Tastings School - Thailand - Ice Cold in Asia

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Thailand - Ice Cold in Asia

Andrew Catchpole visits the Boon Rawd brewery in Bangkok, birthplace of the successful Thai lager – Singha

Bangkok takes pride in the soubriquet of consistently hottest city in the world.

Walking the traffic-choked streets, as the mercury nudges 35ºC, with the afternoon humidity rising like a runaway sauna, it’s difficult to disagree.

This is one very steamy town indeed.

It’s the kind of place where even die-hard real ale buffs may be heard croaking out the otherwise unthinkable words to a tuk tuk driver “take me to a place where they serve ice-cold lager, please.” Fortunately, back in the 1930s, a certain Thai nobleman, Pyrya Bhirom Bhakdi, happened to agree. And so one of Asia’s best loved – and best tasting – beers was born.

With the enthusiastic backing of King Rama VII, Pyrya and his son Prachuap – the first Thai to gain a brewmaster diploma from Munich’s Doemens Institute – built the original Boon Rawd brewery in downtown Bangkok in 1934 and created the recipe for Singha, Thailand’s first ever lager.

Big on hoppy, malty aromas and flavours, this 6% ABV beer was aimed at breaking the then total domination of imported beers and also at pairing well with spicy, chilli-infused Thai cuisine. Named Singha, or Lion, after the king of the jungle, it proved a big hit. Even Thailand’s revered king visited and gave the brewery his blessing as part of his encouragement to the Thai people to take pride in home grown products.

In the early days Singha gained 90 per cent of the national market, readily slaking the thirst of farang (foreigners) and locals alike and today remains the most widely exported Thai beer.

Supping on a Singha lager after a roastingly hot tramp around the Boon Rawd company’s brewery in northern Bangkok it’s easy to understand why.

With taste buds gasping for refreshment, the first taste is more of an Ice Cold in Alex moment as cold, thirst-busting lager hits the mark and soothes both body and soul. But the hoppy, caramel-edged malty tang of Singha soon livens the palate, with the subtle strength carrying grassy fresh saaz hop notes to the back of each draught.

Current masterbrewer and Bavarian import Josef Sehraml tells me he is obsessive about the quality of ingredients, also insisting that Singha is brewed in much the same way as Prachuap did 70-odd years ago.

“We don’t really think about a Thai style of beer,” confided Sehraml as I gazed around the Starship Enterpriseworthy computerised operations room at the heart of this high-tech brewery.

“Because of the export market and the excellent quality beers available from Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, the aim is to produce a lager that stands up in the international market and my job is to ensure Singha’s consistency.” It’s a task made all the more difficult because of both the distance from the best raw materials and also the local heat.

“We import Saaz hops from the Czech Republic, yeast from Germany and some barley from Europe, although we do grow our own barley in Thailand and have our own maltings in Chiang Mai, which at least is a local link,” reveals Sehraml.

“Ensuring these ingredients reach us in prime condition is obviously very important but I’d say the cooling capacity is key as you can imagine because the temperature in the brewery can go up to 50ºC.” A quick glance at the state of my linen shirt after a walk along the rooftop gantry above the imposing stainless steel fermentation tanks confirms his point. Even the sluggish brown water of the nearby Chao Praya river looks sticky and hot.

But these challenges don’t faze Sehraml. Far from it. Now two years into his role at Boon Rawd, he previously worked for a large brewing concern in Peru and seemingly relishes the idea of exporting his own Munichtrained expertise to off-beat locations around the globe. And Boon Rawd is a big operation, with not one but three breweries dotted around Thailand with a potential annual capacity to brew three times 400 million litres of beer. In addition to the Samsen Brewery in which I’m standing, there are the Pathum Thani Brewery and Khon Kaen Breweries up-country, plus seven water and soda factories around the country. The company is still owned and run by third and forth generation members of the Bhirom Bhakdi family.

