Wednesday, December 19, 2007

This is for Ben the Pirate

I’ve been swamped. My apologies for taking so long in posting the next piece. Each time I think I’m coming up for air, someone or something comes along and throws a boulder my way.

But the year’s almost done and the last lurch is behind me. Things should settle down now. This year’s been insane – things finishing unceremoniously when they’re just about to start; always snowed under, always catching up. But that’s life, and thank goodness life has a good supply of beer.

Previously, we talked about the joys of a great beer. Fortunately, storied brews are not just about preferred brewing styles, water quality, temperatures, barley, wheat or hops.

To many - even to those who may not be aware of it - beer is about memory. A cold one in hand or a mouthful rushing down the throat can bring to mind good times, ecstatic moments, periods of despair, as well as the odd fragrance of some forgotten tradition that returns with the stray toast to no one in particular and which dissipates with the sigh of a glass or bottle drained.

Apart from youthful experiments with spontaneous combustion, my memories of family gatherings as a very young adult are spiked with San Miguel’s Pale Pilsen, in its amber rotund bottle.

To a lesser extent, I also have fond memories of San Miguel’s Cerveza Negra, endorsed once upon a time as the preferred drink of pregnant women, believe it or not… The old formula was smoky with the right amount of chocolate bitterness and carbonation, and of course, as with all good things, San Miguel changed its packaging and flavor.

The new Cerveza Negra came out in a slim bottle, perhaps to appeal to the young crowd, and the taste became way too sweeter and with less mouthfeel. It’s good for desert now and not much else.

San Miguel Philippines also killed the best tasting beer it ever produced – San Miguel Premium, which had a great heady scent and was in my mind very full bodied and possessing an excellent head and finish. A complete beer, so to speak, and a dead one.

San Miguel beer has a lot more history than most people imagine, actually. The brew’s now all over the main Asian markets; it’s expansion is in itself a story about marketing drive and strategic sense. There is also its association with sports, the Marcos dictatorship and the oligarchs that ruled the Philippines during and before the tyrant, along with its ties to Spain. (I wonder if my good buddy Daniel Mittler has ever come across San Miguel Eco? Surely he’d find it the perfect drink for writing late night climate essays?)

But I digress.

Filipinos are understandably very fond of San Miguel Pale and usually they’d order or ask for it “ice cold” with little idea that this is actually the preferred preparation for what some would describe as inferior beers (extreme low temperature serves as a diversion that masks the flavor deficit.)

There is some truth to this, actually. For instance, I would not order a Hoegaarden Grand Cru super-chilled, and neither would I dare to put ice and dilute a Pelforth Brune. If I find stocks of San Miguel, Leffe Blonde and Erdinger Weissbier together in a supermarket in whatever country, I would surely choose either of the latter two or both or, if I were getting beer for a bigger drinking group, I’d get San Miguel but still sneak in a bottle of Leffe for later. (In the pic is my wife Kala, my youngest sis Yami, then after her UP Fine arts prof Tiny, and good 'ol cousin Mike at, where else, Tito Ardz - the great beer place for late night drinks and home-love pulutan)

Yet the truth is, people have different flavor meters, and in the case of many Southeast Asian beers, flavor meters can be quite irrelevant or more complex than normal, especially when it comes to memory beers such as San Miguel Pale.

Beer critic Bob Klein, for instance, gives San Miguel Pale a rating of 2.9 (upper average) out of a total of 5, calling it “fizzy with no stimulating aroma” which “becomes pleasantly even-tempered with food; moves along.” It’s a fair description one would think especially from someone who avows that he doesn’t “chug barrels of Coors in front of the TV [Ben the Pirate would probably remark, ‘Now what the heck is wrong with that?’] or cases of Bud at family picnics” and that his lofty goal is “to judiciously locate, sip and rate at least one beer from every nook and cranny of the globe.” Well, that is so until you comes across Klein’s rating of the Belgian brew Orval Trappiste Ale: an incredible 2.1, which is almost below average.

I mean, San Miguel Pale, 2.9 vs. Orval, 2.1? Like, what the. As in, what the. What the.

And yet this actually brings us straight to the point of great beers. Here’s the strangest thing -- nowadays, in Manila, I’d probably prefer a San Mig Light, which is actually a more watery version of Pale Pilsen.

I’ve grown fonder of SanMig Light ever since it was first introduced and I prefer drinking it straight from the bottle, usually in four takes, frequently in three, sometimes in two and every now and then in just one lifting. I suspect this is because San Mig Light has become my soda of choice – Kool-Aid minus the cloying sweetness and ten times the merriment -- with a slice of lime or lemon thrown in, particularly when I’m at the fantabulous watering hole called the Oarhouse.

And what do others say? The Long Beach Bum has this to spout over San Mig Light, which I hilariously tend to agree with: “this is a miss, but certainly no worse than other Lights out there… Archetypal straw body with a watery body...Thin white head runs around and tries to look good but sadly all too soon fades and drops to a thin broken covering, but it leaves some lacing, almost as if to make up for the poor looking head.” And regarding taste, “this one comes and goes faster than a nervous teenager with a premature ejaculation. High speed middling bitterness blends with a soft metallic trait and some pale malts.Finishes…. uaauurrghhhh…..oh my, all too quickly!!”

I don't think San Mig Light will ever qualify as a great beer, though I'd really really vote for it as one of the greatest sodas of all time (and yes, the assessment of Pale Pilsen as a great beer I finished sometime ago; as a memory beer, the answer could not have been anything other than a yes.)

But for the ghosts of Oar, where a good belch is one's personal brochure, the derelicts with dissonance written all over their foreheads have told me time and again that San Mig Light may be arguably on its way to becoming a brew of memory but it shouldn't really matter so long as you can get the bum across the bar to buy you another one.

If both were served on a single tray I’d probably still choose Kyoto Craft Hamanachi Beer over San Mig Light. Or maybe not. It depends on the place and the company. There are too many unfinished stories when it comes to memory beers, and taken during the right time, with the sun still high in the sky, each bottle can mean history being undone or remade or something simply as grand as the next great lewd joke at the bar. #

For a good provocative read, see Bob Klein’s The Beer Lover’s Rating Guide (Workman Publishing, New York: 1995)


Daniel Mittler said...

I want a San Miguel Eco. And I want it now.

Redster said...

Dear Daniel,

Even though Nithi may be a mong the serious contenders, I really think you'd be the perfect product endorser for this one -- I don't think mild-mannered Nithi goes gaga over beer or other vices... Give my regards to Kathrin. Each time I come across an escalator, I am reminded of you sneaking in a furtive kiss to her. (must get Bali out of my system some day soon...)

I miss your company. Maybe we'll both make it to Madrid next year in May? I either got my Eco there or in Sevilla. Would love to go on beer hunter mode and blog ...


Anna Maria G said...

Reading this made me all thirsty. But I prefer microbreweries but unfortunately not all of us can have one in our backyard. Pale ale comes to mind (yum yum).

Yes, you are right about how they changed the flavor of Cerveza Negra. I used to drink one a day when you and I were working together at the office-of-a-laugh-a-minute. ;) I gained a gazillion pounds. I wonder if the new CN has less calories.

San Miguel Eco? Any relation to Umberto? Ahehehe. Where or where is Tito Ardz?

Anonymous said...

Hi...where did u get smb Eco? Thanks

Redster said...

I got it from Valencia, Spain.