Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hunting a great Asian beer: BeerLao

A perfect pairing?

Jon Bonne/The Chronicle

A perfect pairing, from the banks of the Mekong.

The best souvenir I carried home last year from Vientiane was a Beerlao t-shirt, purchased from a stall at the Talat Sao (morning market) near the bus station. When worn around town, it draws two distinct responses: stares of puzzlement and stares of complicit knowledge. We actually bought two, and have arguments at home as to who gets to wear theirs on any given day.

When the New York Times ran a piece this week on the efforts to get Laos' national drink exported more widely, much to the joy of its far-flung network of fans, there was that same knowing twinge. For Beerlao's fans are manifest.

And I am one. I fell in love with Beerlao in Vientiane last year on the banks of the Mekong, where it is the obvious accompaniment with the Lao staples -- spicy grilled chicken, green papaya salad -- offered among the riverside stalls where you can watch the sun set across the far bank, which happens to be Thailand. It is precisely moments like this that make Vientiane the world's most mellow, enjoyable communist capital. And Beerlao, which is served pretty much everywhere you step, is a major lubricant in its culture -- and a major source of pride. Look no further than its splashy web site, complete with the catchiest beer jingle in years.

The Times piece speculates as to whether the beer's popularity among visitors is superior brewing or simply travelers' nostalgia. It is absolutely the former. That might be due to the talents of Czech-trained brewmaster Sivilay Lasachack. Or it might be due to the ingredients, a combination of the unusual choice of Lao jasmine rice with European hops and malt. That's for the lager; there's also a darker version with more malt character.

Certainly it has an excellent grounding for success. The Lao Brewery Company has gone through a weaving series of ownership maneuvers since its creation in 1973, partly due to a nationalization scheme by Lao officials; currently it is half owned by the socialist government and half by Danish brewer Carlsberg. Its spic-and-span factory outside Vientiane was supplemented last year by a second facility in Champasack province in southwest Laos, where the city of Pakse is located. And so it has become a legit point of national pride -- and potential export income -- for one of the world's poorest nations. (Note the clear focus on multicultural amity in the ad below.)

If most southeast Asian beers are 8 parts nostalgia and 2 parts taste, Beerlao defies that trend. Angkor might be a worthy source of pride ("My Country, My Beer") and it's refreshing enough on a Phnom Penh afternoon in a simple way. (A direct Phnom Penh-Vientiane flight one beer-enabled day helped the comparison.) Tiger is rapidly becoming the Bud of Asia. Vietnam's 333 and Thailand's Singha have a distinct bite. But among Asian beers, Beerlao is a grand cru.

A hard-to-find one. I've been searching for over a year to find Beerlao anywhere in the United States -- asking in Asian groceries, stores like Cambodian haven Battambang Market in the deep Tenderloin, inquiring at the few Lao restaurants around, even in farther-off locales like Seattle, where the request is met with a puzzled stare, a shake of the head and a "Maybe a Singha?"

Funnily enough, the same company that imported Singha is bringing Beerlao into the United States. New York's Paleewong Trading imported its first container last July and has already brought in about 6,000 cases. It currently sells to about 14 states on the East Coast.

A separate firm, HC Foods of Commerce, Calif., has imported it to the West Coast for about five years, though only for about a year in any significant quantity. HC Foods' Anthony Sher says they expect to bring in about six containers -- around 7,200 cases -- this year. It is available in a few Southern California locations and, according to Sher, in Northern California as well. (Update: There's a running list of locations here. If you've seen it, let me know.)

Paleewong's Jan Apanich says he heard about Beerlao from a backpacking friend at a moment when the company wanted to expand its range of Asian beers. He went to Laos to check it out: "I walked right up to the brewery and asked if they were importing."

While Singha found a niche by riding along with the surge in popularity of Thai restaurants across the country, it's a different story for Beerlao. Though Apanich is reaching out to Lao expats, he is also going more avant-garde, planting it at events like a Sonic Youth record release. As such, Beerlao is taking an improbable turn for the hip, quietly invading Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Various appearances are listed on the U.S. web site. (This bolsters my grand scheme to import Beerlao t-shirts as the new gotta-have hipster garb.)

"It kind of detaches them from the ethnic market," Apanich says. "Instead of being a Lao beer, it's a beer brewed with jasmine rice."

Whatever the hook, it's a relief to finally locate Beerlao on these shores. Though it might lack the romance of lounging on the banks of the Mekong, a beer in hand is the best souvenir of all.

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