Culture in a glass: Lessons learned drinking through South Asia

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An entrance to the Forbidden City that housed emperors within the Imperial City in Vietnam // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

Picture this: It’s 7,000 B.C. in the Henan province of northern China, and someone has just mixed up a concoction of hawthorn berries, honey, and rice into a bowl. After leaving it out for a few weeks, whether on purpose or by accident, the liquid spontaneously ferments into something sweet, pungent, and that, when imbibed, makes your head spin. With no understanding of the science behind this process, people were likely frazzled, maybe even looking to a higher power or magic for answers.

Whatever the actual circumstances, this is among the oldest evidence modern archaeologists have of alcohol, the discovery of which would forever change the world. Alcohol is responsible for scientific breakthroughs in microbiology, distillation, and even pasteurization to make water safer to drink. It also proved to be the common thread that tied together the wide range of cultures I experienced on my five-month trek throughout South Asia.

Back in October 2015, at 28 years old, I had crossed into a decade of a fully fledged working career, but was thirsty for cultural exploration. After wrestling with the pros and cons, I decided to take a chance. In a matter of weeks, I had quit my job at Lyft in San Francisco, relinquished my apartment, sold most of my possessions, and booked a one way flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

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The author, Jeff Vondenkamp, dives into the ocean in Koh Chang, Thailand  // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

This was my first-ever solo trip. This was my first time away from North America, and I decided to set a few simple rules for myself: no planned itineraries, no definite timelines, and I must try everything. Over the next five months, those guidelines pushed me to trek the Himalayas, bike across Vietnam, and get completely lost in the wild environments, communities, and drinking rituals that South Korea, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam had to offer.

I knew that gaining a full understanding of the history and culture of each country would be impossible in the brief time I had, but I did my best to soak in as much as possible. Visits to beautiful temples and museums provided me with loads of historical and cultural information, but I found just as many answers sipping the local beverages at nearby watering holes. Ancient ingredients like rice, millet, and various fruits are still spontaneously fermented in their original form, and the resulting beverages can only be found in the local communities where they’re produced.

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A meal in South Korea // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

In Nepal and Korea for example, there is an abundance of rice. When paired with things like tsampa (Nepali flour) or dry bread yeast, the brewer would eventually produce a milky, sweet, carbonated beverage (chhaang in Nepal or makgeolli in Korea). They have a similar flavor profile and are both delectable.

Similarly, travel down to Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam and rice wine/whiskeys are available everywhere. Sato in Thailand, lao-lao in Laos, and rượu cần in Vietnam are very close in ingredients, process, and flavor, and have been made locally for centuries.

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San Miguel beer in Nepal // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

There are many progressive cultural shifts underway, though, with developments in technology, tourism development, and economic growth driving the change. Not all are bad, especially in the area of craft beer, but skepticism and progress are starting to lock horns within local communities. The discovery of a large craft beer presence in the region startled and excited me the most, and provided me a lens to understand the change currently underway in many parts of Asia. With an influx of expats moving in and developing new subcultures, fascinating and palatable drink, food, and art movements are occurring. A periodical that helped guide me through the beer movement was Craft Beer Asia. I chatted with the organization’s co-founder Rob Trent, and from his point of view, some markets are taking and pushing the trends, with more progressive markets and big tourist destinations paving the way.

“In the Philippines,” Trent told me, “it’s the locals that are fueling the craft beer movement with rapid increases in disposable income and a pride for local manufacturing. This is what drove the North American market as well. Drink local. Contrast that to Vietnam, where breweries such as Pasteur Street Brewing have struggled to attract local drinkers, but are finding demand from travelers as they experiment with local ingredients.”

I visited Pasteur Street Brewing Company while in Ho Chi Minh City. It was a Friday night and the place was packed with Westerners. After months away from familiar faces, it was nice to see some familiarity—it was like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.” Only a few locals were there, however; cost seemed to be the driving factor (a pint of Bia Saigon costs $0.25 in the street, as compared to the $7 pints at Pasteur.)

I talked with one of the brewery’s founders, American expat John Reid, about local demand. “At first it was all expats and tourists drinking it, but we’ve seen a lot more Vietnamese people getting into craft every month,” he said. “And, for us specifically, giving all of the beers a distinct Vietnamese ingredient gives it that local flavor and places all of our beers squarely here in Vietnam. You couldn’t make these beers anywhere else.”

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A market in South Korea // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

Fresh lemongrass, passion fruit, jasmine, vanilla, and coffee harvested right in their backyard—Pasteur Street is putting together some adventurous beers, many of which I was able to sample following my tour of the brewery, as well as during my time with the crew on a brew day that was followed by a feast with TnT BBQ.

Each of these experiences made me rethink an assumption I’ve always had about cultural clashes—that one must disappear for another to exist. During my five-month journey, it seemed the mix of traditional cultures with new, more global influences were working in tandem to reinvigorate local communities and draw in tourists. Of course, the question of whether locals will be able preserve their past in the face of increasing globalization looms large, but if they are able to coexist, I see there being great opportunities to share and complement each other in this space.

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Beerlao in Laos // Photo courtesy of Jeff Vondenkamp

You can learn a lot by being curious and thirsty. Wherever I was unable to speak or understand, we simply drank, smiled, or high fived. Technology makes it easy to forego real human conversations and experiences. Resist. Put your phone in your pocket, look up, and take a left. The flavors and friendliness that will be granted to you from those you encounter will humble you and subdue your fears for good.

Cheers! Geonbae (Korean)! Chok dee (Thai)! Một, hai, ba, yo (Vietnamese)!

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