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Asian Beer


Beer has been popular in Asia for more than a century, its presence dating from the heyday of Western colonialism there. Nothing demonstrates the drink's importance more than the institution of the beer house, which is prevalent throughout the area. Most of the countries have their own styles of this pub-like establishment. "In China the pejiu wu [beer house] serves spicy foods," explains George Chen, co-owner of Betelnut Pejiu Wu restaurant in San Francisco. "And the best thing to with those foods is a cold draft beer."

Yes, Asian beer — light lager in particular — does have a natural affinity with the indigenous foods of the region, but it also makes a great thirst quencher. In other words, beer may beat the heat of piquant Asian dishes, but it also beats the heat, period. A great deal of Asia is hot, and the taste for beer there is spurred as much by the climate as by the cuisine.

There are some refreshingly delicious options when it comes to Asian beer. Here is a quick look at what's brewing in Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and India (a subcontinent of Asia). And while Asian beer does go best with Asian food, it can do double duty with American favorites, especially barbecued ribs, chicken, and fish — and, of course, burgers.

Four major breweries dominate Japan: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. The first three can trace their roots to the late nineteenth century, when Japanese brewers went to Germany to study beer making; Suntory was developed in Japan in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, the flagship beer for each of these four Japanese brewers is a crisp, dry, golden lager that is quite Teutonic in style. For a golden lager with more character, try Yebisu, which is produced by Sapporo from 100 percent malt.

In addition to golden lager, each of the big four makes a dark beer — known as black beer — in a full-bodied style that originated in the breweries of Bad Kφstritz, Germany. While each Japanese version varies slightly, all are nearly opaque in color, have a smooth texture and offer hints of bitter chocolate, licorice, and toffee.

Western traders introduced European-style lagers to China in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the first commercial lager brewery was opened in the city of Tsingtao in 1897. Over one hundred years later, the Tsingtao brand is the most common — and almost the only — Chinese beer in America and is a popular choice in all kinds of Asian restaurants. "It's a light, refreshing beer that goes well with many of the dishes we serve," explains Patricia Robel, manager of Germaine's, a trendsetting pan-Asian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

The San Miguel brewery was founded by Spanish settlers in the Philippines in 1890. What began as a modest operation to supply local markets has steadily grown to become one of the biggest beer names in Asia. San Miguel produces a light, clean lager called Pale Pilsen. It is not a bad thirst quencher, but its sibling — a full-bodied, rich brew known as San Miguel Dark — is really a more interesting beer. The robust, Bavarian-style dark lager is a perfect partner for Philippine specialties such as pork adobo or for any boldly spiced dishes.

This well-heeled republic produces a successful lager called Tiger. An easy-drinking brew, it is ideal for washing down Singaporean dishes such as chicken satay. It also teams well with the hotter Chinese and Malaysian specialties offered in this multi-cultural arena. "Tiger is a very smooth beer," notes Bruce Sturgeon, general manager of the highly rated pan-Asian restaurant Wild Ginger in Seattle. The Tiger brand was established in 1930 in a partnership with Heineken, and the Singaporean brew certainly has a character similar to that of the world-famous lager made by the Dutch megabrewery.

The land that brings us a fascinating, intense-tasting and now very popular cuisine also brings us a dry, hoppy lager called Singha, which complements that cuisine beautifully. "Singha tends to be one of the richer lagers in Asia," explains Bruce Sturgeon. No surprise, with its high alcohol content and hoppy bite. There is also a lighter brew called Singha Gold, which has less alcohol and a more subdued taste.

For religious reasons, some states in India are prohibitionist, yet the country still manages to support more than 30 breweries. They mostly produce pilsner-style lagers that are smooth, have a pleasant malt sweetness, and pair wonderfully with the flavorful native cuisines. Brands that have made it here from the subcontinent include Taj Mahal, Goa, and Golden Eagle