Drive By

The Northern Brew

Amid the immovable forces of commercial beer, the craft brewers are still here—and they refuse to settle in one place. GRID takes a trip north, to the bottom of the beer mug.

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A year ago, my friends and I pursued our crazy idea of building a craft beer shack right in the thick of Red Horse/Pale Pilsen country: La Union’s ever-booming San Juan surf town. We’d start our little fire, we thought, so we could have a craft beer spot after surf sessions and possibly evangelize a few folks about this hallowed libation we loved so much. Seems like a few other thirsty locals were equally daft. We opened our watering hole (literally for curious creatures) and, almost simultaneously, three other places began selling craft beer, too. It was official: the craft beer revolution had arrived at the northern surf scene. It was a nail-biter; we’d have to wait and see if it would work. Would it last? Was it just a phase? A trendy new concept for the tourists? The unconventional personalities of both surf and craft beer culture looked like a sensible pair; our new post-surf beer sessions could reach glorious heights.
 
For brewers of craft beer and the rest of us enthusiasts, there’s no end to what beer can be. That’s probably what pulled me into the madness of it all: its spirit of adventure. With so much room for creativity, brewers are constantly stepping over boundaries, merging unlikely styles together, constantly jamming on new ideas to see where they go—there’s always some new beer to enjoy.

In northern Luzon, Baguio and Sagada have been the go-to craft beer destinations thanks to the two established local breweries in the area: Baguio Craft and Cerveza Sagada, independently brewing beer in the Cordilleras since 2014. Cold weather craft beer, sipping them fresh, huddled amongst the pines, cool and cozy—it’s a typical scene. Baguio Craft, accessibly located along the main highway, has probably been part of every beer (and non-beer) drinker’s introduction to the wider world of craft beer here thanks to their prolific brewing, serving over 20 different beers at once. From strawberry beer to dark coffee stouts and mind-numbingly bitter IPAs, their pub has been the birthplace of many craft beer enthusiasts. Cerveza Sagada’s smaller but equally creative spot in their neck of the woods solidified the mountain region’s cozy campfire beer scene. It looked like La Union was poised to become the backdrop for a new kind of craft beer experience in these parts: kicking back on the beach, salty air, shining sun, fresh full-flavored beer in hand. Could there be a place for craft beer for the beach crowds, where cheap commercial beer reigns supreme? The answers lay at the bottom of the beer glass; we had to drink our way through the town. We set out to discover the craft beer scene along the coasts, from La Union to Ilocos Sur (where we heard of a new brewery opening up), hoping to catch waves along the way. It would be the ultimate road trip: beer, surf, beer, surf—not necessarily in that order—and anything in between. The homegrown beers were summoning us, whispering, “Go.”

The Everest Knows

But first we needed to sort out a ride: “Figuring out how to drive this, then I’ll be on my way,” said GRID’s photo editor Sonny before our big trip. A tricky car, I thought, How different could this SUV be? Strapped comfortably in the Everest’s snug seats, Sonny worked out the driving controls while I played a one-man game of What Does This Button Do, pressing things and secretly hoping the car would turn into a plane. In a show of what Sonny would repeatedly describe as “so extra,” the Everest’s onscreen menu offered us the option of changing the colors of the ambient lights, which we soon discovered were the soft lighting (we settled for a soothing “Ice” blue after debating between that one and purple, though orange looked pretty rad) around different areas that are hard to see in the dark such as USB charging ports and the space around the door handles.
 
A few hours in, a mild beeping began to ring. I wondered what the Everest was trying to tell us this time. On the driver’s screen suddenly appeared an icon shaped like a cup of coffee. “No way,” I said. “It knows you’re running out of coffee? There are sensors in the cup holder?” DRIVER NEEDS TO REST, said the screen. (Sigh of relief; the coffee-cup sensor thing would have done me in completely.) How did it know? People driving alone tend not to take breaks, so here was the Everest, being the voice of reason.

We arrived in San Juan, La Union to gather with the rest of our crew of four. Sonny shifted to photographer mode as Mars and Medz approached the Everest, impressed by our sweet ride. Mars has been my craft beer buddy since the college days, though a more moderate species due to her alcohol allergies; she’s more an appreciator of craft beer’s nuanced flavors than a great guzzler of it, which is just fine since she’d be our trip’s designated driver. We met Medz when we moved to San Juan to set up our craft beer bar, Curious Creatures Taproom. Also a resident of La Union’s surf town, she’s been surfing the surrounding areas a lot longer than we have, making her our local surf senpai. For this trip, she would act as surf spot sniffer and local guide of sorts. And I? I would be the designated drinker, sampler of beers, enjoyer of life.

The Shakedown

The ocean was moody these days, and we were slaves to its whim. Driving off to three different spots, we walked onto all three and unloaded forlorn sighs on each shore of magnificent flatness. Staring out over the wave-free sea wasn’t going to change anything. “We should go,” someone said. I tore my eyes from the sad scene.
 
