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Sampling Craft Beer in Saigon

Oh, this beer here is cold, cold and hop-bitter, no point coming up for air, gulp, till it’s all–hahhhh.”
– Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

On my first trip through Vietnam, there wasn’t much variety of beer. There’s Bia Hanoi, Bia Saigon, 333, La Rue, and various local brews that tasted pretty much the same as those.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Inside Hoa Vien in Saigon

When I arrived in Saigon in 2014, I found Hoa Vien, a Czech brewpub that was the first of its kind in Vietnam. The brewpub was near my apartment in District 1, but I found it rather deserted when I visited for a late dinner. Compared to most establishments in the embassy area, this was still expensive. When you’re used to spending less than $3 for a meal, $10 seems like a lot.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Beer and a meal at Hoa Vien

Granted, the food was good and the dark lager was a welcome change from all the cheap beer I had drunk in Hanoi. The lack of other patrons sent me to find other bars after that. I tried going there once more during my month in Saigon, but it was a similar crowd and I decided to continue walking. Also, the little cafe that recently opened at the end of my alley began serving a similar dark lager for less.

I did not return to either establishment on my return to Saigon in 2017, mostly because it was not a short walk. I did, however, find new brewpubs and craft beer bars that opened up in the more touristy section of District 1, just a short walk from the backpacker street.platinum pale ale

I did, however, find Platinum (not to be confused with Platinum in Seoul) at the new tourist street food market near Ben Thanh Market, but the pale ale wasn’t anything special. Fortunately, it was significantly cheaper than the more attractive new breweries that have opened.

On my first night I checked out East West Brewing and immediately walked out when I saw the prices at more than VND 200,000 per pint. Compare this to buying a bottle of Bia Saigon for VND 10,000 (50 cents) at a restaurant or convenience store. That first night, I ended up sitting outside at an alley restaurant with a couple bottles of Bia Saigon that only cost VND 8,000 each.

After my stops in Mui Ne and Dalat, I decided to give East West Brewing and Pasteur Street Brewing a try as I realized I had plenty of leftover cash and little to spend it on during my last day in Vietnam.

Pasteur Street Brewing

If not for offline maps and GPS I might not have found it

Pasteur Street Brewing

This was the most recommended brewery in Saigon, and I visited it before meeting a friend for dinner. It wasn’t the easiest bar to find as it was hidden down an alley with a small sign to indicate it. Then it was up the stairs to the bar for a taste of what they had to offer.

I opted for the six taster glass set, but couldn’t order the acclaimed Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout because it was a significant amount more to add it to the group. I was already paying VND 250,000 +10% service fee (about $13) for those little glasses and wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge more on a taste of one more. Plus, the heat of Saigon doesn’t drive me to drink dark, heavy beers that may put me to sleep (and it was still quite early).

My sampler included the Double IPA, Coffee Porter, Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen, Spice Island Saison, Pomelo IPA, and Jasmine IPA.
pasteur street beer

The layout and design of the bar reminded me a bit of Mikkeller Taipei. As it was before dinner, the bar was quiet and there were few customers. I imagine it gets more crowded than I saw.

I probably would have enjoyed the atmosphere more had there been a few more people. They at least played some good music while I was there.

The beer was better than expected, and I appreciated the local flavors added. The Jasmine IPA had a strong jasmine tea-like flavor that worked well with the hops and mellowed out the flavor at the end. I thought the Pomelo IPA was better as the pomelo isn’t as harsh as grapefruit, making this beer more mild and sweet to balance with the earthy hops.Pasteur Street Brewing

The Double IPA was also a worthwhile beer–a bit more complex than the others I tried. It had a fruity aroma to go with the mix of citrus and earthiness in the hops. It was sweet and bitter all at once.

The most surprising were the Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen and Spice Island Saison. I was concerned that the hefeweizen would be too sweet, but it was refreshing instead. The fruit could’ve been stronger to make it a better beer, but it was still an interesting one. My favorite, however, was the Spice Island Saison. This beer had amazing flavor with ginger, lemongrass, and pepper mixed with the sweetness of the heavy wheat. If I lived in Saigon, this would be my go-to beer.

The only disappointment I had was the coffee porter. It had a great coffee aroma, but the flavor was more like coffee extract and it lacked a good porter base. Considering the tropical environment, I wasn’t expecting much out of a dark beer.
pasteur street brewing

East West Brewing

After dinner and meeting with my friends along the busy streets of Saigon, I decided to try a little more beer before heading off to sleep. East West Brewing was about a block from my hotel at GK Central.

I probably should’ve eaten more before having more beer as it definitely hit me harder than it should have. My light dinner was not filling enough for night of drinking.

Just as I did at Pasteur Street, I opted for the four-beer sampler of Far East IPA, Coffee Vanilla Porter, Modern Belgian Blonde, and Summer Hefeweizen. It was only a little less expensive than the six I had earlier.east west brewing

East West Brewing looks more like a beer garden than a neighborhood bar–it was much too loud for the small crowd that I encountered. The high ceilings gave the place a cavernous feel. The entire bar felt out of place in Saigon. It’s a common problem with trendy new bars around the world–they want to look like the same establishments in the US and lack local appeal.east west beer

The hefeweizen was light and refreshing and not too sweet, which made it more appealing than the other beers. It was a good introduction beer after walking in the heat. I found the Belgian blonde to be a sweeter version of the hefeweizen–there wasn’t a significant difference.

The coffee vanilla porter was disappointing, but slightly better than the coffee beer at Pasteur. The vanilla overpowered the coffee. It’s not a beer I would recommend.

east west beer

Coffee Vanilla Porter

The Far East IPA was nothing special, but a decent IPA. It tasted like an IPA should with nothing that differentiated it from others. It would be a worthwhile go-to beer if not for the price.

Thoughts on Craft Beer in Vietnam

Other than what I tried at Pasteur Street Brewing, I wasn’t impressed by the beer in Vietnam. And considering the price at Pasteur Street, I would be unlikely to go there often if I lived in Saigon.

It’s a similar issue I encountered in Taiwan with high prices in a city with a low cost of living. It’s difficult to justify splurging on beer that costs as much as multiple meals.

I would recommended having a taste at Pasteur Street to anyone visiting Saigon as it is a pleasant bar with good beer, but I wouldn’t push visitors to go out of their way for it.

Have you tried craft beer in Vietnam? What did you think?

Joys of Imported Beer in Taipei

While I have focused my writing on the craft beer industry in Taiwan, I haven’t spent much time on the imported beer that’s available in Taipei. As the local craft beer has become more common and easily available, there has been a large increase in imported beers as well.

Thou Shall Nut Pass beer

Thou Shall Nut Pass…I laughed a little when I found this beer

Typically I’d prefer to buy local, but in my time in Taipei, there has been limited variety in local beer–and even limited availability at some bars. Also, as I have noted at other times, even the local craft beer can be expensive ($10 in some cases). There have also been a few instances when I’ve come across an imported beer that I just could not pass up.

Where to find imported beer in Taipei

Some of my favorite places for a good beer include NEN in Zhonghe (technically New Taipei City, which is where I live), Revolver near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and Way Home near Taipei Arena.

It’s weird recommending my local bar, which is more of a bottle shop, because I don’t want it to get crowded. But then again, I want it to stay in business. It’s a tiny bar along No. 4 Park that has an ever-changing rotation of imported beer. They also have a few local brews and sometimes have a keg or two. It’s a well-lit, comfortable bar and it’s rarely crowded. Plus, this being anywhere outside the good ol’ USA, you can get a beer or three for take-out and go sit in the park on a nice day/evening (the park even has clean public toilets).

beer

Only a section of the shelf at Way Home

Revolver has been my go-to bar since my second stint in Taipei–it is the most popular music venue in the city, though I’ve never seen a show there. They usually have a decent selection of bottles for NT$150-220, which is a decent price in Taiwan. They’ve also had some Founder’s and Pizza Port beers on tap in the last year. I usually leave when Revolver gets too crowded.

