Drinks

How to Booze Your Way Through Southeast Asia

Get to know the region's lager-than-life drinking culture
A Beer Drinker's Guide to Southeast Asia
Photo: Capture ItOnce via Flickr

If you've ever walked through Hanoi's overflowing alleys or Siem Reap's neon-lit late-night markets, chances are you've seen Southeast Asia's bustling beer-drinking culture in action. And if you happened to visit during the month of August, it's not hard to see why: The crisp, easy-to-drink lagers these countries are known for are not just the perfect solution to the region's sweltering humidity, they're also a staple in everyday life.

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Thanks to their crowd-pleasing taste and lower-than-average booze content, traditional Southeast Asian lagers are the main reason this collection of countries has become the world's largest beer consumer, downing more than 67 billion liters in 2011 alone, and drinking both North America and Europe under the table. And, of course, with this impressive reputation comes an entire history of drinking customs and etiquette. Whether you're planning on navigating Singapore's open-air food centers or Bangkok's overwhelming array of night markets, here's what you need to know about sipping your way across Southeast Asia's beer scene.

 

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 Cambodia

Each Southeast Asian country offers at least one locally produced beer, and Cambodia's Angkor Beer, an American-style light lager, also happens to be the nation's most popular. Despite the number of new craft breweries creeping their way into Phnom Penh, tourists and residents alike continue to gravitate toward the grassy-hop aroma and subtle malty sweetness inside the gold and red bottles. Commit the phrase Choul moy! to memory—you're sure to be clinking your glasses between every gulp.

 

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 Laos

Laos's go-to brew is Beer Lao, whose eponymous rice-based lager, Beerlao, was named Asia's best local beer by TIME Magazine. But even the brewery's more robust European dark lager manages to be just as easy to swig, making it the ideal—and often necessary—complement to fiery local cuisine. But even if you choose to forgo a whole pint over dinner, remember that it's seen as a courtesy to your host to take a few sips throughout the meal if you've been offered a beer.   

 

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 Singapore

If you decide to head to a glitzy rooftop bar for a Singapore Sling (because you know we would, too), expect to pay handsomely for it. Excise taxes make Singapore one of the most expensive drinking towns in the world, beer included. And while this city-state's modern bars are indeed world class, when you want nothing more than a famous, locally brewed Tiger Beer, just drop into the nearest hawker center, where the famously smooth, blue-and-silver-branded American-style lager can be had for considerably less than at an actual bar. Find yourself leading a round toasts over Michelin-worthy soy sauce chicken? It's always polite to lower your glass only after your drinking partners have set theirs back on the table.

 

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 Thailand

A decades-old debate remains as to which of Thailand's two most popular labels, Singha, a caramel-tinged European pale lager, or Chang, a bubbly, biscuity American-style lager, is the better brew. But no matter your choice, don't be surprised when your beer comes spiked with a giant ice cube, a means to battle both the sweltering sun and the local cuisine's notoriously tongue-numbing chiles. If you find yourself imbibing among locals, take note of this crucial formality: Before topping off your glass with more beer, always offer to refresh your fellow drinkers' pints first. 

 

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 Vietnam

Cheap plastic stools litter the streets of Hanoi, where locals toss back green tumblers of bia hoi, a fresh, effervescent and low-ABV draft-only beer brewed nightly in the city and delivered come morning by motorbike to outdoor beer cafés, where it's best consumed within 24 hours. Like in Thailand, ice is a standard accompaniment, especially during the summer months. If you prefer the hygienic confidence that comes with a sealed bottle—or find yourself asking for a beer outside city limits—you'll most likely have your choice of the country's two most popular bottled varieties: the honey-sweet Bia Saigon or Bia Hà Nội, a fruitier American-style lager. No matter your answer, be prepared to join in chanting, "một, hai, ba, vô!" ("one, two, three, cheers!") in between swigs.  

 

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