Back on the road, we filled our ride with playlists and more playlists. At some point, Britney Spears played on full blast. (Sonny: “Really?”) The Everest’s speakers were pretty good, thumping along as we rode through sleepy towns and roads to nowhere. La Union’s Bacsil Ridge, a steep uphill drive of hairpin-turns through lush forests, seemed like the perfect test for the Everest’s limits. We eased through traffic on the main road, the Everest’s sensors beeping like an alarm every time a wayward tricycle, motorcycle, or pedestrian got too close to the car. (Great for defensive driving.) Bacsil’s long and winding roads proved to be too easy for our super ship; we swooped and flowed our way uphill, any terrain difficulty beneath the Everest’s notice. Then, nature had its way: the clouds unloaded buckets of rain just as we neared the top. We drove on, nervously eyeing the road signs signaling landslide danger at every turn.
The Everest never failed, though. Its tires held a deathgrip on the road, going up and downhill. (That’s when we should have used the Everest’s hill functions: Hill Launch Assist and Hill Descent Control. Hill Launch Assist detects when the car’s on an incline and automatically stops the car from rolling backward or forward before you can accelerate. Hill Descent Control uses the car’s auto braking system for each wheel, controlling your speed going downhill especially on slippery terrain. Fortunately, our going was smooth enough that we rarely had to stop on inclines.) We made it back down; the Everest passed the test but we were too spooked to do much else. What better cure than a beer?

The Beer Pilgrimage

Our first beer stop in San Juan was Clean Beach, a beachside specialty coffee shop and one of our favorite hangouts thanks to its peaceful, quiet-side-of-surftown vibe. After such a long day of driving around, we craved peace and quiet to go with our beers.
 
Clean Beach offered a simple selection of two taps, a lager and a pale ale, both by Makati-based Engkanto Brewery. Their lager was light, fresh, slightly floral, very crisp and flavorful; the perfect no-nonsense beer to end a long day of driving around. The pale ale was a stronger, hoppier experience; citrus notes and piney aromas flood the senses, rounding out every sip with a pleasantly bitter finish. In this state of fatigue, any beer would do, but this—small batch, full-flavored craft beer—this was better. “Commercial beer is already available anywhere, so we wanted to create a space where people can explore and elevate their personal tastes,” said Camille Pilar, co-founder of Clean Beach. Along the main strip of this surftown, there are already three shops serving specialty coffee, all within 5-minute walks of each other. The shift to serving craft beer instead of the usual commercial beers seems to be the natural evolution here, in a place that’s already seen a small boom in specialty coffee and craft cocktails. People’s tastes are elevating as small businesses grow more adventurous.

At the farther edges of San Juan is P&M Final Option Beach Resort, nestled on an even sleepier side of town— away from the main bustle, it was unlikely we’d find craft beer here. But there it was, tucked behind P&M, facing the silent sea: German Bistro, decked in flags and paraphernalia reminiscent of Munich’s Oktoberfest. While there were the usuals (San Miguel and friends, Heineken, Corona), there also were the refreshing rarities: Veldensteiner, Kaiser, Weihenstephaner, fresh kegs of Schweiger. Perfect for an afternoon of drinking good beer in the German tradition, especially when paired with their pork schnitzel, kartoffel, and currywurst.

Two beers stood out. The biscuity malt complexity of Veldensteiner’s Landbier (probably a dunkel/dark lager) was both rich but soft on the palate, had a hint of some hop character at the end. Lots of caramel malt flavor, pretty sophisticated. Then there was the certified Slow Brewing, Bavarian brewery Schweiger served in its traditional vessel: the dimpled stein mug. Clean, fresh, and bright, its classic lager quality also lent it a flavor of familiarity—something not unlike a good ol’ swig of the local Pale Pilsen—but with a much fuller body, and notches higher in the deliciousness section. Uncomplicated, straightforward refreshment. Like kicking back with an old friend. I relayed all this to my fellow beer geek, Mars, who could only nod and sheepishly say, “Really?” Designated driver had its downsides. She’d have to take our word for it as Medz and I gulped it all away.
 
Then off we went, hunting down Belgian beers at the Kahuna Resort’s bar area in Urbiztondo. After asking the servers about it, the beers in question seemed to be the stuff of legend. They found it after lots of back and forths, scurrying this way and that. Clearly not a crowd favorite around these parts. Finally, two very royal-looking beers: the strong ale Cuvée des Trolls and the majestic Gulden Draak, served in some very fancy glassware. Gulden Draak’s dragon’s-egg-shaped goblet looked like it fell right out of the hands of a king, probably coloring our perception of the blessed ale as we drank mightily. At 10.5% ABV, it blew our minds and had us speaking in tongues. Full of malt complexity and a velvety conflation of coffee and caramel flavors, so rich that Sonny likened it to the most bejeweled of baked goods: the fruitcake. (Side note: Sonny is the rare form of human who enjoys eating fruitcake, so this was high praise.)

