The History of Beer in the Philippines

Beer is, by far, the most popular alcoholic beverage in the Philippines. It seems that beer bonds all Filipinos coming from every walk of life — from the tricycle drivers loafing around at the nearest neighborhood store to the yuppies spending their after-work hours at a ritzy joint in the city. 

The Filipinos’ love for beer is unquestionably deep-rooted. It’s a national pastime; it is as if the frothy beverage has been there for many centuries. But the fact is that the history of beer in the Philippines is pretty much recent.

The most popular beer producers in the Philippines are San Miguel Corporation and Asia Brewery. Between the two, San Miguel is the oldest and the most dominant, thanks to its iconic flagship brew, the San Miguel Pale Pilsen.

Early history

In 1889, a well-known Spanish businessman named Enrique Maria Barretto de Ycaza y Esteban, applied for a royal grant from his native country to establish a brewery in the Philippines. When Ycaza was finally awarded the royal grant, he eventually opened the brewery named La Fabrica de Cerveza San Miguel on September 29, 1890, which also happened to be the feast day of St. Michael (Michaelmas). It became the first brewery in Southeast Asia using the most modern machines and equipment at the time.

It was built near the Malacanang Palace (the official residence of the President of the Philippines). The brewery was named after a district in Manila where Barretto used to live and work. The facility had two sections: the one section for the beer production, and another for the ice production (with a daily capacity of five tons).

Apart from the flagship San Miguel brew, the company also produced other various beers: Cerveza Negra, Double Bock, Extra Stout, Foreign Stout, Gold Ribbon, Imported Pilsner Type, and Super Bock. But all of their production, except for the San Miguel brew’s, was soon discontinued.

In just a short period, and also due to improved brewing techniques, San Miguel won its first major award, the Philippines Regional Exposition in 1895. In only six years into its operation, San Miguel was already outselling even the imported beer brands, by five to one.

1900’s to present

The early success led to the expansion of the San Miguel and its eventual incorporation in 1913. Even the outbreak of the First World War did not stop San Miguel to successfully export its products to Shanghai, Guam and Hong Kong. The brewery had been renamed as San Miguel Brewery.

During the Second World War, the Philippines was invaded by the Japanese military forces. They also seized the San Miguel Brewery and renamed it Balintawak Brewery, where they used up raw materials for their supply of brew. After the country was liberated at the end of the war, a Spanish-Filipino industrialist named Don Andres Soriano got the brewery back. However, he would rather give away all of the leftover Balintawak Brewery supply to Filipino and American troops, rather than bottle and market it under San Miguel’s label. The beer festivity lasted two weeks before all the brew was completely consumed.

San Miguel’s rivals

During the 1960s, San Miguel had some head-to-head competition from short-lived beer brands, notably Halili Beer. It was manufactured at a plant called F. F. Halili Enterprises in the barangay (village) of Balintawak in Quezon City, Metro Manila. The company was owned by Fortunato Halili, a former governor of the province of Bulacan (near Manila). Halili also had other business ventures, including the Halili Transit. Rumor had it that Halili Beer became so successful that San Miguel attempted (or even threatened) to buy it out. But for unknown reasons, Halili Beer folded; speculation spread that the company failed to take off further from the sons of the founder.

It was Don Soriano who was responsible for expanding the original San Miguel Brewery, evolving it into San Miguel Corporation that is known today. In 1978, San Miguel introduced “Grande” in a one-liter bottle.

On January 27, 1982, Chinese-Filipino magnate Lucio Tan entered the brewery business and dared to go against San Miguel’s dominance by establishing Asia Brewery, with the inauguration of its plant in the city of Cabuyao, in Laguna (a province also near Manila). Asia Brewery launched its first brand, Beer Hausen Pale Pilsen, whose main claim was that it was a “natural beer” because it reportedly used natural spring water.

Beer and sports traditionally go well together. And with the growing popularity of basketball in the Philippines at the time, Beer Hausen jumped on the bandwagon by launching its own basketball team in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the local equivalent of NBA.

With the success of Beer Hausen, San Miguel responded to the competition with three brews: Lagerlite, Red Horse, and Gold Eagle. Lagerlite, a light beer, was targeted specifically for the female market. Red Horse was the first extra-strong beer (lager type) and still exists today. Gold Eagle, a light-bodied, low-cost beer, was made for “easy drinking”; its primary target market was the ordinary “working man.”

Asia Brewery countered San Miguel’s Red Horse with its own extra-strong brew Max Premium Beer. It also answered San Miguel’s Gold Eagle Beer with low-cost Manila Beer.

In 1987, Asia Brewery received licensed to brew the international brand Carlsberg and marketed it as a premium beer in the Philippines. It also became the licensee brewer of Budweiser in 1997, Lone Star in 1999, and Coors Original and Coors Light in 2007. As of today, Asia Brewery brews Colt 45 and distributes Asahi Super Dry beers. It also produces non-alcoholic beverages. Apart from its plant in Cabuyao, Laguna, Asia Brewery also operates at another plant in El Salvador, Misamis Oriental, in the Visayas region.

San Miguel continues to be the most dominant beer brand in the Philippines. The brewery’s flaghsip product, San Miguel Pale Pilsen, is a pale lager which has a 5% ABV. 

Craft beers in the Philippines

Although not obviously as commercially dominant as the mainstream beers, craft beers are otherwise superior in taste and quality. The local craft beer industry is booming. The past few years have seen the steady rise in the number of microbreweries, not only in Metro Manila but also in many parts of the Philippines.

The wide range of fresh, naturally made handcrafted beers has won considerable favor, especially among the younger folks and those who have gotten tired of commercial beers.

In Manila alone, you can find several craft breweries whose products will appeal to casual beer drinkers and passionate beer enthusiasts alike. There are various unique craft beers to be had and enjoyed, such as honey wheat, citrus, Belgian wheat, American IPA, coffee stout, pale ale, and a lot others. 

On the city outskirts and nearby provinces, one can enjoy honey stout and even vegan beers. On the cool mountains of the faraway north, you can try craft beers made from local ingredients such as black rice, wild sunflower honey and orange zest. Some of the breweries apply traditional brewing techniques, while others utilize newer technologies such as solar power to deliver unique-tasting beers to the more discriminate beer drinkers.