer like ducks to water. Several Japanese micros are making excellent beer these days and the country boasts the third “grand slam” beer fest, the Great Japanese Beer Festival. It’s not all peaches and cream, though, as some of the beers suffer from timidity.
Aside from Lion Stout, South Asia is a horrible place for a beer drinker. India is reportedly getting its first craft brewer later this year, though. I found eight craft brewers in Central Asia last year (there is another one reported in Turkmenistan, a country I didn’t visit). Some are pretty weak but at least a couple make impressive beers. German styles are standard procedure there.
The Middle East is rough for beer lovers, to say the least. Even Israel hasn’t really caught the micro vibe, despite at least one brewpub. Africa? There’s a few micros in South Africa, albeit with tiny distributions, but the continent is indeed dark for the beer lover, as FES will be the only thing you’ll want to drink.
Eastern Europe remains relatively uncharted territory. The finest beerhunters in the world have begun to scratch the surface, and what’s come out of that is that there are a lot more microbreweries than anybody ever imagined.
Leading the way of course is Lithuania. You could spend a year in Vilnius and not find much local beer worth drinking, but in the north – in Pasvalys, in Pakruojis and the entire Birzai rayon – they have a great farmhouse brewing tradition. The beers are wild and crazy. Like lambic, they are full of flavours you wouldn’t ordinarily want in a beer, but it works. Some of them can be an acquired taste, but it’s well worth acquiring.
Russia and the Ukraine also have quite a few microbreweries. A beer bar owner I talked to in St. Petersburg told me that there are four or five micros in that city, more than anybody ever knew of. I found one, but it was shut tight as a drum. But I could smell the brew! Some of the micros in this area are western-style brewpubs, but a lot are making unique lagers rich in house character.
In Hungary, microbreweries abound, but again, a lot of them remain undocumented. The language barrier has a lot to do with that, I think, as Hungarian is one of the more unique tongues in the world.
Other Eastern, and Central European countries often have a handful of brewpubs, typically making German-style beers. This is fitting, as these countries generally lean towards moderately flavourful pilsners as their daily beers.
Italy is coming on. With a couple of Italian microbreweries now sending products to the US, this scene may emerge from Western Europe’s shadow. The Italian scene has by all accounts been improving fairly steadily over the past decade or so. It looks like their microbrewers are keen on adding some flair to Old World brewing ideas and this bodes very well for the scene there. The rest of southern Europe, however, remains a tough place for beer lovers.
Overlooked in Western Europe is France. Often thought of in terms of two geographies – Alsace and Nord Pas du Calais – France is much richer than that. In fact, forget Alsace and its bland lagers forever. Instead, the second scene in France is in Brittany, where a revival of Celtic traditions amongst the Breton people has resulted in a revival of the brewing scene. There are microbreweries throughout France, and it seems many are either undocumented or poorly documented. Strong house character and acidity are common traits amongst French microbrews.
Into the Atlantic Ocean where Tristan de Cunha…yeah, never mind, we’re done our overview of craft brewing in the rest of the world.
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Argentina, however, has a scene that has exploded. When their currency collapsed in the early part of the decade, it took the country’s purchasing power with it. As the price of imported beer skyrocketed, demand plummeted.
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