Don't Call It A Comeback

Brewer Aims to Put Beer Laos on the Map

July 30, 2008; Page B8

VIENTIANE, Laos -- A Soviet-trained female brewmaster is trying to turn an obscure Laotian lager into the world's next great cult beer, largely by tapping into the buzz about the brew being carried home by visitors to this small communist country.

The 49-year-old Sivilay Lasachack, who seldom drinks beer, preferring sweet tea instead, thinks her Czech-inspired Beerlao has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Mexico's Corona Extra.

To some, the idea that a Laotian beer might one day be the toast of a cosmopolitan cabal of beer drinkers might not seem very promising. Laos has no brewing tradition to speak of and little international business.

The nation of six million people is nestled between China, Vietnam and Thailand. It has become a trendy destination for backpackers and adventure tourists, in part because of its slow pace and relative lack of exposure to the West.

But Ms. Sivilay, chief brewmaster at Lao Brewery Co. is counting on savvy marketing to overcome the beer's relatively unimpressive pedigree, in a bid to emulate Corona's rise to global stardom...

But Lao Brewery doesn't want to come on too strong. Its marketing manager, 47-year-old Bounkanh Kounlabouth, fears that promoting Beerlao too aggressively will scare off its grass-roots following. Instead, he would rather follow Corona's example of becoming an "accidental" brand. "We don't want to undermine Beerlao's word-of-mouth appeal, so for us it is better to let it grow naturally."

Mr. Bounkanh spends much of his time trying to engineer such an "accident." Because he is relying on foreign tourists to spread the word about Beerlao, he is promoting the brand heavily in Laos. "We won't let the competition get a foothold," Mr. Bounkanh says.

The next step: Bringing Beerlao to the rest of the world. The beer is already sold in several major markets, including Britain, Australia, Japan and the U.S.

"We were a bit skeptical at first," says James Morgan, a director at British distributor Milestone Point Ltd. "But it's one of the few brands where the customer seeks it out rather than the other way round."

Beerlao's rise has followed an unusual path. Most Laotians aren't big beer drinkers. In fact, Lao Brewery was founded by French and Lao businessmen in 1971 mostly to slake the thirst of French colonists.

After the Vietnam War, Laos's new communist rulers sent the country's best and brightest for training in physics, medicine and other disciplines in communist states in Eastern Europe. Ms Sivilay was assigned to study brewing and spent six years in what was then Czechoslovakia learning from Prague's master brewers.

Ms. Sivilay's big break came shortly after she returned to Vientiane to work at Lao Brewery, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the financial lifeline to the brewery's Soviet sponsor cut, its managers turned to her to keep the brewery going.

Her first move was to introduce rice to replace some of the imported grains which the brewery could no longer afford. Mixing the mash by hand, she also began recycling yeast-a trick she learned in Prague-and brought Beerlao much closer to a classic European pilsner. Sales figures are hard to come by in Laos's state-run economy, but Lao Brewery currently produces 200 million liters of beer a year, and it is the country's biggest taxpayer.

Ms. Sivilay says these days she rarely needs to taste a beer to see if it is any good. "I smell it and see how the head settles in the glass to judge whether it's a good beer," she says. "The tourists seem to like it though."

As do some international beer judges. Ms. Sivilay's brew has won a string of prizes, including honors at international beer competitions in Moscow and Prague, and she hopes Beerlao will one day put her tiny country on the map.

"The judges often say 'We love your beer, but where is your country?' We hope to change that," she says.

Read Full Article

I'm no beer conisseur but beer Laos seems to be one of the few beers in South East Asia that doesn't taste like watery has flavour....I never knew it was brewed by a sweet tea drinking lady

Beer Laos Dark and Baguette consumed at Koh Chang cafe 2008


    Very interesting stuff, although I can't imagine there were too many French colonialists left in Laos in 1971...

    I think Beerlao is good by SE Asian standards--I particularly enjoyed the dark beer on my recent trip--but suspect that it probably couldn't hold its own if tasted side by side with 'real' beer or even a Corona... Whaddya you think, Phil?


    I do have a soft spot for beerlao dark which is sort of dark amber ale. I'd be tempted to make up a name for the style like "Equatorial Stout".

    Beerlao isn't amazing, it just doesn't have worthy local competitors. It won't go global like Corona, until beerlao signs some deals to have it brewed outside of Laos - having failed to get inside the brewery while I was in Laos, all I can say from the outside is that their capacity is seems limited.


Blogger Templates by Blog Forum