Apologizing ahead of time for how happy I look in the cover picture, let me go on record by saying I’m not a big drinker. But once in a while you need to let loose and every so often it’s nice to enjoy a night out with good beer and great friends. Unfortunately, Malaysia might be the worst choice in Southeast Asia for finding a good beer. Aside from the fact that Muslim nations levy very high sin taxes on alcohol, the local beer is Tiger and it’s about as basic as beer gets. Drinking Tiger is akin to kissing your sister and provides absolutely no reason to spend any hard-earned ringgit for the sake of having a beer. Aside from Tiger, the other readily available options are Carlsberg and Heineken, usually in cans. Unsure how Carlsberg cornered the market as the official European beer of Asia, you find it almost everywhere despite its poor quality and tastelessness. With due respect to those raised on inferior beer, canned European alcoholic beverages served in tropical nations makes about as much sense as a typically over-staffed Malaysian restaurant where they all stand around doing nothing.
Always luke warm to begin with, why anyone would pay upwards of 20 ringgit ($5 USD or more) for a can of rotgut beer is beyond me. Nothing beats cold Canadian beer or a nice North American microbrew and anything less than that isn’t worth the calories. (Allowing for one exception to the rule, I do enjoy Chang with dinner but only in Thailand. Often less than a dollar, it tastes better than most Asian beer and makes a perfect complement to real Thai food). But since we live in Malaysia, I’ve grown accustomed to placing beer in the list of “things I miss most from home”. So imagine my surprise when we discovered the Gusto’s Cafe Annual Fall Harvest featuring fresh, cold American microbrew from San Diego based Coronado Brewing Company. Imported locally by a five-year resident expat that’s been bringing real beer to Kuala Lumpur for a while, he’s managed to get whatever permissions people need to qualify as an importer and supply Penang with a viable option to crappy canned beer.
Arriving at about 6 PM on the first of two Sunday nights, it almost looked like we missed the boat. Seeing every table full of happy expats from various nations it looked like most everyone spent their Sunday afternoon chain-smoking and getting hammered. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re into partying. With my drunken party days long gone, I prefer some dinner, a band and conversation with friends over hefty hangovers. Thankfully, our good American expat friends planned on attending later in the evening so we muddled through and searched for a table. Asking the beer importer about pricing options, he offered four different types of cold delicious microbrews from California including amber, wheat and pale ale at an amazingly great price of six for 60 ringgit. Coming in at about $2.45 USD each based on current exchange rates, that made it about 60% cheaper than being in Coronado. Also offering a larger bottle of premium IPA (pictured in the featured image) at 20 ringgit and a package deal with a hamburger, fries and a beer for 16 ringgit, it’s possibly the best deal we’ve come across since living here.
Having written about Gusto’s Café before, I don’t like to dwell on a place that all expats write about but it’s worth mentioning that its excellent reputation is well deserved. As much as I enjoy Hokkien Mee and Laksa, sometimes it’s nice to have a good burger or a western style breakfast and Gusto’s does it better than anyone on our side of the island. Reasonably priced, go on a weekday because almost all working expats and their families show up on Sunday mornings.
Not exactly a hotbed of entertainment, Penang is not the place for expats that enjoy large gatherings filled with party people. Understanding we chose an awkward age to retire, one of our main complaints in Penang is lack of North American expats and those that are here tend to be working couples. Readers often ask about social groups, expat clubs or other ways to meet people. Recently, Diane joined one of a few Facebook groups for wives of working expats in Penang and the page said they’d be at this event. Maybe we’re snobs but when we arrived, most of the group was already hammered, didn’t seem very willing to chat with us and seemed like all they want to do is let loose with other bored wives. Preferring stimulating conversations and active outings, it’s been difficult to click with many people in these groups but we have made an interesting array of friends and acquaintances in our condo including a Singaporean woman who spent eight years living in Florida and a foodie that works for a travel company and spends long periods in Europe and Indonesia.
