In Search of Yoma in Yangon (beer tasting in Myanmar)

There is a new beer  in Myanmar called Yoma, it is made by Carlsberg at their recently opened brewery in Bago, and back in June I made it my mission to taste this brand new brew.

It was harder to find than I imagined, however with great dedication above and beyond the call of duty, and undeterred by my failings to source it, I decided to make the most of my investigation time by carrying out a tiresome and extensive tasting (and review) of the other beers currently available in Myanmar.

It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.

As Heineken are closely following on the heels of Carlsberg, their own beer factory is due to start production in Yangon by the end of the year, it seems that the selection of beers in Myanmar for connoisseurs of the fizzy wet stuff will soon have never been so great. Though as someone who was once a fully paid up member of the UK organisation CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) and has the sandals and beard to prove it, I use the words “connoisseurs” and “so great” with some difficulty.

Although a mainly abstinent country (according to the World Health Organisation, the alcohol consumption in Myanmar is the lowest in South-East Asia) there do seem to be a surprisingly large number of venues where alcohol can be, and is consumed. Alcohol sales here are apparently on the rise, and as beer represents around 82% of the booze market in the country, it is understandable that international brewers are keen to take advantage of that trend.

After several days of searching on the internet it became very clear that Yoma was not yet readily available, I could see that it had been launched, but I couldn’t quite find out where to drink it. I’d had a disappointing response in my attempts to procure information regarding the beer from Carlsberg directly, so I figured I might as well hit the streets. This resulted in many a frustrating yet thoroughly enjoyable afternoon spent trying to track down Yoma in a number of before unknown beer stations, (a bit like J. R. Hartley trying to find his book), but it did mean that I had conversations with all manner of people that I would never have done otherwise, and got to drink a lot of beer in the process.

So it wasn’t all bad.

The word Yoma apparently means “mountain-range” in the Myanmar language, and in my quest for a glass of this elusive beer I generally received a fair few strange looks from bar and waiting staff as I patiently explained I would like one beer, and could they inform me where the nearest mountains were. Most of them just looked confused, gave me a glass of Myanmar to shut me up and then pointed North, which of course led me further out of the city, perhaps closer the the mountains, yet no closer to Yoma, and definitely more inebriated by each interaction.

So my first reviewed Beer in this study has of course to be Myanmar Lager Beer. With a 64% market share, this is the number one beer in the country, and is available pretty much everywhere. At a strength of 5% this stuff isn’t going to knock your socks off, it has is a pale golden colour with a fairly neutral nose and a faintly hoppy taste. Occasionally you’ll get a bottle that smells sour or stale, but if it is available, the draught version is by far the best option to choose. With a stiff bright head that lasts throughout the drink, and a decent lingering aftertaste it is a good beer, a satisfying beer, and I wouldn’t turn one down if you were offering.

Myanmar Brewery also brews a number of other beers, including ABC Stout which is a real Grandaddy of a brew, thick and sweet and chewy it has an underlying rich bitterness like a stick of liquorice mixed with a can of coke served from a freshly polished boot, that is counteracted by a sweet aftertaste akin to having a flake stuck in the top. Be warned at 8%, you’d be wise to drink it with care, but it’s worth a try for a change. Many people actually mix ABC with lager to make a sort of ‘black and tan’ they call an Irrawaddy, which is actually really nice, in fact if you get the chance try it, its a very rewarding experiment. Some people add a squeeze of lime to address the overriding sweetness, which just confuses everything in my opinion, but hey each to their own.

The Andaman beer range they produce didn’t fair well in the tasting trial I’m afraid. The Gold Lager (4.5%) is how I imagine beer would taste were it made in a soda stream, and their stronger Andaman Gold Special (6.5%), looks like Tizer (a fizzy orange soft drink in the UK) and leaves a flowery waxy residue in the mouth, the kind that you might get from biting into an aromatherapy candle.

They also produce Myanmar Double strong and Barons Strong which I wasn’t able to source, and so can’t comment on; oh and they brew one other beer you might have heard of called Tiger.