Beer stop #4 was our very own Curious Creatures Taproom, the lively little watering hole in the middle of The Great Northwest [Philippines Travel Stop & Viewing Deck] that we built a year ago. It’s become a section dedicated to exploring downtime with an ever-changing beer lineup for some serious beer awakenings. One such experience was brought to us by a sour ale brewed with raspberry and dragonfruit. We chose to try selling this one for its sheer strangeness. It was unusual and it was good, which is what we want people to feel here; comfortable in the unfamiliar. We’ve met people who first labeled themselves as “not a beer drinker” come back time and again, their labels long since faded and horizons expanded. Pub crawls are tests of stamina, so it was nice to be in a familiar place. Sipping through our selection had us realize that the evolving beer lineup here meant that our contribution to the local craft beer scene was newness—perfect for the locals or frequent visitors.

Tipple & Brew was our last beer stop in San Juan. They had a four-tap selection of Pampanga-based Bulul Brewery so graciously served to us by Cam Basco, Tipple & Brew owner and fellow purveyor of craft beer. There was a blonde ale, a pale ale, an IPA, and a very roasty stout that soon became our favorite—the perfect ending for the last stage of our San Juan crawl. In between beers, Cam regaled us with stories of their constant struggle to sell craft beer to a San Miguel-inclined crowd: people trying their entire craft beer selection and ordering SMB in the end, ordering craft beer but asking for ice in it (—this one’s common but painful; ice dilutes the precious flavors of craft beer that brewers work so hard to nail down). Craft beer, like single-origin, direct trade, farmer-to-cup, specialty-standard coffee, will not appeal to all of us; it will not please everyone, and most will scoff at its snobbish airs. But, as with all little uprisings, the culture pushes on.

For our final pilgrimage, the cathedral of craft beer in Vigan: Calle Brewery. Though driving around Vigan’s traffic was a thoroughly modern experience, walking around Vigan was a backward time warp: I expected Jose Rizal to come waltzing out of some alley at any moment. Then, it was upon us. Our final stop, the culmination of our beer trip. Calle Brewery stood before us like the gates of heaven.
 
And heaven it was. All their beers are brewed on site, led by no less than the head brewer of Joe’s Brew, one of Makati’s most popular microbreweries. From blonde ales to pale ales and stouts, Calle had their own balanced variety of beers and each was ridiculously good. It was probably because they were all so fresh, brewed just a few steps away. I particularly enjoyed their blonde ale, which was curious since I don’t usually like those. It had a touch of maltiness, giving it a fuller flavor. A hefty sampling of their menu had us breathing heavily after: 8-hour smoked meats, all kinds of sides (mashed potato, corn bread, broccoli, beans, etc etc), fresh seafood, rounded out by sizzling pans of tablea cake. Indulgence tempered by sips of beer now and then, just to balance things out. Later, we managed to walk through the brewery tour, giddy as kids in a candy shop. State-of-the-art equipment, all gleaming stainless steel, buttons and lights, all for small-batch beer. It was the birthplace of every beer we drank that day. Our guide was about to give us a sampling of one of the beers right out of the tank it was fermenting in. Was this really happening? I was quietly losing it. The beer? So good my knees buckled, even after four days of six pubs and countless beers.

And just like that: we made it, a 133-kilometer drive of a pub crawl and surf trip rolled into one. We rode a long wave of beer highs that put our surf waves to shame, thanks to the ocean’s moody ways. Amid the surf, food, coffee, cocktail, and party scenes that all contribute to San Juan’s energetic communities, it looked like craft beer has found its place in the party. With about five or so establishments offering it here, in such close proximity, the culture of craft beer is slowly gaining ground. Just when a number of us started shaking things up by introducing craft beer in the area, people were ready for it; ready for some new experiences. Quite fitting for a town that’s constantly evolving, where new concepts sprout up wherever there’s still room. Though craft beer will never be for everyone, the funny thing is there’s probably one out there for every kind of person. From the lightest lager to the richest stout, to the weird-flavored ones like spicy chili, avocado, and maple bacon—if you don’t like craft beer but you drink beer, you probably haven’t tried the right one for you. The towns of La Union and Vigan seem to understand this, travel destinations that demand people to pass through with an open mind, thirsty for the new. It could come off as just another bit of snobbery, but it really isn’t; craft beer drinkers are simply those who enjoy discovery. Beer is supposed to be fun, whether it’s in the form of a good ol’ Pale Pilsen or a homegrown calamansi golden ale. At the end of the day, we’re all just kicking back with a beer. And with more beers to find as brewers push the limits, it’s really quite a trip.