“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline; and it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons. But, at the very least, you need a beer.” (Frank Zappa) Indonesia can boast everything that Zappa dreamed of – except that the archipelago hasn’t gone nuclear. The Republic of Indonesia isn’t exactly a virgin when it comes to brewing beer, and she prides herself on three locally-created ales – the ubiquitous Bintang Pilsener; Bintang’s cheaper, more bitter sidekick Anker; and Bali’s niche, sickly-sweet Bali Hai. But if push comes to shove? It’s PT. Multi Bintang Indonesia’s Bintang beer – brewed under the watchful eye of Holland’s drinks company, Heineken – that has always won over Indonesia’s thirstiest hearts and throats.
Fittingly, bintang in Indonesian means ‘star’. And in this country, it’s a champ. The beer’s Heineken-style, red-starred logo can be seen on merchandise across the length and breadth of the archipelago: from cigarette lighters and baseball caps to the flashing beacons outside some of the country’s darker karaoke bars – and to the walking beer adverts dressed in Bintang T-shirts and tank-tops that criss-cross the hot streets of Bali’s Kuta.
Bintang in Indonesia’s History
Bintang is no new-kid-on-the-block. The beer was, unsurprisingly, first brewed in Surabaya in 1929 during the period of Dutch colonial rule. In 1957, once Indonesia had become independent under the anti-Western President Sukarno, his left-leaning government appropriated the brewery before Heineken retook control of operations in 1967 under the right-wing President Suharto. It’s a political-football thing.
Bintang, Bintang Zero and Bintang Radler
Bintang beer is a brave attempt at a pale, American-style lager – boasting a malty, hoppy finish not far from its parent ale, Heineken. It isn’t the weakest beer in the world: weighing in at a hefty 4.7%, it won’t take many in Indonesia’s tropical heat to make you wish you’d stuck to the fruit juice.
PT Multi Bintang Indonesia Tbk also brews a local version of Heineken for the Indonesian market – while Heineken’s step-daughter Bintang now comes in three flavours. There’s the standard, full-alcohol pilsner that decorates bar-tops from Sumatra to Flores; the newer, Muslim-friendly, alcohol-free version aptly named ‘Bintang Zero’; and the newest, lemonade-like ‘Bintang Radler’ – weighing in at a mummy-friendly 2% alcohol.
Alcohol and the Law in Indonesia Today
In 2015, the future of Indonesia’s favourite beer is looking cloudy. A recently passed by-law has removed all alcoholic drinks from the shelves of the nation’s convenience stores – except for Bali, of course, where you can still buy a cold Bintang from your 7/11. The next country-wide law being drawn up would ban alcohol altogether in Indonesia – a move that might prove unpopular with Mr. Bintang and his merry crew.
Get Your Bintang Shirt On
Many of the world’s keenest beer enthusiasts have swilled Bintang around their highly-trained palates and arrived at verdicts ranging from: “Very weak taste”, to “Good fizz and a fair amount of malt; a very light beer that pours a lighter shade”. Let’s face it: Bintang isn’t about to win any top awards at the Oktoberfest. But much can be forgiven after the first cool mouthful on a hot day.
If you’re from the UK, try ordering a bottle in one of the further-flung corners of Indonesia: it’ll be reassuringly warm, just like back home. If you’re from the USA, and you arrive during a power-cut, you might want to ‘get local’: ask for some es batu (‘ice-block’), chip away at it until it fits in your glass, let it settle for a moment… and sip. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s refreshing. And it rehydrates you, too.
The honest verdict on Bintang? As a tropical lager designed for cool refreshment over flavour, it wins every time.
Bintang: The Verdict
More than a few international travellers have emptied a bottle or two of Indonesia’s fizziest: from the darkest corners of Jakarta’s nightclubs to the brightest Sumbawan beach. The honest verdict? As a tropical lager that has been designed for cool refreshment over flavour, it wins every time.
After all, it’s usually the only beer on the menu.