I discovered Way Home last year while wandering around. It’s another small bar with a huge selection of beer. They have the largest selection of local beer I’ve seen, but they have plenty more imported beer. The staff is quite helpful and they’ve given me a decent opportunity to practice speaking beer-related Mandarin.

Founder’s Brewing

Last year someone started importing Michigan’s Founder’s Brewing. I was amazed as this is one of the best breweries in the US, and they have never disappointed me. People in Taipei who recognized the brewery went after it full force–it sold out quickly. Fortunately, some bars restocked. Revolver, which I still enjoy despite the crowds, usually has a keg or two.

founder's KBS

My favorite beer

The most surprising moment I had was finding Founder’s KBS at a small beer bar in Guting when I joined a writers’ meetup group. It was about $12, but I didn’t care; I bought one to go and saved it for a while in my fridge. Then I noticed my local beer bar NEN had a few bottles of it for a little less than $10. I bought three. I still have one in the fridge.

For those who don’t know Founder’s KBS (I’m shocked, shocked!), it is my favorite beer. I doubt anything will knock it from its top spot on my list.

Stone Brewing

I’ve been a fan of Stone Brewing for a long time. My friend might disagree as he doesn’t like IPAs and that’s most of what they used to brew. But I’ve always enjoyed their IPAs.

stone beer tasting

A tasting of Stone beers at Beer & Cheese

In addition to the IPAs and a few lighter brews from the company, my local shop carried last year’s Xocoveza. This is Stone’s winter/holiday beer that is supposed to be their take on Mexican hot chocolate; it’s full of chocolate and spices, including coffee, peppers, nutmeg, and a load of other stuff. This is a delicious beer to enjoy, and I bought a few bottles after trying it for the first time. When I visited home for my birthday I had it again on tap. This beer is so good, Beer Advocate gave it 100 points.Stone Xocoveza

Ballast Point Brewing

Another favorite brewery from the US came for a long visit and they brought one of my top 5 beers. Ballast Point Victory at Sea is a rich, smoky vanilla porter that begs to be sipped. I didn’t care that it was brutally hot and humid in Taipei, this beer needs to warm up a bit to fully enjoy the flavor.Ballast Point victory at sea

For the first time I got to try what all my friends had been talking about back home with Ballast Point’s flavored Sculpin IPA. Almost the whole variety was imported, but I was only interested in trying the grapefruit and habanero varieties. Grapefruit and IPA usually goes well, and a brewery as good as Ballast Point hit the mark with this one.

The habanero Sculpin was a different experience. It took me a few sips to decide I like it. The spiciness sneaks up on you and builds in the back of the throat. This is not a beer for everyone. I offered a few people a sip and they thought I was crazy for ordering it. But when I complain that there isn’t enough spicy food in Taiwan, this beer is one way to get my fix.

Moonzen from Hong Kong

I didn’t get to try this beer when I visited Hong Kong, but my friends told me about it–they said it was their favorite of the new breweries. My little local place did it again and brought in the brewery’s full line up. Unfortunately, at NT$250 ($8.25), I don’t really want to buy much of it when there are other, less expensive good beers.

I must admit, however, that the Yama Sichuan Porter is an impressive beer. This is a smoky porter brewed with Sichuan peppercorns–huajiao. The Sichuan peppercorns add a flowery aroma, hence the Chinese name “flower pepper,” and can numb the mouth when used for cooking. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t numb my mouth, but it had a bit of the aromatic peppery flavor to go with a solid porter.Yama Sichuan Porter

This is not a beer I’d drink often, but it’s definitely worthwhile at the right price. RateBeer gave Yama Sichuan Porter a 93.

Mikkeller and To Øl

Taiwan likes its European brews, but it still mostly has the Belgian beers. Mikkeller opened up its own bar on the southern corner of Dihua Street in the historic Dadaocheng neighborhood. It’s a cool place and they have a few only-available-in-Taiwan beers, but it’s a little out of the way for me, plus it’s a bit pricey.Mikkeller

Mikkeller in bottles is still widely available in Taipei–at some bars and a lot more restaurants. If I can’t decide what to get, I usually pick up a bottle because they have so much variety. I’ve only had the same one more than once because I forgot which I’ve had (ok, their Kaffestout I’ve had a few times because it’s excellent). I would have the Chipotle Porter again if I could find it again.

To Øl is a regular collaborator with Mikkeller and some of their beers have now made their way to this island. One of the first I tried here was the Sur Amarillo because I was told it was sour. I would have to say, wow, yeah that’s really sour. It’s not like those Belgian sour ales I was used to drinking at Rabbit Club in Manhattan; this was a powerful, lip-puckering sour flavor. This isn’t a bad thing, though. But I wish I had been prepared for that.

Mr Orange

A very sour beer

There were others that were good but not as memorable. I mostly choose these beers because of the funky label or amusing name, like You Shall Nut Pass stout or Dangerously Close to Stupid double IPA. And then there was the Belgian-style pale ale called Fuck Art – This is Architecture. As a former art student, I could not pass up this beer. It was a lighter pale ale, but it hit the spot when I needed it.

Spray-tan gone wrong beer

Is this beer an homage to Trump?

There are plenty more imported beers around Taiwan, and plenty continue to roll in. I can’t keep up. It’s fun to try all these new brews, but the price of a good beer makes it a luxury here. I’ve started to drink whiskey more often instead as I can go to my local liquor store and get a decent bottle of scotch for about $20.

What are some of your favorite imported beers? Have you seen any that surprised you while living or traveling abroad?

Drinking It Up in Laos

Laos has been known as a haven for partying backpackers. The country tried to curb this distinction by regulating one of the backpacker-favorite activities of tubing down the river through Vang Vieng (a town I didn’t get a chance to stop in) and making stops for cheap drinks. The party town has seen multiple tourist deaths every year and the government has shut down some bars in the area. Despite changes, there are still many tourists who flood the town for the renowned parties.

Beerlao

Beerlao at Bor Pen Nyang

I wasn’t visiting Laos for the parties. And yes, I realize that makes me sound old, but I prefer not to sleep through a day because of a hangover. Sure, I wanted to try some local drinks and check out the bar scene, but I had little interest in getting drunk.

Beer in Laos

I had already been introduced to Beerlao, the national beer and one of the largest companies in the country. I didn’t realize that they also used to produce “33” Export and Bière Larue, which I had in Vietnam. Lao Brewery Company claims that it holds a 99% share of the beer market in Laos. But I did find some other beers to try while wandering around.

The first new beer for me was Beerlao Dark, which is a dark lager. It’s still light, which is great when the weather is as hot as in Laos, but it still has enough flavor to be satisfying–this was my beer of choice while traveling, though it is more expensive than other local beers and usually only sold in 12 oz. bottles. There’s also the “premium” Beerlao Gold, which really tastes no different from the usual Beerlao but costs a couple thousand more kip per 12 oz. bottle. On the lower end of spectrum was Namkhong beer (the local name for the Mekong River) from Lao Brewery. This was definitely the least appealing beer in the country, and it was also the cheapest.Beerlao Dark

The beer is great to enjoy with a view at some of the bars and restaurants or while grabbing some barbecue along the street (the grilled fish was my favorite).

