Poblacion is full of contradictions.
Sitting just on the brink of upscale Makati, a business district flush with high rises, fancy malls, and expensive mansions, Poblacion and its red light district was long an area that many locals avoided. In the predominantly Christian Philippines, nobody wants their morals opened to scrutiny.
Exotic dancer bars and neon lights line these streets, though none shine as brightly as the infamous Ringside bar with its billboard listing the evening’s daily attraction: “midget” and lady boxing. Ironically, a street runs right down the middle of Poblacion called Padre Burgos, which is named after the Catholic priest who died fighting against Spanish colonizers.
Over the past few years, however, what was once merely a devil’s playground has seen the rise of a new kind of vice: gentrification. Street food fusion restaurants started popping up. A three-floor nightclub with weekend DJs moved in and brought the college kids with it. Now every bit as stylish as it is seedy, Poblacion has been reborn by fresh new faces intent to disrupt the status quo.
In a city as densely populated as Manila, most businesses have to make like sardines and pack into tight quarters alongside their neighbors. It’s no different in Poblacion. Though this fact of life naturally fosters a competitive environment, it has helped band together Poblacion’s new breed of entrepreneur, forged friendships, and spurred collaborations. This is most notable, perhaps, among the up-and-coming craft breweries who’ve moved in and transformed the neighborhood into one of the best areas to tap Manila’s emerging beer culture.
Ask any local about Poblacion and they’ll tell you that the way to best experience its scene is to jump from one spot to another in what is affectionately called a “Pob crawl.” Though I grew up in Manila, I have lived abroad for the past six years, a period in which Poblacion experienced its most drastic changes. So on a recent visit I decide to be a tourist in my hometown, calling upon a few local craft brewers to show me this revamped corner of the city they’ve made their own.
Once Upon a Time in 2014
I start at one of the newest spots in Poblacion, Pedro Tap House. Husband-wife team Jaime and Nadine Fanlo run the place, which when I visit is still only a few months old. The Fanlos tell me that the taproom is something they envisioned as soon as they began setting up their brewery, Pedro Brewcrafters, the idea for which the brewery’s managing director, Jill Gerodias Borja, brought up on a drunken night out.
The booze-addled notion turned into something more tangible the very next day when the team sat down to start writing up a business plan. Founded in 2014, Pedro is today served all over the Philippines, from bars, restaurants and high-end hotels in Manila to popular tourist hubs like Boracay and Cebu.
Nadine’s background in the food and beverage business is clearly evident in Pedro Tap House’s concrete walls, colorful murals, and cozy loft area, all of which combines to create a welcoming, neighborhoody vibe. The bar chow menu goes the extra mile, too, with dishes like Korean mini corn dogs with a gochujang-mayo dip, a vegan burger served on a pretzel bun, and their famous Bar Junk. “That has everything you need to go well with beer,” says Nadine. “Popcorn, nuts, bacon, bacon-butter, chili, caramelized orange—the entire food pyramid is covered. We take our beer-and-food pairing seriously.”
As I meet with the brewers I sip a cold glass of Orange Creamsicle Ale, an easy-drinking brew with a refreshing combination of sweet and citrus notes. It’s one of two collaborations on the menu, the other being Space Out Coffee Stout, which Pedro brewed with local coffee roasters Yardstick Coffee. Jaime says that Space Out is perfect with dessert. “We worked with 63 North on that one,” says Nadine in reference to the Creamsicle. “I zested those oranges myself, and there’s a touch of vanilla extract in there, too.”
It’s perhaps worth noting here that the concept of drinking beer on tap is still something of a new one in the Philippines because most Filipinos drink cheap bottled beer that’s likely from one of San Miguel Corporation’s many brands. Many people don’t realize that the original San Miguel Beer, the pale Pilsen, originated in Manila in 1890 and only made its way to Spain in 1953. The Philippines-based San Miguel Corp is still the country’s largest beer producer (by far), with 9 of 10 Filipino beer drinkers preferring Red Horse, San Mig Light, or another of the company’s labels.
After downing our pints we walk next door to House of Joe, a taproom and brewery that’s home to Joe’s Brew. A fighter jet model looms overhead as we step inside the steampunk-styled space, with exposed pipes running across the walls and a retro vending machine off to one side. Despite being proudly homegrown, founder Joey Viray says that his beers are more inspired by the American craft movement. Like Pedro Brewcrafters, Joe’s Brew set up in 2014 and now has more than 20 different brews.
Viray tells me that the hardest part of his brewing journey has been educating Filipinos about craft beer and how it compares to the beers they normally drink. “Filipinos will drink an easy-drinking beer, like a blonde ale, pilsner, or a wheat ale, because that’s what they normally get,” he says. “They just need to train their palates more, and eventually you’ll see them ordering the hoppy IPAs after a few glasses of not-so-hoppy beers.”
