Friday, August 26, 2011

The best thing in Kunming

I was down in Kunming at the beginning of the month for a wedding. And I hadn't especially been looking forward to it; I'd had a fairly miserable time there when visiting on business 4 years ago. However, this time the weather was glorious, and I was free of irksome work commitments; I had a much better time.

What I loved best about the place - even above its delightfully refreshing climate ("Spring" all year round), its endearingly laidback people, its more varied scenery (lush tropical greenery, hills, even a river [albeit a slow-moving one, choked with algae] - such a stimulating change from arid, flat-as-a-pancake Beijing) - was the ready availability of Beer Lao.

Beer Lao has long been acclaimed as the best beer in South-East Asia... indeed in the whole of Asia, the whole of Asia-Pacific. In the last few years, with the breaking down of trade barriers within ASEAN, it's finally started to spread outside of the borders of Laos (although it has long been available in a few nearby cross-border spots in Cambodia and Vietnam... and China's south-western province of Yunnan), and has been going down a storm in Thailand (which has one or two decent beers of its own). It has also been gaining favourable attention in Time (supposedly winning a 'Best Beer in Asia' accolade in 2009, although I can't find a link to that), and the New York Times, and is now starting to be introduced into the British and American markets, thanks to Carlsberg having acquired a 50% share in the brewery. But there's still no sign of it in Beijing - boo! It is far, far superior to any of the domestic Chinese products; or to any of the more commonly available American or European brands (such as Budweiser, Heineken, and, ahem, Carlsberg); and it's about half the price. I think I want to set myself up as an importer/distributor, perhaps even found a chain of Lao-themed bar/restaurants....

Ah, but in Kunming, lovely, lovely Kunming, it is available almost everywhere. And there is usually no differentiation in price between the standard product (huang pi - a refreshing lager beer of about 5% or so alcohol content) and the significantly more robust 'Dark Lager' (hei pi - really more of a stout, richly flavoured, and a dauntingly strong 6.5%). And that price is beguilingly low: usually only around 15 rmb for a 330ml bottle - less than we commonly now pay in Beijing even for a bottle of the piss-weak Tsingtao. (Well, my favourite little - nameless - drinking spot charged 16 rmb for the yellow beer and 18 rmb for the black; but you must expect to pay a small premium  for the privilege of sitting on a terrace with a view of Cuihu, the city's popular Green Lake. My journo friend Stroppy Tom, down there on a story, found a French-owned café that was selling both varieties for just 12 rmb. I later found a [not very good] restaurant that was practically giving the stuff away at 10 rmb a bottle. But the best value of all was a place that was selling large bottles - 680ml - for only 18 rmb.)

I am wistful to return already.

And even more intolerant than ever of the inflated prices being demanded of us for beer in Beijing.

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