The flagship brewery we are in superseded the historic old city centre brewery (though this is still used for making and canning soda) and soaks up 1.2 million litres of sweet, artesian water a day to supply the 64 fermentation vats.

Singha, which is one of several brands now brewed, typically undergoes a 10-day strict temperature - controlled fermentation followed by a drop to 5ºC to settle out the yeast, plus a two month maturation (or lagering) at between 0 to –1ºC before the fresh lager is ready to be bottled.

Singha, with its wide distribution in Thai restaurants and specialist bars around the globe, is easily the most famous Thai beer, although local rival Beer Chang has eaten into its dominance of the domestic market. Less well known is Kloster, a lighter, smooth and lively lager wrapped in a more international-looking package, that still weighs in at 5.2% ABV, plus a strong standard lagers Leo (6% ABV – and which, rather bizarrely, has a tiger on the label) and Thai Beer (also 6.5% ABV) aimed respectively at the mid and lower ends of the Thai market. Then there are various sodas, mineral water and even green tea drinks.

Singha, however, remains very much the signature of Boon Rawd Brewery and the draft beer, which is unpasteurised, is really the best way to sample to true character of Thailand’s finest. Pronounced ‘sing-ha’, ask for your lager bia sot (on tap) if you are in a local bar or restaurant. Otherwise, join Thailand’s growing number of wealthy young Tuppies (Thai yuppies) who often seem to favour the cleaner, more angular taste of the German-inspired Kloster. If buying in a group – which is the typical way many young Thais drink while socialising – it is normal to buy and share large bottles, accounting for the strong sales of these beers in 660cl bottles.

Despite fierce competition from the likes of Beer Chang, or elephant beer, effectively produced by Carlsberg in a jointly owned Danish and Thai operation, Singha still holds 50 per cent of the domestic market with Kloster accounting for another five per cent.

The arrival of Heineken, which opened a plant in Nonthaburi in 1995, also hotted up the beer wars in Thai land, contributing to the competition that witnessed Boon Rawd launching Leo to combat the strong and malty Beer Chang and introducing its Thai Beer to capture the discount end of the market.

Marketing is a strong element of Singha and Boon Rawd Breweries’ dayto- day operation and many elements would be recognisable to brewers anywhere in the world – namely sexy women and sport. I met Pichet Changkasem, the smart, late 20- something European export coordinator, in a conference room at the heart of the brewery HQ and was surprised – especially in this essentially conservative culture – to find myself tasting beers under a wall lined with portraits of attractive young women.

Changkasem revealed that in 2005 Singha had sponsored Miss World – a controversial move – and now had a framed picture of every global contestant on the walls.

Boon Rawd and the Singha brand are also heavily involved in Thai boxing which, like football in Europe, is a fervently followed national sport. Golf and many artistic, musical and educational events also fall within the healthy marketing and sponsorship budget. In fact, Tangchai Jadee, Thailand’s top golfer, is wholly sponsored by Boon Rawd. And the Singha lion on the label turns out to be a mythical lion-like creature much loved in popular culture and frequently represented at the many traditional festivals – again popular sponsorship opportunities for Boon Rawd.

The final word on Singha should be devoted to its compatibility with Thai food. I spent some time in Bangkok – at no extra cost to the Editor – experimenting with various combinations of Thai lager and enticingly spicy cooking.

The point is that any beer needs to be fullish strength and with a depth of flavour if it is to pair with essentially challenging food. Singha has these qualities and really comes into its own with Thai food, whether alongside a firm white-fleshed fish steamed with lemongrass and chilli or a full-blown Thai green chicken curry. Of course, you don’t need to head to Thailand to test this assertion for yourself. Many Thai restaurants stock the beer and I’d recommend giving it a whirl. It’s difficult to beat a chilled bottle of Singha and a chillied bowl of aromatic Thai food. And you may, just for a moment, imagine you are chilling out by a sublime beach in Thailand.