Sierra Madre is Joe’s Brew’s introductory beer because at 5% ABV and with hints of lemon, this wheat ale’s flavor and strength aren’t massive departures from the beers with which Filipinos are familiar. On the other end of the spectrum is Sun Sweeper, a medium-bodied 7.2% double IPA with spice and pine aromas. This one, clearly, is more for the dedicated beer enthusiasts around town.
Viray invites us upstairs into the brewery, which sits right on top of the tasting room. He tells me that he and his brothers decided to open House of Joe to help introduce locals to all aspects of the brewing process through tasting sessions and brewery tours.
“We make our beer in small batches, so it’s really the freshest beer, and we don’t do any shortcuts,” Viray says. “We normally brew our beers the same way people way back when did it. It’s all-grain beer and we use fresh hops. It’s totally different.”
Two places keep coming up as we talk: Polilya and Alamat.
The first, Polilya, is just down the street from House of Joe and is the home of Engkanto Brewery. Filipino Ian Paradies and Rhode Island-based brewmaster Josh Karten started Engkanto with the goal of brewing beers catered to the tropical climate and to Filipinos’ fondness for all things sweet. That doesn’t mean, however, that Engkanto’s beers lack punch—the brewery’s core IPA, for instance, is 8% ABV and its double IPA is 8.5%. The brewery balances those and other heavy hitters with a sessionable lager, pale ale, and blonde ale.
Intent to bring a new type of beer experience to Manila, Paradies teamed up with with his sister Nina, wife Sandra, and cousin Alex to open Polilya, which has fast become a favorite on the so-called Pob crawl; it’s easy to see why.
The furniture is by local designers. A cheeky neon sign behind the bar beams “Have you figured out what you want yet?” Portraits of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, hang outside the restrooms. There are also the Engkanto beers, of course, and a carefully curated menu of beer cocktails and beer-based grub that includes sautéed garlic prawns infused with Engkanto lager, pale ale-battered jalapeño poppers, and the cool bird spritz, a mixture of double IPA, aperol, pineapple, prosecco, and dried mango.
Alamat Filipino Pub and Deli, on the other hand, is one of the many ventures from chef Niño Laus, his wife Cassie, and their partners. Niño tells me that he chose Poblacion because it’s one of Manila’s oldest neighborhoods and he loved its history. “At that time it was known for its red light district, so we chose a quieter spot. There was nothing but a few hostels nearby, but our team decided to take the risk,” Laus says. “We wanted a Filipino concept that would be cool, fun, and cater to the area’s foreigners and backpackers in such a way that they could appreciate our culture.”
Alamat carries a large number of local craft beers, showcasing them alongside a menu listing Filipino cocktails and such twists on traditional Filipino bar food as salted egg chicken skin and bacon chorizo sausages. We visit on a rather warm evening and the place is so packed that people spill out onto the street. From the capiz shell walls to the anting-anting (traditional amulets) strewn throughout the pub, the joint is reminiscent of the Filipino bahay kubo, or stilt hut. It all makes for a somewhat eerie and exciting glimpse into Filipino nightlife in Manila.
Last Call on the Pob Crawl
As my Pob crawl continues I meet Stephen Co, founder and CEO of Nipa Brew, and Jun Flores, founder of Kapitolyo Brewery and president of the Craft Beer Association of the Philippines (CBAP). Flores says his work at the CBAP centers around promoting local breweries through events and helping homebrewers who want to take their craft to the next level. That’s something Flores has a lot of experience with himself.
After almost 18 years in Singapore, where he owned and operated a beer house and chicken shop, Flores returned to Manila and started Kapitolyo Brewing Co in 2015. He’s proud to tell me that Kapitolyo never brews the same beer twice. “I did a feasibility study because as a business person you need to make sure it works, and it looked like it would work,” he says. “Filipinos like to follow what the US is doing, and since craft beer in the US is so popular that’s what I did.”
Co took a different path, first finishing a degree in biology in Manila before earning a masters at Cambridge in Bioscence Enterprise. “With my educational background, I am more interested in selling consistent, good quality craft beers rather than the more flamboyant types, which can actually destroy the market,” he says. “If you’re a first-time consumer and your first taste of Philippine craft beer is horrible, you’re going to have a bad impression.”
Nipa Brew has a taproom and brewhouse in Makati’s nearby San Antonio Village, but its beers are stocked at multiple locations in Poblacion and across the country.
Flores and Co both agree that Poblacion is the best place for beer enthusiasts who want to beat the deathly Manila traffic and hop from one place to another on foot. Flores, in fact, plans to soon open a new brewpub here himself. “It’s the place for craft beer. This is where everyone is moving,” he says. “Our new place will be called Poblacion Brewery, and we’ll be naming our new beers after all the streets here.”
“The Philippines is still an emerging market, and for some reason, alcohol is demonized,” adds Co. It seems only fitting, then, that this demonized beverage has found a home among Poblacion’s red lights and sinners.