Interestingly, when we arrived the band was just setting up and turned out to be one of the most unexpected events we’ve seen anywhere in Asia. Believe it or not, the lead singer was a Malaysian with a penchant for heavy metal and his act was an AC/DC tribute band. Cranking up the microphone so loud you could probably hear it five miles away, he delved into his best imitation of both Brian Johnson and Bon Scott and banged everything from obscure tunes off the Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap album like “Big Balls” to fan favorites like “You Shook Me All Night Long”. Not exactly Battle of The Bands material, it was nonetheless interesting to say the least and after six real beers it became more entertaining.
Ending any possibility of conversation, many patrons began filtering out, leaving the place empty enough for a whole new crowd of people. Given the mix of Malays, Chinese, Europeans and expats, many seemed bothered by the astoundingly loud music and the Australian guy next to me got a kick out of it but left quickly. Blasting on for about 45 minutes, they wrapped up just as our American friends arrived and introduced us to a pair of young teachers who recently moved to Penang. Engaging in great conversation, we love meeting friends that enrich our lives and teach us a few things but sadly we’ve settled into some friendships for convenience sake and that’s another reason we’re comfortable in Malaysia but don’t love it. Planning on trying Chiang Mai next year but keeping the MM2H visa, we’re anxiously waiting for the shit show known as the U.S. election to end before deciding our next move since having a lunatic in The Oval Office would drastically affect all Americans calling overseas their home.
Eventually, another band came on and the oddities continued. Winners of various Best Band in Singapore contests, the Southeast Asian band with no white members did the strangest mix of tunes ever from Jeff Beck guitar classics to old MTV favorites like “Take on Me”. Unfortunately, our friends left because Sunday nights mean Monday morning commutes for those still in the workforce. With last call somewhere near 10 PM (very reasonable for wimpy party people like me), we meandered out to the street and found ourselves starving. Drinking real beer does that to you so we lined up with dozens of other late night locals and waited for some street food. Unsure what the hell I ate, Diane tells me it was a Malaysian version of something resembling hot dogs and I do think it tasted good but my rare beer hangover headache the next day reminded me I probably didn’t care.
Either way, it’s nice to know there’s a place to get a real bottle of beer in Penang. For anyone interested, there’s an upcoming event called Oktoberfest Penang 2016 sponsored by The Malaysian German Society but our friend Jamie is coming to visit again and she’s more into fitness than drinking so we’ll be passing on that event. Admission is a relatively steep 35 ringgit (by Penang standards) and we assume food and drink are extra. Offering a host of German beers that I don’t know or like, the bratwurst sounds tempting but if it’s anything like the mostly unseasoned flavorless pork products sold by Malaysian companies, it’s not worth your time. If you’re a huge fan of pork products like bacon, sausage and chops, choosing a Muslim nation to live is probably not your best bet. Brits eat a bizarre version of bacon called streaky bacon but we don’t understand why since it’s tasteless, not fatty and crispy and can’t satisfy the criteria for a proper bacon cheeseburger.
Apologizing for the two-week break between posts, I became highly preoccupied with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Watching every game including two that started in the middle of the night (local time), it culminated with an incredible come from behind victory that once again crowned Canada as world champions. Additionally, I sometimes get writer’s block or think our lives are not really interesting enough to call for stories every few days. And between watching our favorite current US television shows like The Big bang Theory, listening to live San Francisco radio on IHeartRadio and enjoying the upcoming baseball playoffs for free thanks to free internet feeds most Americans are unaware of, we often forget we live overseas. Until the assholes across the street begin burning a huge pile of garbage that becomes an inferno on windy days. Or we get on the bus on a public holiday and find the driver engaging in loud conversation with rowdy Indonesian kids while blocking passengers, texting and driving so dangerously, it’s literally endangering our lives. Welcome to Rapid Penang.
But at least there’s real beer now. Oh, and for all my Canadian friends, the answer is “No, I’d never be caught dead drinking Budweiser” (which isn’t even American owned anymore) but the slogan is more familiar to most readers than the better phrased “I am Canadian”. We are going back to Calgary and Edmonton for four weeks this holiday season so the Molson Canadians, Canada’s best Caesars and Alberta beef await us !!
Cheers from haze free Penang