THE SESSION #128— BEER BLOGGING FRIDAY
The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is a chance for the world’s beer bloggers to get together once a month and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry.
Deep Beer is hosting The Session #128 for October 2017. The theme chosen is Bottle Shops: Good, Bad & The Ugly.
So, here I am about to contribute my second (or is it third?) piece to the enjoyable conflagration of beerness that is The Session. I thought that a reflection on my local bottle shop here in Yangon (Rangoon), Burma, might stand as an interesting counterpoint to most of the other pieces in the round-up.
So there it is – the Golden Palace, a hole-in-the-wall bottle shop on the corner of 46th St and Bogyoke Rd in downtown Rangoon. Easy to walk past – doesn’t look like much, does it? But this deceptively small cave has plenty of goodies within. Let’s peer inside, past the Heineken Regal Seven branding…
As you enter the three-metre squared room the configuration is clear: on your right are whiskeys and liqueurs, on your left are wines, vodkas and domestic liquor, and in the fridge and at the back is beer. The selection of spirits is impressive for Burma – they are all illegally (or given the volume of trade, perhaps “informally”) imported.
Because of the tax on spirits here any of these bottles sells for substantially cheaper than in my home, Australia. On this visit I picked up a bottle of Jameson’s for AU$18 which at home would run AU$35 or more. The big American bourbons go for much less.
But a 700ml bottle of 40%ABV Myanmar whiskey sells for US$1-5, so even though the foreign whiskeys are cheap, the locals tend to opt for the Burma-distilled stuff unless they’re showing off.
I have asked the owner to get in some Bushmills several times to no avail. Because he relies on border traders for stock, the variety of import supply is entirely out of his hands. They can’t just order something different; they are presented with options, and they choose accordingly.
There is one particular thing I value this bottle shop for: it has Hoegaarden. I haven’t come across witbier at any bottle-o other than the Golden Palace, anywhere in Myanmar. So when I crave that orange peel and coriander, I sidle up to the Palace and buy out their stock. A single bottle goes for US$2. I can’t vouch for their freshness but none have ever been undrinkable.
They use a simple notepad and pen for keeping track of sales at the Golden Palace. The space is so very small, but because labour is cheap there are usually at least two people working at any one time. Unlike other bottle shops, they’re never drinking on the job.
On this visit, one boy was sitting and hammering flat ring-pulls from Dagon beer cans on the concrete ground. When I asked what he was doing in Burmese, he replied, “lucky draw”. He was preparing the ring pulls to send back to the brewery for cash redemption.
These peculiar metal contraptions adorn the back wall, holding the domestic longneck stouts on offer. Black Shield claims to be a Baltic porter/stout, but that’s rubbish. Both these brands are tropical all the way – and not very tasty to my palate, which expects something a little more from a stout than boozy warmth and saccharine sweetness.
Next Friday Burbrit, the first craft brewery in Myanmar, will be launching a London Porter and is guaranteed to be much tastier. This will be the first time Myanmar has had a domestically-produced porter for decades.
When the British first came to Burma, the soldiers of the Crown were each given a “porter ration” and the first industrial brewery was quick to brew dark beers after setting up shop in 1886. Unfortunately with independence and nationalisation so went the porter.
The total of my purchases, a dead simple addition equation, is methodically put through the calculator and written into the notebook. I pay and leave, mentioning once more that I’d really, really, really like some Bushmills.
I have been interviewed for a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review. You can check it out here. I discuss the likely future for craft beer in Myanmar. Here’s to many more media appearances.
“Pineapple wine? Apple wine? Plum wine?” I ask, pointing to the array of bottles. A young boy scurries out from the gloom within the stall nodding. “What’s that one?” I ask, pointing to a bottle with more dust than usual, obscuring the writing and image on the label. The boy replies with a word I don’t understand. We go back and forth until realisation dawns: damson.
“Do you know who makes this wine?” I ask. The boy doesn’t know.
“Where do you buy these from?” I ask. The boy doesn’t know.
“Is it a company or a family?” I ask. The boy stares at me.
“Is this all you have?” I ask. The boy hesitates, then ducks inside. He is gone twenty seconds. Yes, that’s all they have.
I ask Albert, my partner in wine business, which he would prefer. An enthusiastic drinker, he declares that they all sound wonderful.
“We’ll buy one of each.”
The boy calls out and is joined by another, older teenager, who looks around for something. He pulls out six gleaming white cardboard bottle bags, the kind ubiquitous in Australian and high-end Yangon bottleshops, and carefully puts each of the dusty, dirty, aged bottles into their own crisp, clean gift bag. As he does so, I go through the basics.
“Do you drink wine?” I ask. The boy does not.
“Do you drink beer?” I ask. The boy does not.
“How about cigarettes?” I ask. The boy thinks for a moment, and then says no.
A motorcycle splutters past. Then another. Kalaw’s rhythms are foreign to me, but it is a town of domestic migrants, of opportunity and of tourists. I can categorise it: and Albert and I at least fit in here, there is a role to play, unlike many other idiosyncratic villages and towns across the country, down potted roads and one-lane “highways”.
The sun descends. Cinnamon turns to peach.
We load the boot of the Kia up with our mysterious wine, pay and leave.