First stop, Vientiane

There isn’t a lot of sightseeing to do in Vientiane, which gave me more time to relax with a beer. A must-visit bar in the city is Bor Pen Nyang, which is really best for the sunset views. Other than that, I wasn’t interested in the place–it seemed like an expat/tourist spot to get loaded on drinks that were more expensive than elsewhere in the city. But it was still worth a second trip for more sunset photos.

 Bor Pen Nyang view

View of the Mekong River from Bor Pen Nyang

I also tried one other bar, Samlo Pub, not far from my hotel. It was a larger bar with a pool table, but it wasn’t lively. I met an expat who lived in northern Thailand who said that a lot of foreigners cross the border to renew their visas and get a slight change of scenery. This bar is apparently popular with that crowd.

The most impressive place I had a drink was Laodi. I stopped in to this bar in a converted shipping container because I was familiar with the brand. It’s a type of flavored rum like I had in Cambodia, except I had tried Laodi in Tokyo at a farmer’s market in Yoyogi Park–the owner of the company is Japanese. This organic spirit is distilled with only local ingredients, and the flavor is wonderful. The only downside to drinking there is that it is significantly more expensive than having drinks anywhere else in Laos. If I hadn’t been traveling with only carry-on luggage, I probably would’ve bought a bottle to take with me.

Laodi Bar Vientiane

Inside Laodi Bar

As most of the rum is rather sweet, I ordered the brown rum, which is similar to spiced rum that most people are used to, with a splash of soda.Laodi cocktail

On my final night in the Vientiane before heading to Luang Prabang, I grabbed a beer at the convenience store and wandered around. I came across a group of locals drinking outside their business. As the business catered to travelers, I assumed they spoke English (a few of them did). It provided me with an opportunity to learn about life in the city. It was also a chance for them to learn about an American living in Taiwan.

New friends in Vientiane

Drinks are more touristy in Luang Prabang

The town itself is more touristy. It feels like no one actually lives in town–almost every building is a hotel, restaurant, or souvenir shop/travel agency. Therefore, the drinks in town are more expensive than in Vientiane. Even in the beer in convenience stores was at least 2,000 kip more.

dexter cafe & bar

Downstairs at Dexter

The first place I stopped was Dexter Cafe & Bar, a fairly new cocktail bar that preserves some of the French colonial style in its decor. I took a look upstairs because I wanted to have a view of the main street through Luang Prabang as I drank, but it wasn’t open air like the area downstairs. Of course, downstairs there are only two tables outside on the sidewalk.

Dexter Cafe & Bar

Second floor at Dexter

I had to try the signature cocktail–there weren’t any other bars that had such a thing (that I noticed anyway). The Dexter Lover cocktail was what I expected in Laos–a refreshing tropical drink that wasn’t overpowering. It’s made with white rum, triple sec, banana liqueur, grenadine, orange, and lime–not my usual choices for a cocktail, but it was worth a try despite the 50,000 kip price tag (beer was usually 8,000-12,000).

Dexter Lover

Dexter’s signature cocktail

The most popular place to drink in the touristy town is Utopia, an open air bar overlooking the Namkhan River. It’s a bit of an adventure to get to the bar as it’s down some winding sidestreets that are only wide enough for pedestrians and bikes. The adventure of getting to the bar was fun.

Utopia Luang Prabang

Lounge area at Utopia

In the afternoon, most patrons take their drinks to the lounge area to relax with the view–I must admit that it’s a great idea to allow customers to just lounge around like this. As those areas were full when I arrived, I took a seat in the garden area that is decorated with unexploded bombs, which is technically illegal in Laos as the government doesn’t want people scavenging for metal from potentially dangerous UXOs. Ignoring the fact that the decor is possibly illegal, Utopia is a cool place to grab a beer, and it’s one of the few places that stays open fairly late (although I didn’t stay out late because I wanted to go sightseeing early in the morning).Utopia Garden

My favorite place to grab a drink though was at an unnamed restaurant–I suppose it had a name in Lao, but there was no Romanized version. It was at the western end of Khem Khong along the Mekong River. The restaurant sat on the edge of the cliff overlooking the river–it was great for sunset, though the views were obscured by the trees.  Nonetheless, it was friendly, inexpensive, and quiet. The creaky wood floor made it feel even better. Plus, I was the only foreigner there.

Beerlao

Beerlao and waiting for the sunset in Luang Prabang

And then there’s the “whiskey”…

On my overpriced tour of Pak Ou cave and Kuang Si waterfalls, we had a stop in what is called the Whiskey Village. Really, this is like just about any other village, except it’s a tourist stop for souvenirs. Most of the vendors in the village sell some type of local liquor, usually distilled from rice, sugarcane, or other crop. Lao whiskey

Of course, there are also special souvenir bottles that have intricately posed creatures inside fermenting with the liquor. The most popular of these are the snake and scorpion liquors, but there are also lizards and other insects. Even if I had been traveling with checked baggage, I would not have bought a bottle of any of these as a souvenir (not even sure if it’s allowed through customs).

whiskey village

The Whiskey Village

I tried a few of these liquors at the vendor in front of my tour van. None of them were anything that I’d consider drinking. At least the rice liquor was a little sweet and didn’t leave me feeling sick after a sip. Other ones reminded me of cheap Chinese baijiu, though they probably weren’t made with sorghum.

Have you had any drinks in Laos? What were your favorite drinks and bars?

Holiday Gift Guide for the Traveler in Your Life

I’m not big on gifts–either for birthdays or holidays. As I travel around I pick up some small gifts for people because I think they’ll enjoy them. Gift buying doesn’t revolve around any specific days. As I have some friends who enjoy traveling, I should think about gifts I can get them for their next trip.

There’s more than just gadgets that travelers need to get around–most travelers already have a decent camera and smartphone with all the necessary free apps. Low-tech products are still the most versatile items to bring on short or long journeys.

As you search online for gifts, be sure to check offers through your airline miles’ website–you can multiply the purchase amount for your own travel benefits.

I’ve compiled a list of products that I either already own or that are on my wish list (hint, hint).

Get some rest with a travel pillow

I noticed the Cabeau Evolution travel neck pillows at the airport awhile back, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. I gave in on my way home in November (it was even on sale at the airport!). I had hoped to find it in a store, but never did. There are two versions of this pillow–I originally bought the memory foam pillow and found the high neck pads helped me sleep. It also tightens enough to prevent your head from falling forward like with other pillows.Cabeau Evolution pillow

There’s another version called the Evolution Cool pillow, which is more expensive. Unlike the original Evolution pillow, the cool pillow doesn’t overheat your neck. I had to take the pillow off a few times during my trans-Pacific flight because it was so hot.

cabeau evolution pillow

Now that’s compact

The best part about these travel neck pillows is that they can be scrunched up into a small bag to fit in your backpack. Of course, you could always tie it around the outside of your backpack too. Either way, this makes storage easy for when you’re not traveling.

A different kind of light reading

I love my Kindle. Alright, my mom gave me hers before I set out a few years ago, but it’s now basically mine. I love reading, but I don’t want to lug around tons of books wherever I go, so this was the best option. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to read classic literature that I missed out on during my education (Project Gutenberg has a ton of free books as does Amazon).

I still use the first generation Kindle. If it still works, why replace it? I have seen newer ones that have a similar size screen but a smaller overall body for even lighter travel. These are especially good for anyone who takes public transportation to and from work–I used to read a lot on the trains around Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei.

Alternatively, you could purchase some ebooks for someone who already has a Kindle–travel guides and history books make great gifts. I’d also recommend books by Laird Hunt and Haruki Murakami.

