Exploring Philippine Craft Beer in Metro Manila’s Coolest NeighborhoodNovember 29, 2018
“Vietnam has a really good craft beer scene,” said Marco Viray, co-founder of Joe’s Brew, when I asked about how the Filipino craft beer scene stacks up against others. “[But] the cool thing about the Philippines is that the majority of craft brewers here are Filipinos.”
His brother and Joe’s Brew co-owner Joey leaned in, smiling broadly: “They’re the guys from San Diego who moved out!”
The inside joke is that the brothers Viray are those guys—expat Filipinos who got hooked on craft beers while working and traveling abroad and returned home wanting the same. They are among the vanguard of Filipinos transforming beer culture in a country where session drinking is practically a social obligation.
The craft beer movement bloomed a bit later in the Philippines than in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, and it’s far from what you’ll find in the U.S., but local enthusiasts are coming up to speed pretty quickly. Five years ago, there were fewer than a dozen independent operations in the country; today, more than 60 nano- and microbreweries are producing 200-plus styles of beer, some of which are already winning accolades at regional beer competitions.
The thing is, these beer houses are scattered far and wide in urban neighborhoods, mountain towns, and beach resorts from Luzon to Mindanao and 7,105 other islands in between. Short of tracking and tasting them in situ, the best way to sample Philippine craft brews is to head to Makati City for a Pob crawl—a four-block, island-hopping beer tour and a taste of Filipino food and drink culture in the heart of one of Metro Manila’s oldest districts.
Poblacion, Makati City
The aforementioned Pob is Poblacion, the three-and-a-half-centuries-old historical center of Metro Manila’s wealthiest city and a hub for entertainment spanning the taste spectrum from fine dining and jazz clubs to oil wrestling and hostess bars. But past those attractions you’ll find a curiosity: a small residential pocket that has managed to keep urban chaos and disruptions out of their corner of Poblacion.
Just a few years ago, the only non-locals who ventured into this unnamed neighborhood likely took a wrong turn from one of Makati’s traffic-clogged arteries and onto incongruously tidy streets flanked by shabby but handsome mid-century modern houses. It was, and still is, the kind of place where residents sweep the sidewalk in front of their homes every morning, neighbors play high-stakes bingo in the middle of the street on sunny afternoons, prized gamecocks crow from rickety balconies at dusk and, until the arrival of craft beer-focused bars, capping the day with a brew meant a pint bottle of Red Horse and a bowl of garlic peanuts. Though urban hipsters have since dubbed it NoKal, referring to Kalayaan Avenue on its southern edge, lifelong residents will tell you it’s simply Poblacion.
More recently, local homeowners have ceded several blocks to young creatives and entrepreneurs drawn to the neighborhood’s affordability and inspired by its authenticity. Among them are a small group of brewery and pub owners who’ve found the perfect place to support the growing Philippine craft beer movement in their own unique ways.
The Viray brothers grew up in Poblacion, where their grandmother was a longstanding barangay (ward) captain. So when the time came to locate their fledgling brewery, they couldn’t think of a better place. “It’s not the most glamorous part of Makati, but the cool thing about Poblacion is that there are no [dividing] lines. Wherever you’re from, whoever you are, regardless of what you’re wearing or who you know, you can go anywhere here and have a good time,” said Marco.
The House of Joe’s Brew sits on a quiet corner in the neighborhood’s outermost fringe, hidden behind a black roll-down door during the day with a only a small lightbox bearing the brewery’s skull-and-feathered-headdress logo to mark the location at night.
Inside, the steampunk-inspired space is close quarters, accommodating four at the bar and maybe another dozen at most. Marco and Joey are often at the tasting room or in the brewery upstairs, so don’t be shy about asking for a tour if you see them. There’s no kitchen at Joe’s Brew, but you can—and should—order smokehouse bar chow from Holy Smokes BBQ next door, which will be delivered via a discreet connecting door behind the taps.
“We get beer travelers here and there, but it’s mostly our regulars—expats and balikbayans [repatriated Filipinos]. The guys who already know craft beer,” said Marco. The number of Filipino patrons new to craft beers is smaller but growing. The challenge is convincing locals conditioned to insipid yet cheap commercial brews that nuanced and flavorful craft beers are well worth a much higher price. “All our beers are actually toned down for the local palate, just to get them hooked first,” said brewmaster Joey.
On any given day, Joe’s Brew has six core beers of mostly American styles, ranging from the lightly hopped Sierra Madre wheat ale to the more assertive Sun Sweeper double IPA and an easygoing Meet Joe Black sweet stout. Joining the classics is an ever-evolving list of limited releases that has recently included an Amarillo pale ale and a milkshake IPA. If you can’t make up your mind, the crew at Joe’s Brew is generous with tasters. Opt for a U-pick flight of four and you’re halfway through the tap list.
Brewmaster Joey enjoys experimenting, “just to be different, to make something weird and see if it works.” The brewery in Poblacion freed the brothers’ original home kit for creative craft brewing (hello, limited releases) but the imagination can only go so far. All of the essential ingredients—grains, hops, and yeast—must be imported, if not hand-carried by whoever is coming from the States. “I heard that there are a few yeast guys in the U.S. who are planning to sell their yeasts here. And some enzymes, too,” said Joey. “If that happens, the game’s gonna change here.”
Don’t leave without trying the 34th Pursuit IPA (6.8%ABV, 70 IBU) with homemade bacon slabs; the Sun Sweeper double IPA (7.2% ABV, 90 IBU) with jalapeño poppers; and the Soothsayer Pale Ale (5% ABV, 24 IBU) with poutine.