I’ll hold my hand up and say I’ve drunk a fair amount of Tiger Beer in my time in Myanmar, but that’s not because it is a great beer, because it isn’t. It is very fizzy, very refreshing and particularly thirst quenching especially when consumed alongside a spicy curry. In fact for some reason that I cannot explain it is better at counteracting spicy food than Myanmar beer is, but other than that there isn’t a lot going for it in my opinion. It’s slightly more expensive than Myanmar and isn’t a hideous drink don’t get me wrong; it’s just an inoffensive beer, and one that you might choose if you fancied a change from Myanmar beer.

Dagon Beverages Co, the other big player in the beer market produce Dagon beer, Dagon extra strong and Skol beer. After an unfortunate incident involving Skol Special lager in England back in 1993 I decided to miss out on that particular brew, lest it bring back the horrific nightmares of the garden bench I woke up on tied naked to, you’ll have to try that one for yourselves (the beer that is, not the bench). But Dagon beer on draught is lovely, and a nice well flavoured alternative to Myanmar beer. In a can though it’s a whole different beast and for some reason they’ve perfected the taste of shiny and gluey that leaves your mouth feeling gummy and disappointed, as if it has just licked a lot of postage stamps on letters that you didn’t really want to send. Dagon extra strong is not a dark beer as the name suggests and although it is decidedly extra strong at 8%, it is a surprisingly pale lager. I only tried this in the can, and although it had a surprising kick, it was the badly timed one of a hung-over amateur footballer on a Sunday morning, and one which left the overriding taste of aluminium studs in the mouth.

Despite my numerous alcoholic distractions, the search for Yoma continued.

The well-paid people that sit in an office somewhere (in Europe with a big map of Asia on the wall I imagine) that think up the advertising for Carlsberg products have bizarrely come up with the tagline that drinking Yoma is “like the feeling of leaving your luggage behind” in the sense that we should feel unburdened when we drink the stuff. Personally, having arrived in Yangon and been informed that my bag is still in Bangkok, I can’t equate that feeling with serenity. I’m not a marketing executive, so I’m not qualified to question the words of Carlsberg, though I can confirm that loosing my luggage, and having to work out how many days I can survive on one pair of underpants usually encourages me to drink more beer, so they might be onto something.

The other brewing company in Myanmar is Mandalay, and although they hold by far the smallest share of the market, they shouldn’t be overlooked. They produce Mandalay Lager, that at 5%, (the same as Tiger and Myanmar), provides flavours that they don’t. In fact, if you’ve never tried Mandalay Lager, and if you learn nothing from this article other than my propensity to pontificate under the influence of alcohol, buy a bottle and try it for yourself, thank me later. For a start it is less gassy than its peers, but more importantly it has a magnificently strong fruity and hoppy flavour that lingers long after. It is wonderful on draught, though it unusual to find it on draught in Yangon, so you will have to settle for it in the bottle.

Mandalay Beer is in my opinion by far the best beer available in Myanmar at the moment.

Their other brew Spirulina Beer is practically a health drink and can even reverse the ageing process according to their adverts. It is packed full of spirulina algae, a super-food harvested from the crater lake of Twindaung that gives it its hint of a fish tank that hasn’t been cleaned for a while taste. Sadly I wasn’t able to source any Spirulina beer in Yangon, so my review of this may be clouded by time and excessive alcohol consumption as I did have a good session on it one time in Pyin Oo Lwin back in 2013 when some pals and I drank the bar dry (twice) in one night. Anyway the word on the street is that it is no longer being brewed, but if you happen to be in Mandalay or north of there ask around, if you can find it, it is a rewarding sup.

Having thoroughly failed in my search for Yoma, I figured I would head to my familiar haunt of 19th street to reassess my strategy and try to tap my local sources for any information on the evasive beer. This return to basics turned out to be the best move I could have made, as I literally stumbled (I’d had a few) upon the holy grail at the end of my quest at a little spot I’ve walked past a thousand times and never paid any heed to. The Green Dragon at number 90b 19th street, (opposite the exquisitely named Willy Massage Parlour), turned out to be the Ithaca to my Odyssean journey.