Enjoy a quieter flight

I need to earn more money and buy this for myself. Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones are amazing. I tried them out at Costco. The store was busy and noisy and these headphones eliminated almost all the noise. They’re also very comfortable to wear, so I might be able to sleep with them on in combination with my Cabeau Evolution pillow. Most importantly, they eliminated more noise than my reusable earplugs that I’ve used on numerous flights to this point (I still find airplane noise too much with them in).

World wines shipped to you

You could splurge on some wine. It’s a great gift that you could share with the recipient. If you have MileagePlus with United like I do, you could earn more miles by shopping at a few of the online wine shops and having it shipped to someone’s door. I recently did this for my mother’s birthday (I wasn’t expecting the package to arrive in two days, so it arrived a bit early). I would definitely recommend shopping at wine.com as the selection and prices were good. They also included a free bottle in with the three that I ordered (I have a feeling it was a holiday promotion).

Lucky wine

Everyone loves free wine

Screw shopping, let’s get a beer!

Sometimes the person on your list just doesn’t need anything. But that same person could always use a good beer. A great option of the beer lover on your holiday list is Dogfish Head’s new beer called Beer for Breakfast. This is Dogfish Head’s beer to rival Founders Breakfast Stout. This a rich stout with an even flavor of coffee, roasted malt, and chicory. There’s even a bit of maple syrup and scrapple in the brew.

dogfish head beer for breakfast

Courtesy Dogfish Head website

There are more beers that you could buy, which I’ve written about before. Or you could just buy a variety pack to make everyone happy.

There are plenty more gift ideas for travelers, but these are some of my favorites. Of course, you could just buy an plane ticket or an upgrade for you favorite traveler (I also accept travel lounge memberships).

What’s are your recommendations for gifts for travelers?

Taiwan Craft Beer Update

The best beer is where priests go to drink. For a quart of Ale is a dish for a king.
— William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

It’s been a while since I wrote about the Taiwan craft beer scene. My first time here I only found one craft brewery–North Taiwan Brewing–and bars filled with imports from Belgium. The second time around I began finding new Taiwan craft beers as well as a lot more imports. During that second stay I also managed to write a short article for Scoot’s inflight magazine about a few of the craft beers–unfortunately, they didn’t give me a byline so it looks like my interview subject is the author of the piece.

beer in taipei

The aftermath of the beer tasting and interview for my article

Since my last update on the beer scene in Taipei, the craft brewers have multiplied and refined their recipes.

As I learned from my interview for my article, most of the brewers in Taiwan shared space and contract brewed and bottled, which led to a lot of inconsistency. It explained why I would occasionally get a bottle that tasted awful. Now, most of those same brewers have their own brewing and bottling operations to improve consistency. Of course, this has also increased prices–the local beer is generally about the same price (NT$150-250) as some of the really good imported beers we’ve been getting (recent imports have included Ballast Point and Stone), and that is definitely expensive compared to the cost of living.

belgian beer

Belgian beer was all I could find my first time in Taipei

I found most of the new beers at local bars that have begun stocking them–my new favorite is Way Home, which is a quiet place about a 25-minute walk from my office (though it isn’t open when I get off work at 3:30). There were even more beers at the Taipei Wine & Food expo, though my taste buds were a bit dulled from all the tastings. I did, however, recall trying Pisirian from Hobrew because it was truly unusual. It sets out to be unique with its traditional Chinese herbs as brewing ingredients. This beer tastes like the smell that wafts from a Chinese medicinal tea shop. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend drinking more than one of these occasionally, but it certainly is worth trying (maybe there are health benefits to it as well).

23 Brewing Nelson Saison

23 Brewing Nelson Saison

The more popular microbrews around Taipei are the ones mostly run by American expats–Redpoint, 23 Brewing, and 886 Brewing.

All three have run into consistency problems that seem to have been addressed over the last six months or so. Redpoint’s 台PA used to have an overpowering hops flavor, but the brewer dialed it back to attract more Taiwanese drinkers. 23 Brewing experimented with hoppiness in its beers as well–the pale ale is still quite sharp, but the blonde ale and IPA have mellowed out a bit. While 886 has been the more experimental brewery of the bunch, probably because of its collaborations with Evil Twin, it has had to adjust its recipes as well. It’s brown ale is much better than it used to be.

beer

Only a section of the shelf at Way Home

My only complaint about 886 Brewing is that it’s not as widely available as other craft beer in Taiwan. The brewers also run Beer & Cheese, which is the only bar in Taipei in which I’ve seen their beer. It’s also a rather expensive bar with pints costing NT$250 or more–I can buy a very good beer in Manhattan for less (Blind Tiger comes to mind, especially during happy hour).

But when it comes to high-end Taiwan craft beer, Beer & Cheese isn’t even the most expensive bar. I recently came across ZhangMen Craft Beer Bar in Dongmen. This quaint bar that doesn’t look much different from every other newish beer bar in the so-called up-and-coming neighborhoods around the US charges NT$150-200 for less than half a pint of its own beer. While the rye IPL that I ordered was quite good, it was not worth NT$170. I certainly wasn’t going to shell out NT$320 for a full pint.

55th Street IPA

Not my favorite from 55th Street, but still a good beer

At this point, 23 Brewing is my favorite Taiwanese beer. It is available at more bars around Taipei than other microbrews and the price isn’t outrageous. More importantly, they are gradually expanding their variety. I recently tried their Islander Weisse at Little London–it’s a local take on the traditional Berliner weisse style. The local aspect of the beer is that 23 Brewing uses Taiwanese citrus to give the beer a light and sweet flavor.

While the Islander Weisse is a terrific attempt at playing to local tastes, I still think 55th Street Brewing’s longan amber is the height of localization. It’s not quite my taste, especially if I want to drink more than one, as the dried longan used in the brewing makes the beer just a little too sweet for me. Meanwhile, Taiwan Ale Brewery introduced a coffee amber that’s brewed with longan–the bitterness of the coffee evens out the longan flavor. Of course, the Taiwan Ale beers are more difficult to find, though they appear to be expanding.

Jim & Dad's Dark

This was a tasty beer

On the branding side of Taiwan craft beer, companies still haven’t done much.

I’ve asked people at bars if they like Taiwanese beer, and they respond that they don’t despite drinking one of the local craft beers. A lot of people still don’t associate the local craft beers with Taiwan. Also, most of the beer companies have yet to embrace a more Taiwanese identity, like Jim & Dad’s brewery–it sounds like an organic fruit juice company, but the beer is pretty good. And then there’s Gentlemen’s Ale, which wins the award for most generic branding. The exception to this is Sambar, which is named after the local deer. Their beers also rank as some of the best in Taiwan, though the selection is limited.

There are plenty more beers to enjoy in Taiwan, but not all are worth mentioning. As more breweries and craft beers become available, I’ll most likely need to draft another Taiwan craft beer update.

Have you tried any Taiwan craft beers? What are some of your favorites?

Walking Among Cats in Houtong, Taiwan’s Cat Village

“Well, some go this way, and some go that way. But as for me, myself, personally, I prefer the short-cut.”
Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland (movie, 1951)

I hadn’t planned on going through the cat village of Houtong, but I was pushed to it nonetheless. During the Spring Festival holiday, I wanted to go to Pingxi, a town farther outside Taipei that supposedly has some great hiking. When I got to Ruifang to buy a new train ticket to get to Pingxi, the crowd was ridiculous–apparently everyone returns to the area a little early during the holiday and takes a trip outside the city. I took a walk around Ruifang while deciding my options.

Cat and people crossing

Cat and people crossing

Ruifang is not an impressive town. There are some cool semi-dilapidated Japanese colonial-era buildings, but not much else. There’s also a lot of street food that’s difficult to get with huge crowds wandering the streets.