Alamat Filipino Pub & Deli
Chances are good on your three-block walk from Joe’s Brew to Alamat that you’ll come across a barkada, or group of friends, gathered around a table, drinking pint bottles of commercial beer or a cuatro canto of Ginebra gin and eating a variety of pork-based finger food. Session drinking, known as inuman, is such a beloved form of social bonding among Filipinos that it comes with its own category of food called pulutan.
Inuman and pulutan are precisely the kinds of cultural quirks that owners Cassie and Niño Laus had in mind when they came up with Alamat. “We [Filipinos] are kind of forgetting our own culture. We want to share it with foreigners but also promote it among ourselves,” said Cassie.
The Laus’ are part of the second wave of Philippine craft beer enthusiasts—recent converts who are now applying different talents and perspectives toward the movement. As experienced restaurateurs, they chose to create a hyper-Filipino craft brew gastropub where every element is local.
Alamat’s tap list features 15 craft beers from all over the archipelago, five of which are permanent “king taps.” Current king taps include the Zigzagger, a punchy triple-hopped double IPA from Baguio Craft Brewery; Bulul Brewery’s summer-friendly namesake pilsner; and a mango craft cider from Elias Wicked Ales & Spirits. Other recent taps include the latter’s 3 Stars and the Haze, a New England IPA made with Citra, Galaxy, and Mosaic hops, and Sa Eng, a mountain pine-infused pale ale from Cerveza Sagada Craft Brewery.
With the drink portion of an inuman covered, how about the food? Niño, an accomplished chef, created what he calls “pulutan cuisine,” refining traditional drinking dishes like sisig and classic Manila street food like tusok tusok (fishballs, squidballs, and battered fried quail eggs) and representing Philippine indigenous foodways with clever interpretations such as a burnt coconut and spicy beef soup from tribal Mindanao turned into a skewer.
The Laus’ focus on Filipino culture extends to Alamat’s space. The bar—a lower-half replica of a jeepney—has no barstools, sending a clear message: Get out there and socialize! The second-floor terrace is furnished with long tables and benches arranged to accommodate a group, so don’t expect to get a table to yourself on crowded weekend nights. Chances are you’ll eventually end up in a barkada.
Don’t leave without trying Baguio Brewery’s Keywheat, a kiwi fruit beer (5.04% ABV, 16.9 IBU) with Kilawinner (a ceviche of cold-smoked swordfish, pomelo, and cashews in vinegar and coconut milk) and either the Trigo wheat beer (4.2% ABV) or pilsner (5% ABV) with any of the house-made Filipino sausages, especially the garlicky Calumpit longganisa and dinuguan longganisa (blood sausage).
Engkanto Brewery co-founder Ian Paradies had a forehead-smacking answer to the oft-asked question of why craft beer took so long to catch on despite our robust drinking culture: “The Philippines is a spirits market, not beer.” Statistics bear that out—nearly three-quarters of all the alcohol consumed annually by Filipinos is hard liquor.
That doesn’t sound like great news for a craft brewer, but Ian found a creative way to make it work at Polilya, the chic gastropub half a block down the street from Alamat and co-owned by his wife Sandra, sister Nina, and cousin Alex. It was originally intended as a tasting room for Engkanto, but as Ian recalled, “Why make it all about beer? Why not make it a more elevated experience and incorporate it into the food and cocktails?” So they did.
Talented chef-consultant Luis de Terry developed a menu of bar chow with global flavors enlivened by Engkanto beers, like mussels in a Bangladeshi-style curry sauce spiked with blonde ale, a beef and bacon Bolognese perked up with an IPA, and a lagered gambas al ajillo. For cocktails, things are even more creative: Aside from straight mixtures such as a bourbon IPA and The Blonde Scotch (pale ale and single-malt scotch), Engkanto beers are turned into a foam for Polilya Fire, an extra-spicy paloma, and an infused agave syrup for the tepache and mezcal based Tigrita.
Polilya’s tremendous success before its first anniversary—a local magazine proclaimed it the best new bar of 2017—is mostly due to Engkanto craft beers, itself barely a couple of years old. When Ian decided to open a craft brewery, he knew nothing about making beers but was absolutely certain about his focus. “I told myself that if I’m going to risk a great job with the family business [to start] my own business and be proud of what I was making, I also wanted a lot of Filipinos to enjoy it,” he said. “I’m a Filipino and I’m going to sell to Filipinos, so why create beers that would be hard for them to appreciate?”
He partnered with Josh Karten of Proclamation Ale Company in Rhode Island and together they came up with original recipes for what would be Engkanto Brewery’s five flagship brews—lager, blonde ale, pale ale, IPA, and double IPA. True to his word, Ian made sure that the flavors were tailored to local palates unfamiliar with the robust taste of craft beers, dialing back some of the characteristic bitterness but compensating with livelier flavors.
The brewery will soon flip the switch on at a new, larger facility geared toward producing and bottling the flagships, which should make it easier to bring Engkanto to an even wider audience. In the meantime, Ian is eager for the new operation to free up the original smaller system for testing out special and seasonal beer recipes developed by brewmaster Josh. Recent special releases have included a raspberry lager, an amber ale, and a calamansi stout, to which he hopes to include more wheats, milk- or coconut-forward porters and stouts and, perhaps some day, triple IPAs and sours.
“What I love about craft beer is that [at some point], it’s not a product anymore—it’s an experience. When you drink, you’re creating a memory with your friends and family, with colleagues. You’re creating stories. I can be a part of that.”
Don’t leave without trying Engkanto Double IPA (8.5% ABV) with Bangla Mussels, Engkanto Pale Ale (6% ABV) with curried-beer batter fish and chips and Engkanto Imperial Stout (11% ABV) with Davao single-origin three-chocolate mousse.
Top photo: Beers at Polilya. Photo courtesy of Nuovo Media PH.