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Craft in a bottle: On the local craft beer culture

It’s the golden age of unexpected twists, and in an era when many are comforted by what’s traditional for its default familiarity, the unconventional provokes: relentlessly evocative of something distinctive, gripping, and different.  Carving a name for itself, it’s a mixed bag of both surprise and flavor. And perhaps, in its compelling case of paradoxical appeal, is where the local craft beer scene finds its success.

 Powerful in a way that it pushes the boundaries of expectation and moving in a way that it treats ‘conventional’ as something to overcome, the local craft beer scene delights in more ways than one. A phenomenon in itself best observed in the quiet mulling of flavors, it’s slowly settling into the vernacular of the local libation culture—and it’s only been warming up.


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A better brew

You expect a beer, one that tastes no different from the traditional, and you anticipate something formulaic and familiar.  You know what it tastes like—or at least you think you do—until you realize it’s something entirely different. Your mind waits for the mundane spike of taste to settle in, but what you get is a synthesis of unexpected flavors: chocolate, but sweet at just the right amount, coupled with some layers of spice and just enough tones of coffee to complement the hints of saccharine. You get a whiff of what it’s like and, all at once, it becomes readily apparent: It’s a seamless blend of unlikely combinations that creates, overall, an element of surprise.

“Traditionally, most of the beers we know are the macrobrewed beers in the market and all we know is just that,” says Professor Carlo Ng, a brewer himself.  “But when people get to taste craft beers, even the lighter ones, they discover that it tastes very different from the traditional beer taste we associate it with, with a lot of flavors jumping out with the first sip.”

While mass-produced brands are drifting in a stream of predictable similarities, it distinguishes itself with a sheen of remarkability. It’s a strategy that, at its best, allows for a wider representation of diverse tastes.   

Nadine Fanlo of Pedro Brewcrafters attributes craft beer’s success with the brewers’ penchant for creativity. “One of the reasons why craft beer receives the attention it gets is because it’s disrupting people’s perception of beer.  For decades, we’ve known beer to be a particular way, with the same general flavour profile.  Now, people are finding that there’s so much to beer than the brands we are used to.”

Chris Paraz of Nipa Brew agrees, saying, “A thing about it is that it has more complexity than the regular beers commonly available.  They have more flavor and quality than other commercial beers that people are used to.”

One that doesn’t shackle itself to a one-size-fits-all preference or something that not only connoisseurs would appreciate, the insistently novel quality of craft beer surfaces—the kind that goes beyond what’s sensory.

Pop and prejudice

All the mythologizing that goes into building up pop-culture trends gains some merit when, after discovering that it’s all mostly hype, the feeling of being short-changed doesn’t hit as hard. However, something has to be said for creative endeavors that are obviously brimming with talent and earnestness. With craft beer, the highly personal nicknames and clever monikers paired with intricate bottle designs are all part of a genuine attempt at novelty.

It is just as well that local brewers lament the uselessness of trying to tell the authentic from the kitsch: With the growing number of local independent breweries and gastro pubs, craft beer enthusiasts would advise that you try out a bottle of local India Pale Ale or a few homebrewed wheat ales before you dismiss it as yet another passing fad.

In restaurants serving craft beer, both connoisseurs and casual drinkers speak the words hops, triple IPA, and brew kettle. Customers clamor for the potent, complex flavor profiles of local craft beer–ones that can’t be used to describe mass-produced industrial beer. Monica Dio, a bartender in The Bottle Shop, says that “The ones that sell quite well are the really strong, rich beers. People really like the foaminess and the bitter aftertaste of local IPAs compared to the light, watery consistency of artificially-flavored commercial ones.”

But perhaps the really curious thing about most craft beers is its purity: it’s baffling that it can taste like coffee or chocolate, all the while maintaining its fundamental core as being, well essentially, a beer. It’s the same four ingredients–malt, hops, water, and yeast–that are found in almost every bottle, yet one could’ve sworn that two entirely different sets of ingredients went into, say, a dark porter and a blonde ale. This says a lot about how the local craft beer scene thrives on the absence of frivolity. There are no cheap fillers and cut-rate colorings–it’s all pure, unembellished talent and love for hops. As Nadine Fanlo says, “As long as brewers continue to make great tasting beers with a lot of heart, craft beer will continue to thrive.”