The line for the bus to Jiufen

The line for the bus to Jiufen

As I saw the line for the train and the bus to Pingxi, I made my choice to head to nearby Houtong instead. At least the lines for Pingxi and Houtong weren’t nearly as long as the one for the bus to Jiufen, which wrapped around the block and require police to direct traffic.houtong-river

Houtong is known for having a lot of stray cats that are cared for by the locals. Much like Jiufen, this town was once a mining community in the mountains outside Taipei. Unlike Jiufen, Houtong was a coal mining town instead of gold mining. It was originally known for the monkey cave, which apparently housed a lot of monkeys (no word on whether those monkeys were used for mining coal). The once-prosperous town began its decline in 1990, but was revived in 2008 when a cat lover organized the community to care for the strays in the area. Tourists followed the cats, and vendors outside the train station sell cat food to gullible tourists.

Put those kids to work in the Monkey Cave

Put those kids to work in the Monkey Cave

This should be a model for the decaying coal mining towns in the US–just dump some stray cats into the town and open some cafes and art galleries and wait for the tourists to roll in. Of course, you could probably do the same with some friendly dogs or even rabbits.

Cat houses (no, not THAT kind of cat house) in Houtong

Cat houses (no, not THAT kind of cat house) in Houtong

The ruins of the Ruey-San Coal Dressing Plant, which opened in 1920, still remains outside the train station. An shell of the plant and encroaching plants are all that can be seen today, but it provides an interesting photo opportunity at some angles.

Probably not the safest place to work

Probably not the safest place to work

The town is still in disrepair, but it’s obviously starting to redevelop with the help of art galleries and cafes that cater to the tourists. There’s even a restaurant called Miners & Hobbits, but they were closed for the holiday (would’ve been a great experience to go with my dinner at Dream of Hobbiton in Taipei). Next to the Monkey Cave is a souvenir shop that also sells medicinal liquor that reuses various liquor bottles (who wouldn’t want to drink liquor made from roots and herbs out of a Glenlivet bottle?).

Sure looks tasty for about $10

Sure looks tasty for about $10

With all the tourists in town, it appeared that many of the local cats were hiding. There were plenty of others wandering about for the crowds to pet and feed. There were even a few hanging out in the train station.

My new drinking buddy

My new drinking buddy

The only cat I sat with for any length of time was the one that jumped on the table at Empress Gallery Cafe as I drank a cat-themed beer from North Taiwan Brewery.

Come pray to the cat god and maybe you'll get a clean litter box

Come pray to the cat god and maybe you’ll get a clean litter box

After that beer, I wandered the streets of Houtong and got back on the train bound for Taipei–it was much too crowded and I had to stand the entire hour and a half. For the first 45 minutes, I only contemplated how miserable the train journey was a dozen times each minute. It certainly wasn’t as comfortable as the bus from Jiufen.

Have you been to the cat village? Did they crown you the Cat King (or Queen)? 

Discovering New Beer in Taiwan

In honor of reaching 500 unique brews on Untappd (I started using the app to log the different beers I drink in August 2012), I should write up another beer post. And my New Year’s resolution is not to reach 1,000, or even make a conscious attempt–I’d rather relax and enjoy my time with or without a new beer.

Last time I was in Taipei, I lamented the lack of local beer. I had found a couple decent beers, but nothing beyond that. When I returned, I was introduced to more local brews that I had either missed or that had finally become available in bars nearby.

Redpoint 台PA

Redpoint 台PA

North Taiwan Brewing, the brewery that I found with a pretty good abbey ale back in April, has a lot more beers. Unfortunately, most of them are fruit beers (I accidentally bought Apparallel Universe and it tasted like medicine). They did come out with a mildly hoppy brew called CHTHONIC. It’s definitely a beer worth trying, but not something I’d go out of my way for (but the label is pretty cool).

The beer has gotten better as I’ve stayed in Taipei longer–one friend introduced me to Redpoint, a beer brewed out in Hsinchu, which is a long, slow train ride west of the city, when I went to visit him and visit the beer haven iBeer. This was one of the better beers in Taiwan–it was a hoppy, but not overpowering, IPA (or I should say 台PA; that character is pronounced “tai”). The brewery also makes Long Dong Lager, which is a decent lager, but nothing special.

At the end of my adventure along Taiwan’s east coast, I tried the most unusual beer in Jiaoxi, a town renowned for its hot springs. At one of the hotel hot springs (I didn’t bother putting my feet in the outdoor pools) was a vendor for Barley Farm Manual Beer. There was not much English, so it was difficult to figure out what the beers were, but one of them claimed to be a green algae brew. It tasted like a Japanese barley tea.

What an odd color for a beer

What an odd color for a beer

Another beer from Hsinchu, which I think is the best beer in Taiwan, is the 886 Brewing’s Magnum PIPA (seriously, why isn’t this brewed in Miami?). I had this beer at my hostel in Wai’ao on a weekend trip along the east coast, north of Hualien. They also make a brown ale that’s light enough to drink all night.

Tom Selleck would be proud

Tom Selleck would be proud

Most recently I tried 55th Street’s amber lager, which was a little on the sweet side because it’s brewed with dried longan (a fruit related to lychees). This was at a new bar in Taipei called Something Ales, which feels more like a cafe than a bar–certainly not a place I’d return to often for the prices they charge.

55th Street Amber with dried longan

55th Street Amber with dried longan

When I headed back to Revolver, a bar that once had a shrine to Mick Jagger (why is it gone!?), near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I found another local brew: #23 Brewery. They make a pale ale and a blonde. I happen to think the blonde tastes better as the pale ale is a little bland. I’d certainly have either them again depending on what else was on tap, but the blonde ale would be the preference as it has more flavor.

Steve's Lager

Steve’s Lager

Finally, I met the brewer of a new beer brand–he’s established in Taipei and Wisconsin. Steve’s Kraft Beer is a bit more innovative than the rest in the area. Steve tries to brew his beers with Taiwanese tastes in mind, which is why his amber lager is slightly sweet. I’d prefer a more hoppy blend, but I’m not his target market. Most brewers here are going for more traditional brews to introduce to the Taiwanese market, while Steve is trying to attract the market to his beer. I also got to taste his black lager, Black Hole Beer, which is more my taste–it’s a little on the lighter side but still provides the flavor a schwarzbier should. I didn’t get a chance to sample the rest of his beers yet, but I’m sure I will soon enough.

Read more about the beers and bars of Taipei in my travel guide.

Have I missed any of the local brews worth trying in Taiwan? I’m sure there are more to come.

Another Birthday Abroad

“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories… And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”
-H.G. Wells, from The Time Machine

I’ve come up with a theory that birthdays while living abroad don’t count. That doesn’t matter, of course, as I’ve decided that I don’t feel like celebrating anything other than my 25th birthday, though I may change my mind when I hit 50 or so. I suppose it’s not so bad to admit that I’ve now turned 35–I was mistaken for 40 a few weeks ago, which forced me to shave my beard (I’m told I look younger than my age when I shave).

taipei-101-sun-yat-sen-parkLast year I celebrated on my own in Tokyo–it was a quiet affair of sorts that culminated in treating myself to a confusing journey through the local onsen. This year I departed Tokyo a few days before my birthday and returned to Taipei.

Why would you return to Taipei? is what you’re probably asking right now. I generally don’t plan on returning to cities I’ve already visited, but I already made an exception in the case of Tokyo. Over the last few months I’ve been applying for new jobs, most of which are in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything yet, but I may return to teaching at the beginning of the spring semester if all goes well with applications. Unfortunately, I can’t stay in Japan for more than 90 days without a visa, so I took a visa run of sorts–and the cheapest flights were to Taipei, where I can also stay for up to 90 days without a visa (it’s also a little easier to find short-term private students to help pay the bills).

