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/// BREWERY TOUR
 
APRIL/MAY 2006
 
Brewery Tour
Singha — Thailand's Beer
 
 
CBN, April/May 2006
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BANGKOK — Los Angeles (City of Angels) and Bangkok (known to the locals as Krung Thep, or City of Angels) have little in common but their nicknames. The 17-hour nonstop flight between them is not long enough to prepare one for the culture shock between Hollywood stars, Beverly Hills wealth, jam-packed freeways, Compton crime and inner-city blight and Bangkok's teaming sprawl of some 10 million people, all of whom seem to be behind the wheel of some motorized vehicle capable of spewing clouds of smog into an already-murky atmosphere.

It just might be the world's largest outdoor flea market, with every square inch of sidewalk space given over to the erection of temporary sales booths that never seem to go away, selling everything from T-shirts, bags and Thai souvenirs to silver jewelry and remarkably inexpensive Rolex watches for a negotiated 1,200 baht (US$30).

Traffic on the city streets is constantly choked with bikes, buses, cabs, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuk three-wheeled rickshaws, but those willing to pay can take the elevated toll roads. Knowing you must eventually descend into the fray gives one a sense of resignation that resembles the local's admirable restraint in tense traffic situations. Imagine your three lanes of a six-lane road clogged with crosstown traffic.

The locals simply liberate the other unused lanes until oncoming traffic causes them to merge back to the proper lanes. Not only do other drivers let them in, but oncoming traffic simply goes around or waits until the mass merger is made. And, unlike Los Angeles, no one dies.

 
 
The hurried streets of Bangkok, Thailand.
 

It helps that Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist. No one honks or gestures or questions the parentage of the other driver. There is a calming sense that everyone just wants to get where they are going without incident, and no one seems eager to make an extra effort to reach the afterlife.

The resort hotels of Bangkok are, in the midst of such chaos, ethereal. Isolated enclaves of peace and serenity resplendent in Thai hospitality from the prayer-like greeting of "Sawasdee ka" to the traditional dress of an ancient culture — you feel welcomed and embraced in a space that transcends place.

January in Bangkok means mild weather in the low 80s, which must be a delightful respite from the oppressive heat and humidity of the summer. We checked in to the Shangri-La Hotel, located on the Chao Phraya River, which bisects Bangkok. The hotel features full European amenities, including high-speed Internet — indispensable for the traveling beer writer intent on getting some work done. Of course, the story never got written there. Simply too much to do in Bangkok to be in your room writing!

This writer is here for the beer and a quick emersion in Thai culture. And there can be no question that Singha is Thailand's finest beer. Not only is Singha the country's first and largest brewery, but it still adheres to the German purity laws of its origin. Founded by Phraya Bhirom Bhakdi in 1933, the brewery was created with the support and patronage of the King of Thailand and has flourished through some difficult times.

 
 
Inside Singha's germanic-style brewery
 

The main brewery is about an hour outside the Bangkok city center and an easy journey if you are in an air-conditioned tour bus. One of the ubiquitous suicidal tuk-tuk drivers could get you there in half the time, but a cab is probably the wiser, if less exciting, choice. The brewery and visitors center are thoroughly modern and well appointed.

A tour of the brewery involved seemingly miles of catwalks high above the beehive activities below, with bottle-washing, filling, boxing and kegging activities for beer on one side and extensive bottled water, energy drinks and tea bottling on the other side. We eventually made it to the brewhouse to find a modern German installation in full operation with computerized controls in a surgically clean environment.

The unique taste of Singha belies its Germanic roots and can be attributed to the all-malt grain bill and firm hop character derived from noble European hops. The water used by the brewery is pumped from deep wells and is carbon- and sand-filtered and further treated to meet the brewery requirements. The annual production for Boon Rawd is 800 million liters per year. The brewery also produces "Leo" and "Thai Beer" brands, which do use adjuncts.

