Category Archives: excerpt from A Learning Curve

The Devil’s Brew

Most beers in Thailand don’t taste very good to me, and some of the stronger ones can pack quite a punch with monumental hangovers as a result. During one of my many stays on the island called Koh Chang, an old friend from the UK, who runs a bar, showed me a shocking trick with a bottle of Thai beer. Using a glass bowl, three-quarters filled with water, he removed the cap from one of Thailand’s most popular beers and placed his thumb over the top. He then held the bottle upside down in the water before removing his thumb. What happened next was astonishing. I could see the chemical preservatives being withdrawn from the beer, and after a couple of minutes the process was complete. After removing the bottle, he compared it next to an unopened one to show me the extent of removal which was around 15 percent. So for every large bottle of beer I drank, there was about a cup of preservative in it. No wonder the beers taste so bitter and cause such brutal hangovers.

Thai beers tend to be strong; the Thai favourite Singha being a relatively strong beer at around 6% ABV. The strongest is Chang beer which would beat Stella Artois in a bar fight any night of the week. For many years, I drank Leo, a good all-rounder, but after seeing the amount of preservatives used in Thai beer, I moved on Heineken; however I was still dubious to how it was made. The problem is that in hot countries storing beer is not always easy, and often arrives on the back of a pick-up truck exposed to the sun and heat of the day. Once it is delivered it probably doesn’t always go straight into a fridge, so preserving the beer is difficult.

I have been told by several people, often with much glee, that the beer in Vietnam is very cheap, but what the hell are they putting in it? During the Vietnam War, US soldiers used to drink 4% ABV beer on military bases, which used to arrive on huge pallets labelled: ‘This beer contains Formaldehyde,’ a well-known preservative. In my efforts to find more information about the types of chemicals used in Thai beer, I discovered, depending on who you talk to, it is either Glycerol or cancer causing Formalin, a derivative from Formaldehyde, utilised in the preservation of corpses.

Glycerol is widely believed to be harmless and is shockingly used in a variety of foods in the West for its preservative qualities. I have always been a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what the so called ‘experts’ say, no one should be putting any chemicals into their bodies, especially the amounts that are in just one bottle of beer. Just because something doesn’t give you cancer right away doesn’t mean it won’t cause sickness in later in life. Glycerol is used by the food industry for many things: as a preservative, a thickener and as a sweetener. It has been known to cause headaches, dizziness, bloating, nausea, vomiting, thirst and diarrhoea, which of course sounds like the effects of too much alcohol anyway, but these chemicals are not doing anyone any favours and simply cannot be good for sustaining long-term health. The more I delved into this subject, the more I discovered it is not exclusive to Thailand but all over Southeast Asia. The climate of many Asian countries is not ideal for beer storage and many chemicals are used to prevent sediment from forming in the bottles.

Perhaps a more immediate worry is the potential use of Formalin, which has been well documented in the past as a preservative in Asian beer. After chatting to a retired American ex-serviceman, in Melaka, one afternoon (over a beer), who told me that he knew a few guys that had died from leukaemia (which is associated with the consumption of Formaldehyde). He confirmed that crates did indeed arrive labelled, “Contains beer with formaldehyde,” which led me to believe this may have been where the use of nasty chemicals may have started, at least in Vietnam. Chinese beer is also notorious for Formaldehyde. It has been suggested their breweries add small amounts to the mash, to act as a clarifying agent, and although many companies deny it, it is my opinion, that many still permit Formaldehyde in their mashing process. Which is why the beer I was drinking at the hostel in Guangzhou was only 40 yuan (40p) a bottle. There is no doubt, in my mind, that chemical preservatives are being used in Asian beers because I performed the experiment myself and, once I had removed the chemicals, the beer tasted so much crisper, and I hardly felt any ill effects the morning after.

This article is taken from the book, A Learning Curve, by Paul Raftery.

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A tribute to a great man.

