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December 11, 2007

In search of Beerlao

Posted in: Beer

beer lao beerlaoBEERLAO IS ONE of the great beer secrets of Asia. I first stumbled upon it in Vientiane back in mid 1990s when Laos was first beginning to re-open to the world. In those days it was called Biere Larue. There were very few tourists around back then but the town did boast a sizeable population of foreign NGO personnel.

The drinking venue was around the fountain on Pang Kham but the output from the brewery was small and most evenings the bar would run out. We’d be forced to finish the night drinking one of the imported, and more expensive, mass produced brews which always tasted rather clumsy after the light, crisp taste of Beerlao.

The brewery began production in 1973 under the name of Brasseries et Glaci è res du Laos which was 85% French owned. After political changes in 1975 the Lao government bought out all the overseas shares.

beer lao beerlaoIn 1993 the company entered into a joint venture with Loxley and Italian Thai. This relationship lasted nine years before the two Thai companies pulled out.

Carlsberg Asia and TCC,their partner in Thailand, each took a 25% stake in 2002 with the Lao government holding the remaining 50%. By 2006 output had increased to almost 120 million litres per year. A new brewery is due to open in early 2008 in Southern Laos which will boost production to 210 million litres per year.

The signature brew is, of course, Beerlao (ABV 5%) and has been dubbed Asia’s best beer by TIME magazine and the Dom Perignon of Asian beers by The Bangkok Post. It is a cool, crisp pilsen style beer that is made with local polished rice, Hallertau hops, German yeast and malted barley from France.

It is very pale in colour with subtle flavours, lightly hopped and a very clean finish. The word ’saki’ springs to mind but that is just the flavour of the rice coming through. An easy going beer, perfect for lazy sunny days but would fit just about any occasion.

During the course of three Premier League matches I put Beerlao through it’s paces. I was at the At Corner bar on the very end of Soi Cowboy in Bangkok. I don’t remember how many I drank, but it was a lot. The only other thing I remember drinking was some kind of local shooter/chaser called Yadong, a mixture of Sang Som and unspecified herbs.

The resulting hangover was far lower on the Richter scale than one would expect and I blame the Sang Som chaser for most of that.

It will also go with just about any food. Classic Lao dishes would be the green papaya salad called som tam (yes,that famous Thai dish is actually Lao by birth), barbecued chicken and some sticky rice.

In addition there is also a Beerlao Light (ABV 2.9%) and a Beerlao Dark (ABV 6.5%). The Dark version is probably not what I would call a true dark beer. It doesn’t have the really deep bottom associated with dark beers. But it is still a very agreeable beer indeed. The flavours are more complex and boast gentle chocolatey tones. It slips down very easily.

Beerlao isn’t officially available in Thailand and won’t be for some years despite the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement that comes into effect in 2008. The two countries have agreed to maintain tariffs on each others beer so you wont find it in supermarkets and convenience stores. But it is available in a good many bars and restaurants, mostly in areas that are popular with tourists.

When production picks up hopefully exports will too. In the meantime look for it around Kao San Road, the bar areas in Bangkok, Ko Samui, Pattaya and Phuket.

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