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

If I hadn’t chosen to stay in Tokyo, I probably would have moved to Taipei (or possibly Kaohsiung) as it’s the most livable city I’ve visited (unless you count the horrifically humid summers).

But that’s neither here nor there and I’m getting off topic while musing about this whole aging process. I should tell you about all the great partying I did to celebrate this birthday, but then I’d have to lie.

A couple days before my birthday, I met a friend for drinks near where my hostel should have been (seems it moved to a less desirable location since my friend stayed here). She wanted to take me out earlier because she had to work on my birthday. The miscommunication was entertaining upon review: “I’m here.” “Where? I’m outside.” “I’m at the door.” “No you’re not.” “Did the hostel move?”

I ended up drinking a bottle of Queue de Charrue Brune, a Belgian sour brown ale. It wasn’t as strong as I expected at 5.5%, but the flavor was almost overpowering (I couldn’t taste my friend’s beer after a few sips of this one). It had a chocolate cherry aroma and tasted like a slightly sour brown ale.

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

On my birthday, another friend visited from Hsinchu to have dinner at Dream of Hobbiton, a Hobbit-themed restaurant in Zhongshan. I had read about this restaurant last time I was in Taipei–when I lived in Zhongshan–but I never tried it. Now I had an excuse to try Hobbit cuisine.

sweet-hobbitAlright, so the menu has nothing to do with the books or the movies–it’s mostly an Italian-style restaurant with pizza and pasta. There was one cocktail called the Sweet Hobbit, which was made with rum and some sort of sweet mixer, that I had to order to fit with the restaurant’s attempted theme.

Lord of the Rings corner

Lord of the Rings corner

The decor is halfway to the Hobbit. As my friend pointed out, it looks like they spent too much money on movie props and filled in the rest with whatever they could find. The bar downstairs at least looks like it’d fit in the Shire, if it were a bit shorter anyway. The corner by the door has the majority of the Hobbit memorabilia, but there’s also Smeagol upstairs (I didn’t check the upper floors for more). gollum

We’re still not sure about the Iron Man hand and mask on the door or the waiter statue wearing a pirate hat outside. Did Robert Downey, Jr. have a cameo in one of the Lord of the Ring movies? Was there a pirate butler in Rivendell?pirate-waiter

After dinner we walked around the neighborhood and ended up at the izakaya that plays punk near my old apartment in the seedier part of Taipei. The staff welcomed my friend back, even though he’d never been there before. When he mentioned to the staff that it was my birthday, they offered us a shot that contained cheap absinth and some awful Polish liquor that claims to be 160 proof. It was worse than the medicinal snake liquor I had in Vietnam.

When you’ve been traveling solo for an extended time, what do you do to celebrate your birthday or even holidays?

Beer in the Park

“While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.”
-Li Bai, Drinking Alone by Moonlight

This week marks the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The National Day holiday is the second-longest holiday of the year after Spring Festival. When I moved to China in 2005, I arrived three weeks after the holiday. It wasn’t until the following year that I took a short break from Shenzhen for the national holiday. After seeing all the main sights the previous year, I decided to not go too far and ended up on a bus to Zhaoqing in Guangdong Province–it was almost another hour past Guangzhou.PBRpark

One of the more unusual sights to behold in Zhaoqing was the park in the center of the city around Star Lake. There was a dried up fountain that had an oversized can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the same beer that is so popular with hipsters and was recently purchased by a Russian company. When I returned to Shenzhen, I discovered the reason for that giant PBR can; the beer is brewed in Zhaoqing for the Chinese market, which is a large market for the company.

After I departed China, PBR came out with a limited-edition brew for the Chinese market–a $44 dollar bottle of oak aged pissy beer. No matter what they did to “improve” upon the traditional PBR, I was certain that it would still cause a hangover before the bottle was empty.

Drinking in Korea

Koreans like to drink. They drink a lot. And the prevalence of bars and alcoholic beverage vendors reinforces the fact that Korea is the largest per capita consumer of alcohol in Asia. According to a recent Bussiness Insider article, Koreans consume twice as much alcohol as Russians, but that was only in reference to liquor. From what I saw, Koreans prefer beer (or maybe it was a summer thing considering I was there in June and July).

I figured Korea would be similar to Taiwan in beer quality.

I at least enjoyed a couple beers in Taiwan, but there was very little variety. I wasn’t about to go near the liquor because I remember some painful mornings after drinking baijiu in China.  Anyway, Korea was a pleasant surprise in the alcoholic beverage department.

There are more than enough bars throughout Seoul to keep anyone busy. Some are rundown and dingy, while others are new and trendy. There are even some unusual bars with an eclectic collection of memorabilia. And sometimes if you go alone to a bar they’ll seat you with a companion who doesn’t talk much.

bear bar seoul

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

Drinking up the soju

Usually, people think of soju when talking about Korean alcohol–it’s certainly the most widely sold alcohol in the country and it’s cheapest option for drinking in most places. Soju can be a bit harsh–there’s a bit of variety to this spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or barley, which can range from 20-35% ABV. Some of the lower-alcohol soju is more pleasant; it doesn’t have as much of a bite to it. Generally, soju should be drunk with friends, which makes it difficult to drink when traveling alone.

What’s this about makgeolli?

The second option for drinking, which also isn’t expensive in most cases, is the cloudy rice wine called makgeolli. This is more of an acquired taste; I wasn’t sure what to think of it the first time I tried it with my coworker and her friend. Most makgeolli is sweet, though the sweetness can vary considerably, and it has a natural carbonation. The beverage is traditionally drunk from small bowls rather than glasses, which I found rather fun.

makgeolli

Lotus makgeolli

While walking around Daehagno I came across a friendly bar/restaurant called Do You Know Makgeolli? Of course, I had to try it. This little establishment on a quiet street has a fridge full of makgeolli–there were at least 40 varieties. My server tried to help me choose a bottle in our broken communication, and suggested a lotus-flavored makgeolli. It was light and not too sweet–a refreshing beverage for the humid evening. He came back later and offered me a taste of a chestnut makgeolli that was a little too sweet for my liking.

While just about every establishment in Seoul serves beer, soju, and makgeolli, there are also small sidewalk stands that serve cocktails, sometimes in ziplock bags with straws sticking out. I had to try it once. They had no whiskey or rum, and the drinks weren’t strong but tasted much too sweet for my palate–I drank half and threw the rest out.

street cocktails seoul

Sidewalk cocktails

Then there was the beer. A few years ago, The Economist proclaimed that beer in South Korea was boring. The major beers like Cass and Hite are boring, but I’d still choose them over Budweiser and Miller. I drank my share of the cheap Korean macrobrews–it was the thing to drink at most local bars. The major brewers have come out with some more appealing options in the last year as well. Hite-Jinro has its Black Beer Stout, which is actually a black lager that tastes pretty good as the only dark beer that’s widely available. The brewery also makes Queen’s ale in blonde and extra bitter varieties–the blonde has much better flavor than the bitter (it was the beer of choice for my day at the ballgame). Oriental Brewery also has it’s Aleston brown and black ales, which are alright but nothing I’d go out of my way to drink again.

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

Discovering Korean brewpubs

After a couple weeks in Seoul, I discovered the brewpubs in the city that have opened in recent years. Most are located in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood of bars and restaurants just a short walk from the foreigner-haven of Itaewon.