As Thailand mourns the death of a great man and king; it is sad that the first blog post for the Bangkok Consultant is under unhappy circumstances. However, rather than sadness, we should celebrate a life that touched the hearts and souls of a nation:

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was one of the most revered kings in all of Thailand’s history. During his 70 year reign, he set up many economic and agricultural projects to help some of his country’s poorest people. A ‘hands on’ King, he was born in Massachusetts, in the US, in 1927 and was the youngest of three, with his elder sister Princess Galyani Vadhana and an elder brother Prince Ananda Mahidol. After the death of his father in 1929, the young family moved to Switzerland where they studied Liberal Arts, as well as Bhumibol taking English, French, German and Latin lessons.

During this time, his nine-year-old brother, Ananda, became the new King Rama VIII of Thailand though his mother was adamant that he have a normal upbringing away from royal life. Following the end of the Second World War, King Ananda and his brother, Prince Bhumibol, returned to Thailand still both just young boys. Sadly, during this time, King Ananda passed away and, as a result, Bhumibol ascended the throne in June 1946. He was officially coronated in May 1950, at the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

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Having a Western upbringing, and education, allowed the young King to recognise the potential in Thailand and set about trying to change things for the better. In an attempt to help his people become more self-reliant, in the wake and devastation of the war, he began to set up a number programs to educate rural Thais in self-reliance. When he was 18 years old, he used a short wave transmitter to form his own radio station called Ar Saw and would often play saxophone live on air, while taking the opportunity to ask his listeners for donations to some relief projects.

During his formative years as King, he had a very personable approach, shaking hands and speaking to the public on matters that were important to them, giving him the name, The People’s King. In ancient times, commoners were not allowed to gaze upon the King, and most Thai Monarchy traditionally would keep a distance from their subjects. As Thailand began opening up to Western consumerism and ideas, the King embarked on an extensive expedition to see the living conditions of his people across Thailand. As a result, he became highly active in the development of Thailand’s rural areas, and over his lifetime, he set up thousands of human development programs to help his people.

One that I was particularly impressed with was the Artificial Rainmaking Research and Development Project, established in 1969. The majority of Thai people depend on agriculture to survive; however, drought has always been a large problem with many families often relying on a single crop a year, which can cause mass famine if it fails. King Bhumibol took it upon himself to learn about this problem, to try and help his people and devoted many resources to studying and researching artificial rainmaking techniques, donating a lot of his private funds to help launch the project. Initial methods included releasing chemicals into the air via a Cessna airplane (and other delivery systems) that react with clouds to produce more rain. The project had some success. In 1999, he discovered a new technique called Super Sandwich, which gains more cloud density increasing the amount of rainfall. Today new techniques are being discovered and are being introduced to the Thai people. The King’s ingenuity for inventing the rainmaking technology has been widely recognised, as well as many of his other projects.

Another of his Majesty’s projects is called The New Theory, based on the ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi, which are a set of guidelines for the proper management of limited natural resources to achieve optimum benefit. It teaches Thai people how to divide up their land for the cultivation of vegetation, rice and animal breeding (including fish), which should (in theory) give the farmers all the food they need for consumption, making them self-reliant. During his reign he had implemented over 4,000 successful projects and, in 2006, Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented King Bhumibol with the first Human Development Lifetime Achievement, recognising the monarch’s 60-year-long efforts to help some of the poorest people in his kingdom. Mr Annan told the King at the award ceremony:

“Your Majesty has made an extraordinary contribution to human development. As the world’s ‘Development King,’ Your Majesty has reached out to the poorest and the most vulnerable people of Thailand – regardless of their status, ethnicity or religion – listened to their problems, and empowered them to take their lives into their own hands

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Among other awards, King Bhumibol also received a gold medal for his Royal Rainmaking Project from the Brussels Eureka in 2001. Being a highly educated king, he was a keen believer in lifelong learning and knew the importance of education and schools to help in the recovery and development of Thailand. He began funding many projects to help hill tribe children get an education and, in 1976, started a foundation to help people who had dropped out of formal education due to poverty. Many of these were practical vocations, which filled a huge gap in the market during this time. The King is recognised as a great man for all he has done for his subjects, and yet he held no political power, his status among his people is above all, and the love and respect of his Majesty, by the Thai people, is unequalled anywhere else in the world.

He will be sadly missed.

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(The Bangkok Consultant)