Beerlao Brewery Quest
A Bike Ride to the Source of a Wildly Popular Laotian Brew
By Dave Fox
We’re a little bit lost – me and my new pal Lisa. We’ve rented bikes, pedaled out from the center of Vientiane, the Laotian capital. We’re trying to ask directions, but the lady selling clothes by the side of the road isn’t understanding us.
Lisa’s from Germany, in her final hours of several weeks of solo travel. Her boyfriend flies into Vientiane tonight. So we’ve united for the afternoon on a mission, chasing a common intellectual pursuit, but we’re having trouble finding it.
“Beerlao,” the clothes seller lady understands. “Brewery,” however, is not in her vocabulary.
We’re trying to communicate that we don’t just want to go to a bar. We are seeking the source, the magical Beerlao factory, which we’ve been told offers tours and free samples. It takes a couple of more tries with a couple of different people. Finally, a gang of tuktuk drivers points us in the right direction.
It’s a muggy day, a 12-kilometer ride each way. Vientiane, I’m discovering, is a bigger, more spread out capital than its cozy center implies. My right eye is burning as sweat from my forehead oozes southward, carrying sunscreen into my cornea. My bicycle, which I’ve rented for the equivalent of US $1.25 for the day, has only one speed, but it rides well as long as I don’t need to brake.
We pedal and pedal along a busy four-lane road, looking for the giant building my hotel receptionist has told me I can’t miss. Finally, in the distance, we see a cluster of gargantuan tanks. It must be the brewery. We are here for our tour.
But the guard at the gate will not let us in.
He speaks neither English nor French but he understands what we want. The tours aren’t happening, he mines. The brewery is under construction. No admittance without proper authorization. I’m impressed with his advanced miming vocabulary.
Lisa pleads in a way I cannot. Nothing over the top, mind you, but a couple of quick bats of the eyelashes can’t hurt. The guard has his orders though. We’re not going in.
I play the publicity angle. I show him my business card. I tell him I’m a travel writer from America and I’ve come here to write about Beerlao. This is actually true, and I’m scolding myself now for not e-mailing ahead of time. He points to the marketing office across the busy road. We Frogger between cars, gripping our handle bars as we dash through traffic to a different guard house. A friendlier guard waves us right in.
The receptionist speaks good English. She confirms what we deduced across the street. There haven’t been tours for a year or so. The brewery is expanding, under major renovation. It’s closed to the public.
I ask if I can still talk to someone. She offers us a seat and a bottle of water.
I do. Time has called Beerlao the “best beer in Asia” and the “trendiest beer in Asia.” It’s a lofty statement I’ve been trying to wrap my head around.
Trendiest? Among the 20-something backpacker crowd, I’ll buy that. Best? I’m not a fair judge. I have a bias against basic lagers, which are what people tend to drink in Southeast Asia. I go for sweeter, hardier, more complex brews. So, based on personal preference, I’m never going to call any standard lager the best beer in anywhere. Nevertheless, Beerlao has grown on me the few days I’ve been in Laos.
The first time I tasted it, at an Asian fusion restaurant in Seattle, I wasn’t impressed. Same goes for Chiang Mai, Thailand, a couple of months ago. But in Vientiane, Beerlao has started working its magic. It has a sweetness you don’t find in other lagers, which nudges it into the realm of what I will qualify as one of the best mass-market lagers in Asia. And it tastes fresher when it hasn’t traveled.
But why is it becoming so trendy?
“One thing is its taste, for sure,” Saysavanh says. “The aroma is unique.”
The sweetness, he tells me, comes from locally grown jasmine rice, used along with malt in the brewing process.
But on top of the flavor, Saysavanh says Laotians love the brew for other reasons.
“From north to south, people love Beerlao not because of the taste but because of what we are doing for them.”
That Beerlao is a player in the international brewing scene is impressive in and of itself. Coming from a poor, landlocked nation that suffered dreadfully during the Indochina Wars, Beerlao has emerged to be what is probably Laos’s best known export and one of the country’s most successful corporations. (How many other Laotian brands can you name?)
Laotians appreciate Beerlao because the government-owned brewery pours a large amount of its profits into community services, Saysavanh says. Among other things, Beerlao helps pay for reading materials in rural schools, working directly with the Laotian Ministry of Education.
That, I tell Saysavanh, would be controversial where I come from. Your third grade math books – courtesy of Budweiser? I don’t think so.
He gets it. “In the States,” he says, “you have so many industries that can support education.” Laos, however, has few companies profitable enough to provide the educational support Beerlao provides.
Then he tells me about a healthy living campaign that at first strikes me as backward. It’s a radical idea: Introducing cheaper beer into poor, rural areas – to encourage people to drink less. But there’s a logic to it.
Beerlao is brewed with an upscale strain of hops that requires the brewery to maintain a certain price point, Saysavanh says. People who can’t afford it turn instead to a cheap and potent booze called Lao Lao, which gets tossed back in unhealthy quantities. So the brewery has introduced Lane Xang, a budget beer brewed with cheaper ingredients, in the hope that offering an affordable, sippable alternative to Lao Lao will reduce binge drinking.
I get the notes I need for my story. Lisa and I leave feeling educated. We are, however, still thirsty.
We hop on our bikes and head back toward the city center. What we are about to discover is that sometimes, the “best beer” has to do not only with what you’re drinking, but where you’re drinking.[Continued here.]