Asia has given the rest of the world so much such as gunpowder, chess and Hello Kitty. Concerning cultural importance, more often than not, historians place the ancient Asian practice of street drinking somewhere between Nintendo and Mr. Miyagi. I’ve extolled the virtues of street drinking heavily before on this blog but there’s a country in SE Asia that has taken the art form to an entirely zen-like level.
If you haven’t been to Asia, specifically SE Asia, let me try to help you out here. Imagine a metric fuck ton of people. Now imagine a decent portion of that metric fuck ton scrapping away to carve out a living from less available resources than you grind down the garbage disposal daily. Standards, in general, aren’t what most would consider high but in life we play the cards we were dealt (or complain about it on social media). Technology, infrastructure, building codes and sanitation take a back seat to simply surviving. Imagine the supposed mayhem that would ensue if you allowed people to drink beer in the streets without barriers or taxation. Surely buildings would burn and society would collapse right? Not exactly.
The big box phenomenon, franchise culture and the “customer service experience” have, for better or worse, made many experiences in the US, and I imagine by extension in other developed countries also, a bit insipid. For whatever reason, customers crave a repeatability that apparently only Sysco foods can manufacture. These people shouldn’t visit SE Asia. In fact, they shouldn’t leave the Midwest at all. I like to roll the dice, however. Yeah, I get food poisoning from time to time and his sweat/panic inducing partner-in-crime much more often than I’d like to admit but, god damn it, you can’t tell me on my death bed I will have the regret of not visiting an Olive Garden during my preciously short time on this Earth.
What I’m referring to is Bia Hoi. Even the words sounds like some far flung primordial battle cry. Bia Hoi! It’s Vietnam’s version of street drinking and it’s the holy grail of the alcohol Olympics. Signs hang from squat kegs advertising “local” or “fresh beer”. When the sun goes down, an ocean of plastic chairs flood already lively and electric streets. A smoke, much like dense fog from a jagged sea cliff, hangs over the eager masses from barbecued meats. As for the beer, at 20 cents a beer, if you brew it, they will come. The people who herd these events are the proverbial salt of the earth. You’ve got the young. You’ve got the old. Some try to lure you in with bits of English while others a half smile and a friendly hand gesture is the extent of their sales pitch. Aggressive or hands-off, everyone has their approach and it’s not “Welcome to Applebee’s. My name is Cammi. How many are in your party today?”. You can have your over priced Bloody Mary. Don’t forget to tip.
My favorite are whom I will, absolutely, incorrectly and likely offensively, refer to as the “Mama-San”. She’s the Asian equivalent to “The Don”. Squat, weathered and hardened from seeing many an tourist over consume his/her weight in suds, these are the level head and steady hands of an otherwise chaotic operation. Her beauty is derived from her efficiency and utility while her demeanor oscillates between annoyance and cautious acceptance. Remember, at 20 cents a beer, these places work on sheer volume. Make eye contact, give the dude nod and hold up any number of fingers up on you hand and within seconds, said amount of beers will show up. It’s the way God intended the distribution of beer before corporate training videos came along and sterilized everything.
So who are the craftsmen beyond this phenomenon? I wish I knew. There’s a lot of mystery shrouding bia hoi. Mary Izett’s book “Speed Brewing: Techniques and Recipes for Fast-Fermenting Beers, Ciders, Meads, and More” is about the most extensive information I was able to find about it. Check out the recipe here. Beyond this, my other investigatory attempts were thwarted We had samples that were good, bad and outright ugly but that was part of the appeal. When we found a clean drinking sample worthy of praise, I asked the waitress if I could drop a line to the brewer asking for his or her recipe. She said she would deliver the message but I was met with several excuses as to why I never got a response. As it turns out, there was a large crackdown during the Tet holiday on these brewers as, judging by the price, it would appear that bia hoi is probably going largely untaxed. While bia hoi can be added to the list of epic Asian inventions, its exact formula will, for now, remain a closely guarded mystery.