If Singha is Thailand's best beer, it is not the market leader. Given the high heat and humidity, light and less expensive beers dominate, including Chang and Singha's own entry in that category, the above-mentioned Leo. Tiger beer from Malaysia is also well established and has introduced an even lower-priced entry called Cheers. Singha dominates at the higher-end resorts and restaurants.

 
 
Four Seasons Cooking School instructor in action
 

Before leaving Bangkok, I was fortunate to visit the Jim Thompson House Museum and gardens. Thompson reestablished the Thai silk trade after WWII and was an avid collector of Asian artifacts and antiques. The house is located in the heart of Bangkok along one of the busy canals and offers a look into a traditional Thai house from the 1930s era.

Extensive, lush tropical gardens and rustic teak architecture recall an age of elegance and simplicity. A visit is a must for any tour of Bangkok.

Another worthwhile activity is to be found at the Damnoen Saduak floating market, located 100 kilometers west of Bangkok and accessible by boat or land. Imagine canals chockablock with boats and vendors offering an amazing variety of goods and services to shoppers.

My trip included a few nights at the elegantly rural Four Seasons Hotel in Chiang Mai, to the north. It is like a small village of lodges overlooking rice paddies, water buffalo and workers tending the fields — all visible from the comfort of the hotel bar or swimming pool.

The Four Seasons Cooking School is amazing and offers hands-on instruction in the fine points of Thai cooking. If Tom can cook, you can too!

The instruction began with a visit to a local market, where our guide showed us how to source ingredients for a Thai menu. After a traditional Spirit House blessing, the class began with instruction on preparing Roasted Duck with a Beer and Coffee Sauce. Afterward, we took our stations and repeated the recipe (with some help from a sous-chef assigned to every two students). After preparing all four items, all of us students sat down to a lunch we had made for ourselves. No one complained about the food! This was enjoyed with Singha beer, naturally.

 
 
Thai lunch with... Singha beer, of course!
 

Ignoring the rule "Never give sharp objects to beer writers," the lunch was followed by a vegetable- and fruit-carving class. I am delighted to report that no blood was spilled in the pursuit of fancy but edible garnish.

Given Chiang Mai's mountainous topography, it is also a great destination to experience old Thailand. A jungle area north of the city features demonstrations of elephants in the logging industry. Don't miss an opportunity to ride an elephant or pole a bamboo raft down the Mae Ping River.

A half-hour trip in the back of a pickup will get you to the Meo Hill Tribes (Doi Pui) tour — a collection of huts on a steep hill and villagers dressed in traditional garb at least as colorful as the beds of poppies.

Chiang Mai also is home to one of the most holy temples in all of Buddhism. Wat Phratat Doi Suthep, dating from 1383, is a mountaintop temple with a spectacular gold-leafed pagoda, and it actually contains relics of Buddha. The faithful come from all over the world to pay respectful homage and to be blessed in Buddha's presence. A trip to Thailand also requires a visit to the southern island resort area of Phuket, parts of which were heavily damaged in the tsunami over a year ago. Many of the resorts are fully recovered, and our stay at the Dusit Laguna Hotel on Bang Tao Bay was idyllic. Vast sandy beaches and first-class resort accoutrements are a true bargain for today's traveler. As we entered our hotel grounds, a billboard proclaimed, "Phuket Is Back!"

 
 
Young women from a Meo Hills Tribe pose
 

A short trip across the island and an hour’s boat ride got us to Krabi and the Railay Beach area, home to spectacular outdoor activities like snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, rock climbing and ocean kayaking. Two weeks is simply not enough time to truly appreciate all that Thailand has to offer.

Getting There

Thai Airways has a nonstop flight from LAX using new Airbus 340-300 wide-body jets. Premier economy class is a huge step up; you actually have some space in front of you! The Thai food served was the best airplane food I've had outside of first class. They take away your nail clippers at security and then give you real metal knives and forks for dining on board. Individual video screens with interactive TV and audio programming keep even the ADD folks busy. I listened to everything on my iPod TWICE and still had time to watch classics like “Chinatown” (not about China) and “From Russia with Love!”

 

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