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The Starbucks effect

Keeping the crowd’s attention isn’t a problem, then.  

Local brewers and distributors, rather than worry about public response possibly turning lukewarm, have endured more practical matters:“The Philippines is a particularly difficult country to brew craft beer in. Being a tropical country, it is hard to maintain proper temperatures for fermentation. Also, two of beer’s main ingredients: malt and hops are not readily available. You need a different kind of climate altogether to grow hops,” shares Nadine Fanlo.

Another issue particular to the field has much to do with information asymmetry. While the craft beer industry hints at variety and depth (and naturally–high costs), most locals have long tagged beers as low cost, generic items that could never be found in the same sentence with words like complexity and depth.  “Locally, we are conditioned that beers are cheap. Because of this, a lot of people hesitate trying out craft beer because they think “beer is beer” and should be cheap. This is kind of like what happened with coffee shops when they started popping out. People were used to cheap coffee and seeing the prices at Starbucks weren’t justified,” explains Professor Ng.

Although avant-garde, craft beer faces qualms that are widely diffused and deeply-embedded into the psyche of many. The pseudo-dilemma of whether or not it is ever justifiable to choose fancy, artisanal beer over its more straightforward and cheaper counterparts has always proved to be a hindrance to the craft beer industry, which, for its part, believes in the reason that quality provides.  Professor Ng further explains,“The price difference are direct results from how the beers are brewed. Most, if not all craft brewers, focus on the quality of the product more and would not skimp on the ingredients. Craft beers are more expensive because they are brewed in smaller batches using premium ingredients.”

And then there’s a whole discussion in which class becomes an appendage to the opinions surrounding the supposed antagonism between commercial and craft beer: “Commercial beer has been branded as cheap–craft beer automatically gets in the same boat.  Like, some people would assume, that if you’re high class, you’d go for a cocktail or some wine instead.  But beer can be high class as well.  Beer can be a complex experience in itself, ” explains Chris Paraz.

Beer with a purpose

Craft beer proves that it is more than the sum of its parts.  Inevitably so, that it offers–in generous doses–a mixture of curiosity and wonderment, one bottle (or in some cases, a carefully-selected glass) at a time .  And this is perhaps where craft beer’s complexity goes beyond the tangible–where your expectations are defied, and in a good way.

Swapping assumptions with facts, Professor Ng clarifies, “A negative connotation for beer, or any alcoholic drink, is that it just makes people drunk.  Craft beer is designed with taste as its primary consideration and is meant to be slowly enjoyed.  Just like a good sipping whiskey, craft beer is best slowly enjoyed alone or with friends, at home or out in establishments, with each sip bringing out something new.”

“Craft beer is not about drinking to get drunk,” Nadine Fanlo points out. ” One of the things I love about it is that it promotes the appreciation of the ingredients, the process, and most importantly, the flavors of the beer.  The buzz you might get from drinking–that only comes as a happy little bonus.”

“Trying out craft beers of different styles will make you see the vast flavours beer can have.  It is also an art designed by the brewer and is an extension of his personality,” Professor Ng shares. ” A common misconception is that it’s not worth the price.  Just try it out and see for yourself.  You might like it, or you might not like it, but at least you’ll know if it’s for you.”

There are a lot of reasons to root for its success.  Coaxing out subtle, delicate tastes, the depth it creates illustrates a movement that is, in many ways, cultural and communal as much as it is commercial.  For all its leanings towards its diligent fermentation process, extraction percentages and chemistry, it is an art just as much as it is a science. And its appeal goes farther beyond flavour complexity.  It becomes a metaphor, in all of its composite ways, for celebrating both freedom and unexpected surprises in diversity.

The renaissance of craft beer is compelling for many reasons, but one of it is that its potential waltzes along picturesque edges. While the craft beer movement is, in and of itself, rather revolutionary, it’s also something of a ringing statement.  In a culture built on anticipation and cliffhangers–in the same way that  movies end with a scene that teases and thrills–it reflects an industry within which it operates that preferred the unconventional over the commonplace and typical.   In some ways, as creative as it is inevitable, it raises a proverbial toast to an industry that thrives, delights and is, above all, in good taste.


Catherine Orda

By Catherine Orda

Danielle Arcon

By Danielle Arcon

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