I was first introduced to CraftWorks Taphouse, which has some pretty good hot wings for half price on the night I sampled their beers that are named after local mountains. The IPA was decent, but nothing special, while the dark ale was lighter on alcohol but had a pleasant malty flavor. My friends who introduced me to the brewery ordered the porter, which was bland and definitely not worth ordering.

beer seoul

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

Just down the street from CraftWorks is Room H, which serves Weizenhaus beer. This is an American brewery that also brews in Korea. Their stout was rich and flavorful with hints of coffee. The industrial interior and open storefront made this brewpub more appealing.

Around the corner from the other brewpubs is Magpie, the original Seoul brewpub. They have a small room on street level that’s only open until 10 pm, when they tell patrons to head to the basement bar to avoid annoying the neighbors with excessive noise. The basement bar can get crowded, but it’s a cool place to hang out if you get a seat. The most impressive beer I tried at Magpie was the lavender ale, which was light for the summer heat and humidity. I was skeptical, but the lavender didn’t overpower the light hops and added a relaxing aroma to a beer to enjoy while hanging around a dim alley in the middle of a metropolis.

platinum oatmeal stout

Platinum Oatmeal Stout

Over in Itaewan, I found my favorite basement bar in the city: Four Seasons Craft Beer Bar. I introduced three local friends to this rather quiet bar that devoid of the annoying expat crowd–it attracts locals and well-behaved expats in the area. The beer menu changes and has a nice balance of Korean and international microbrews. I stuck with the Korean beers like Seoulless Ginger and Noul Red Rye, the latter of which had some sharp hops.

Noul Red Rye

Noul Red Rye at Four Seasons

The last brewpub I sampled was Platinum Brewery. I stumbled upon this one while wandering the crowded streets of Hongdae on a Friday night (a huge mistake with all the university students roaming around after a week of classes). Although I only tried the oatmeal stout and strong pale ale, I found Platinum to be the most consistent brewery–both beers were smooth with enough flavor to keep me interested as I drank. Despite the bar being empty, I was inspired to order my second beer.

platinum strong pale ale

Platinum Strong Pale Ale

Have you tried Korean microbrews or makgeolli? What did you think? Do you have a favorite?

Eats and Drinks in Florence

I stayed in a hostel in Florence for a few reasons, the top being that I wanted to save money. I also wanted to meet people. Combining the two meant that I could find people in the hostel to go out for meals and drinks–and I’d still be able to afford those things because I wasn’t spending a fortune on accommodation.

Mercato Centrale Florence

Mercato Centrale

Along the tourist trail in Florence, there isn’t much in the way of food that I would recommend. Most of the restaurants are overpriced and don’t look so appealing (this is a theme around Italy). However, there are a few exceptions.

I met a fellow American tourist at the hostel to go around with for a bit after a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was McDonald’s. Usually I have to be drunk to even consider going there, but in Italy they serve Peroni for one euro. We had to go have a beer at McDonald’s just so we could tell everyone that we had a McBeer.

mcbeer

Peroni and McDonald’s

Our next stop was Mercato Centrale, which is a tourist and local destination not far from the train station–and it’s worth visiting (but I advise avoiding the souvenir hawkers outside). My hostel companion thought the market was just the souvenir crap outside; he didn’t realize there was a whole grocery market and hipster food court inside–the food court looked like something that came straight out of Brooklyn. It also gets rather lively and crowded in the evening. Had I stayed in Florence longer, I probably would’ve spent more time at the Mercato–there was also espresso in the downstairs market for less than one euro.

mercato centrale florence

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

We started with pizza, which was sold by weight, because it looked good it. The anchovies were delicious. It was some of the best pizza I had in Italy. After that we had some cocktails–I introduced my new friend to the spritz, which is made with Aperol (sometimes Campari or Select), prosecco, and a little tonic. After our first drink, we wandered into the crowd for something larger to eat. I ended up with some fried seafood and vegetables–the seafood was good, but the vegetables were unseasoned and bland.pizza florence

At Birrifico Mostodolce, down the street from the station, I found Italian microbrew. I decided to try the Black Doll stout. It was a decent beer, but like most in Italy it was nothing special. The bar seemed like a nice place to hang out, but I was there too early to enjoy much (I intended on waking up early for sightseeing anyway). They had other beers, but nothing that appealed to me at the time. I opted for a cheap bottle of wine back at the hostel instead.black doll stout

Just before I left Florence, I went in search of lunch prior to hopping on the train for Perugia. I wasn’t overly hungry, so I searched for something light–I was actually hoping for a salad. I managed to find one on the way to the station with my luggage. It was better than any salad I had seen in Italy–it was a smoked duck salad with balsamic vinegar. The thin slices of smoked duck made the meal (I find most salads in Italy rather boring).

smoked duck salad italy

Smoked duck salad

I’m sure if I had stayed longer in Florence, I would’ve found plenty more to eat and drink, but I only had two and a half days before I had to head back to my temporary home in Perugia.

Independence Day in Seoul

As I previously noted, I had no real plan for a July 4th celebration in Seoul–I couldn’t seem to find any activities for the holiday. I settled on going out with a friend for a burger and beer in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood near Itaewon filled primarily with non-Korean restaurants and brewpubs.

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

We settled on dinner at Thunder Burger–a small shop that offers a variety of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries. It’s a no-frills establishment with only a few tables, but that also explains why the burgers only cost $5-7. While my friend went with the classic cheeseburger, I couldn’t pass up the chance to eat a spicy burger–it had sliced jalapenos and crushed chili peppers (it wasn’t overly spicy, but it had a decent kick to it).

I'm inclined to agree

I’m inclined to agree

After our meal, we headed down the road in search of Magpie, the lone brewpub I haven’t tried in the neighborhood. As we passed Magpie, we ended up at Room H, a rather simple bar that serves beer brewed by Korean brewery Weizenhaus. I’ve been to this place before, and their stout was the best dark beer I’ve had in Korea. This time around, I tried their hefeweizen, which was alright for a humid evening, but nothing special.

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

As we were finishing our drinks, we heard some loud noises outside. “Do I hear fireworks?” I said. Sure enough, we could see fireworks off in the distance–presumably from a US military base nearby. We finished our beers and walked up the pedestrian bridge just outside Room H for a better view of the fireworks. It was definitely a better view than I had last year in Boston, and the display was rather impressive.

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

The following day, I met up with other friends for some Korean barbecue and managed to introduce them to a quiet bar in Itaewon that serves Korean and imported microbrews (my one friend was a little upset that the visitor was introducing new watering holes to the locals).

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

To fill out the weekend, I headed to Incheon on Sunday. The city is of historical importance as the landing point for American forces during the Korean War. As part of my wandering through Incheon, I headed to Jayu (Freedom) Park, which is on a hill above Chinatown. Within the park is a statue to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led US forces into Korea.

It turned out to be a pleasant July 4th weekend away from home.

How do you usually celebrate national holidays while traveling abroad?

A Few Good Beers in Taiwan

Taiwan is not a haven for good beer in Asia. It was definitely better than the variety in Vietnam, but came nowhere close to Japan. Most beer bars in Taipei serve a nice variety of Belgian beers, but little else. The market is dominated by Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corp., which makes Taiwan Beer in all its bland varieties. There are a few exceptions.

This is obviously my beer. Get your own

This is obviously my beer. Get your own

I arrived in time for a seasonal brew

When I first arrived, there was a newly-released beer: Taiwan Weissbier. As the name suggests, it’s a wheat beer. There’s nothing special about this beer, but it is rare to find such beers in Asia, which I find odd because most people around Asia like this style of beer. It goes pretty well with salty or spicy foods, and it’s especially good in the summer.

