A Simpler Time When Watery Beer Would Do
Carlsberg in Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda is lit up in the distance, celestial gold peeking out from rows of palm trees. Except for a handful of skyscrapers in the distance, it’s low-rise residential buildings—simple structures resembling stacked matchboxes—surrounding me. I feel like a spy on this nondescript rooftop decked with shadow puppets. Except that spies drink bourbon on the rocks, not Carlsberg draft.
A week into my stay in the Golden Land, I had wandered 10th-century temples and learned how to tell real jade from fake, but I had yet to find a decent drink. My quest leads me and a friend to the Sapphire Lounge atop Yangon’s three-star Alfa Hotel, which, according to one TripAdvisor reviewer, conjures up the feeling of a “bygone era.” An elevator takes us up to the top floor and a set of rickety stairs leads the way to the rooftop.
Two guys in a tent mixing cocktails greet us. Everything on the menu sounds like it’ll taste too sweet. We place our orders: Carlsberg draft, the only available beer. Since launching my monthly column on the craft beer scene in Taiwan, my expectations have risen tremendously, and the unanimous response in Myanmar to my inquiries about craft beer—“What is craft beer?”—only added fuel to my fire. Even though I’ve come to eschew big commercial names, I tell myself that at least Carlsberg beats a watery Myanmar Beer.
We choose our seats, one of the many flimsy-looking plastic chairs and tables interspersed throughout the expansive rooftop. The bartender rushes to us with a cloth and dabs our chairs dry, apologizing; it’s monsoon season and the skies had broken loose on Yangon hours earlier. On the plus side, it’s a balmy 23°C outside.
My friend points out that the bartenders are connecting the cask for us. Apparently, all the other patrons had ordered cocktails. The bartender apologizes again, this time for the time it took to connect the cask and pour our pints. We tell him not to worry about it.
The pilsner isn’t exactly chilled but it’s decent, refreshing even. Earthy and citrusy with a slightly bitter hop finish, I can almost make out the Danish apples. Or maybe I was just content: with the weather, with my surroundings, with the fact that I had collected enough material to write my story about Mandalay’s jade industry over the previous few days.
I look again at the matchbox buildings and I’m overcome with déjà vu. Phnom Penh, 2005. It was a school trip and a couple classmates and I were on a very similar rooftop. There might or might not have been Angkor Beer. We were peering out into the cityscape, which at the time, comprised of mainly three-story buildings with colorful roofs. What would Yangon look like in 11 years? I push that thought aside.
My uppity beer preferences suddenly seemed so petty. These days, I write about my adventures for a living, but back then, I felt like a brave adventurer. It was a simpler time when a simple watery beer would do.