As Ma San San Win proudly poured me a glass of Yoma from her brand new condensation-covered shiny Yoma pump, she was clearly delighted with the success of her new brew, she’s tied to Carlsberg and only sells Yoma on draught and Tuborg in bottles, and is the only spot on 19th street (and one of only 34 in the country) where you can sample these products.

To be honest I was a bit nervous, with an actual glass of Yoma in front of me, I was about to taste a beer I had been dreaming of for weeks, and it felt a bit like I was meeting a celebrity. In full knowledge that you should be careful when meeting your hero’s, (I know that, I once met a rather rude and disappointingly grumpy Bruce Grobelaar) I prepared myself to be let down.

So I won’t lie to you, Yoma isn’t a life changing beer, it won’t make you jump out of your seat or stop you in your tracks, (and it certainly isn’t as memorable as having Brian May shout your name out across a crowded bar – some idols are worth meeting), but it might make you think about your current favoured choice of brew.

It certainly isn’t unpleasant, and I most definitely wasn’t disappointed. With an aroma of newly cut meadows, it had a subtle sweetness a hint of woodiness and a good long aftertaste that in fact was not that dissimilar to the draught Budweiser that I cut my drinking teeth on many moons ago at Fat Sams, the only bar in my home town that would serve us youngsters.

With a slightly stronger abv of 5.4%, Yoma seems to have that little something extra about it that Myanmar and Dagon beers are missing. And it is the drinkers of these two beers that Carlsberg are specifically targeting. Priced competitively at 700 Kyats for a draught beer, (unless you are drinking it in some over priced swanky bar, where you could pay as much as $4), it is definitely worth seeking out and sampling a glass or four.

And as I’d come this far I might as well try the other new kid on the block – Turborg, this I assume is the beer Carlsberg are hoping will take customers away from Tiger. Already a massive hit in China and South East Asia, Turborg is one of the Grand Marques from the Carlsberg stable. With vague clouded memories of drinking it somewhere in Europe at some point in the 90’s I was expecting this sampling to be more straightforward, and I was wrong. Lets leave it at that, and in fact that’s what I did. From the disappointing lack of fizz at the opening of the funky ring pull cap on the bottle, to the beer itself, which even directly from the bottle tasted like it had been served in a dusty glass that had perhaps once sat unused at a beer festival. Turborg was the only beer in my quest that I didn’t finish. Tiger has nothing to fear, from this poor competitor, which is a shame and definitely a wasted opportunity.

In fact so surprised was I with the Turborg experience I tried it again, with a friend to double check that I’d got it right. We were both in agreement, it really is a dreadful beer, and neither could bring ourselves to finish the bottle, again.

So in conclusion, having tried all the beers that are produced in Myanmar, I would say that Mandalay Beer is absolutely the best in Myanmar by a long way, and the new boy Yoma has just managed to sneak ahead of draught Myanmar and Dagon for hotly contested second spot.

But that’s only my opinion.

One thing I did find interesting in this investigation, was the actual tasting of the beers. Usually I drink beer with a group of people, and the conversations and activities of the group are generally more important and more interesting than the products that I am consuming. We sit, we talk, we drink beer, eat BBQ etc, and very rarely do I consider, and I mean actually stop and consider the beer that I am drinking in that environment.

Having taken the time to concentrate and reflect on the beers I regularly consume I’ve been (I think pleasantly is the wrong word to use here) surprised at how they actually taste.

You should try it sometime.

What next? Well Heineken is about to launch their competitive new beer, they’ve named it ‘Regal Seven’ It sounds like a party pack of beers and cigarettes from the 70’s. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

How it tastes, and how it compares to Yoma and Myanmar, we’ll have to see.

Fingers crossed…

A heavily edited version of this article was published in My Yangon Magazine – August 2015

 


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