There was also a beer I enjoyed a bit more called M!NE (alright, so it sounds self-centered to drink this beer, but I don’t care). M!NE is a schwarzbier, or dark lager, that has a decent malt. It’s not as good with spicy food, but it goes great with the lighter Taiwanese fare. It was also a great beer for the cooler nights during my first month in Taipei.

North Taiwan Brewing Abbey Beer

North Taiwan Brewing Abbey Beer

Toward the end of my stay, I ventured out to bars around Gongguan and found an outdoor bar next to the water park. At this bar I found a few Taiwanese microbrews from North Taiwan Brewing. These beers were so hard to find that I told long-time expats about it and they had never heard of the company. I never saw them anywhere other than the bar–and I never learned the bar’s name.

The first North Taiwan Brewing beer was an abbey ale and that was rich and smooth and 6% ABV. They also make an 8% abbey ale that isn’t as smooth, a little sweeter, and a bit heavier. I actually prefer the 8% abbey ale because it had a stronger flavor. The lighter version is similar to a decent brown ale, but not quire on the same level as Smuttynose Really Old Brown Dog, which is still my favorite brown ale.

North Taiwan Brewing also had a white ale that I found to be a bit lacking. I thought the Taiwan Weissbier was better.

Have you tried any Taiwanese beers? Are there more microbrews that I missed?

Getting More Comfortable in Seoul

Gwanghwamun Gate

Gwanghwamun Gate

I figured that overwhelmed feeling wouldn’t last too long. I really just needed to get oriented, have a beer or two, and talk to some people. I still haven’t learned anything more than “hello,” “thank you,” and “beer” in Korean, but I’ll make an attempt to learn a few key words and phrases (I’m told the Korean alphabet isn’t difficult to learn).

I had Monday off from work for Memorial Day (the advantage of working for a US company), so I had three days to explore Seoul. In hindsight, I should’ve traded the day off for another week so I could’ve traveled outside Seoul–felt weird trying to plan a weekend away on my first full weekend here, which is why I stayed in the city.

Dongdaemun Hisory & Culture Park

Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

After work on Friday I decided to wander a nearby neighborhood–the guidebook that was in the my apartment suggested Dongdaemun (I didn’t realize I had already wandered that area). The history and culture park is nice–there’s an archaeological site surrounded by a futuristic building that made me think aliens had landed in Korea. It’s certainly the most interesting part of the neighborhood.

Futuristic Dondaemun building

Futuristic Dondaemun building

The rest of the neighborhood is full of clothing shops and street vendors selling cheaper versions. This wasn’t anything I was interested in. But as I kept walking, I began turning down alleys (I had to be careful because I had no map) and found a lot of street food and small restaurants that I will have to try. Then I found the highlight of the evening: a coffee shop that set up plastic tables outside and served beer. They also had a baseball game on a projection screen. To top it off, the beer was only about $2.50 for a pint (it was only Cass, but I can’t complain when watching baseball outside in a foreign country). I left the game around the 6th inning as it got rather cold and windy–I headed home to try the more local places.

Watching baseball outside in a parking lot on a Friday night

Watching baseball outside in a parking lot on a Friday night

I decided to try a self-serve beer bar around the corner from my apartment. These types of bars are all over Seoul–they have fridges stocked with a variety of beer, and customers can go up and take what they want. At the end of the night, they’ll count up what you served yourself. I chose the HiteJinro Black Beer Stout Lager–it’s a confusing label. The beer is definitely not a stout, but rather a schwarzbier. For less than $3, it’s definitely worth drinking.

HiteJinro black beer stout with some drinking snack

HiteJinro black beer stout with some drinking snack

The beer was more worthwhile as I met some friendly Koreans who spoke a little English and invited me to drink with them. Unfortunately, it ended with me helping them finish their bottle of Jose Cuervo (I’m not a fan of tequila, and that’s really bad tequila compared to what I’ve had). Needless to say, it was a rough Saturday morning to go to my coworker’s neighborhood–she was going to help me get a SIM card for my phone, but I forgot my passport because tequila. But it’s alright because despite some language barriers, I managed to get a local phone number in my neighborhood (though it was about twice the price of Taiwan).

Nothing like a trip to the market for some dried fish heads

Nothing like a trip to the market for some dried fish heads

Nonetheless, I had pleasant afternoon walking around a residential part of Seoul–we walked along a tributary until we came to the Han River to enjoy the hazy view.

Slightly cleaned up (Photoshopped) view of the hazy Han River

Slightly cleaned up (Photoshopped) view of the hazy Han River

Having someone around–even if you only see that person once a week, if that–can improve the experience of visiting/living in a new and slightly confusing place.

How long does it usually take you to adjust to a foreign city? Have friends/acquaintances helped you adjust?

Beers of Japan

Japanese beer isn’t all Kirin, Asahi, and Sapporo, although those three breweries make a wide variety of beers and cover most of the market. Kirin even makes Heartland, which is the brewery’s attempt at a craft lager–it was better than most other rather generic Japanese brews and cost about the same at bars and restaurants.coedo beer

But I quickly discovered that there was much more to Japanese beer than the boring lagers that are so prevalent around Asia. I quickly found the major brewers’ stouts on the shelves of grocery stores. I also began asking bartenders and patrons about microbrews around the country. I even began noticing a few such beers in grocery and convenience stores.

Beer costs how much!?

The first thing I noticed about good beer in Japan is that it’s very expensive. Japan taxes beer based on malt content, so rather flavorless beer is reasonably priced while better beer is much more expensive. A single bottle or can at a store can range from a little more than $1 to about $7 or $8. And the government is raising the tax for the new year.

Discovering beer bars in Tokyo

I discovered most of the beers at a small place in Shimokitazawa, simply called Beer Bar in English (I showed the Japanese name to some people I met and they laughed because it’s apparently an odd name for a bar). There are actually two bars for this single establishment (separated by a small restaurant). The smaller bar area is standing room only, while the other has a larger seating area at the bar as well as tables. Each part of the bar serves different beer, and the beers range from about $11 to $17.

One of my favorite breweries was Coedo. They make a wide variety of beers, and a few of them were available at my local convenience stores. For the better ones, like the imperial IPA, which was 11%, and Coedonado, which was 9.5%, I had to travel to Beer Bar in Shimokitazawa.

sorry beer

Why is this beer apologizing for being awesome?

During my first visit to Beer Bar, I met a small group in the smaller side of the bar–they didn’t speak much English, but they were a lot of fun and liked to talk about beer (I introduced them to the Untappd app). One from the group handed me a can of beer before leaving–a strong malty beer called Zenryaku Konominante Kiitenaize Sorry Strong Ale.

On the shelves of Odakyu convenience store and even 7-Eleven, I found some less expensive Japanese microbrews. Most them weren’t as good as what I had at Beer Bar, but they were still pretty good for the price. There were beers like Echigo amber, which was a flavorful amber lager that I purchased more than once.echigo beer

And on a trip to Enoshima, I found some local beer, Kamakura Enoshima Beer, that was sold almost everywhere for about $6 per bottle. There were a couple brands and varieties, but I waited to buy it as I didn’t want to carry it around all day. When I got back near the train station, I had difficulty finding a store that sold it. I finally found a cold bottle at 7-Eleven and a warm bottle at a liquor store. Unfortunately, I missed out on trying more of the variety.

gargery beer

Great way to leave Tokyo

And on my last night in Japan, I stopped in Bar Chit-Chat, which was right near my apartment in Shinyurigaoka, for the first time. They had another beer I hadn’t yet tried, Gargery 23, which was a bottle of rich dark porter that went well with the chilly weather that forced me to depart Japan for the warmth of Vietnam.

Have you tried any of these Japanese beers? What did you think?