MANILA, PHILLIPPINES– What makes a beer Filipino? Is it its familiar flavor that resonates with our local sensibilities, as reliable and as predictable as the year-round tropical heat? Is it the memories we associate with it, of summer nights and rites of passage and every household celebration? Or is it in something as categorical — and well, obvious — as its name?
Ian Paradies may have some answers. The seasoned entrepreneur is the founder and president of Engkanto, the three-year-old craft beer brand whose ubiquitous presence is seen all over Manila’s most attractive nightlife locations, restaurants, and hotels.
Engkanto is inspired by the founder’s childhood in Cebu, who as a young boy, would be regaled by tales of mythical creatures that shrouded much of our local folklore. “Growing up (in Cebu, I was) exposed to all the stories of dwendes, kapres, tiyanaks, aswangs… I used to love those stories growing up.”
Similar to the rest of the country, beer was also the quintessential drink for festive occasions and family gatherings in Cebu. “It’s light in alcohol, you could have it in any type of occasion, and particularly in Cebu with close proximity to the beach — we were always on the beach every Sunday with my family — it’s kind of the best drink to enjoy.” As youths of his generation and those before him would testify, mass-produced brands were revered not out of sheer preference; they were the only option available.
“It’s always bothered me that with spirits, we’ve never had much choice growing up”, Paradies laments. “We only had about 4 or 5 options — and that’s across the board, from beers to spirits. And all of them were focused on commercial products, never on craft or artisanal products.”
It was Paradies’ time abroad as a student in the United States that had introduced him to the world of craft beers, and showcased the possibility of what hand-crafted, high-quality local beer could be like. “A lot of the beers I found (in the States) were very big, very bitter, very hoppy. It didn’t fit my taste profile”, Paradies narrates. “I could still appreciate it, but I would have one or two beers and go back to the traditional lagers.”
Paradies then envisioned Engkanto, a Filipino craft brewery that would make Filipino-centric craft beers. He reached out to Josh Karten of Rhode Island’s Proclamation Ale Company, who would become Engkanto’s co-founder and brewmaster. In spite of Karten’s extensive experience with Western beers, it was important to Paradies that the brewery represented the Filipino taste.
According to Paradies, “We would see a lot of craft breweries come and try to bring Western-style beer-profiles, particularly of the US and Europe. But my thinking was, if we’re a Filipino brewery and we’re trying to get Filipinos to appreciate a different way of making beers and different taste profiles, you don’t want to shock them. You want to create taste profiles that fit the palate.”
Creating respectable brews that appealed to the local market was a tall order — but they eventually found their answer in fruity, light-bodied beers such as the lager. Paradies explains, “In the Philippines, lager works very well because of the general temperature. It’s hot all year round, so you want something light and easy to drink and very crisp and refreshing.”
Known for its humble style, lagers provided an excellent gateway for the uninitiated to cultivate an appreciation for finely crafted beer. Add to that an abundance of fruits and flavors in the Philippine tropics and you’ve got a match made in heaven. Paradies shares, “We wanted to do simple beers with flavor profiles they were familiar with, but didn’t overwhelm especially from a bitterness standpoint. But if you look at the Philippines, we have such amazing fruits and flavors to choose from and utilize in beers.”
According to Paradies, revelers and patrons have become more discerning nowadays since their official launch in 2017. “You see a lot more interest now with people trying new beer styles”, Paradies shares, adding that micro-breweries were focused on business-to-business models, making and selling beers to other bars. “But in the past 2 to 3 years, you see an explosion of other breweries opening their own bars. You have different breweries exploring and creating their own identity through a direct outlet.”
The appreciation for local craft beer has certainly evolved, its market demand coasting alongside the swell of the local movement that has seen much clamor in the last few years. And Engkanto is certainly at the height of it: they had opened their bottling facility in Carmona, Cavite towards the end of 2018, bringing their much-loved draught beers in bottles.
While the image of the death moth, in its minimalist appeal, had become a popular symbol imprinted on its kegs, the bottled beers took a different approach: bold, multi-colored illustrations that captured the confidence and mysticism that Engkanto exhibits, juxtaposing bright colors against nature-inspired motifs: roots for the blonde ale, waves for the pale ale and the IPA, for example. Each variant, assigned with its own color, is made distinct from one another, easily seen and identified even from afar.
Engkanto is best enjoyed in draught, Paradies contends. After all, there’s no beating the sensory experience from a brew freshly served from a keg. However, bottles guarantee one clear advantage over kegs: mobility. Engkanto’s cases find their way from Baguio all the way to Davao, and while the current COVID-19 situation presents its challenges, Paradies is convinced that beers, even craft beers, will find its own space beyond crowded bars and busy restaurants.
With social distancing the norm for a while, Engkanto has revamped its website to provide nationwide delivery, alongside rich and engaging content. Paradies says, “I think now it’s more about, ‘How do you get the product directly to them?’ Because in the past, bars, restaurants and hotels were almost like intermediaries, a space for people to enjoy beer. But people can enjoy beer in their house, just as they easily could in a bar or a restaurant. So now it’s more about how (we) can make the customer experience getting the beer to them as flawless and comfortable as possible, while also helping get our story out.”
One look at a bottle of Engkanto beer and one may wonder about the mysticism that shrouds its identity. After all, its name is Filipino for an environmental spirit, a mythical creature that figures in much of our local folklore and traditional tales. But as Engkanto’s founder Ian Paradies alludes, there is nothing mysterious about this four-year-old craft beer brand: just good-old, honest beer-making and local flavors.