My friend Nik eloquently and efficiently articulated the difference between travel and vacation when he said, “Travel is fun but tough. Vacation is vacation.” And after my “Intro to Backpacking” crash course in Vietnam, I wanted me some vacation. Hey, I’m allowed to ease in to this shit I’m almost 30. So when I heard a group of rowdy friends from SF were going to spend a week in Bali over New Year’s and rent an outrageous Airbnb, I jumped at the chance to join even though I knew it would decimate my travel budget.
Going from a $3(!) a night hostel where I shared a bunk room and bathroom with 11 other people to one of the nicest villas I had ever seen was absolutely bananas psychologically. The size of my bathroom (that I shared with ZERO other people!) seemed absurd. And the shower was not directly above the toilet but all the way across the room on the opposite wall. And air conditioning! I could go on forever.
Quick Break for Villa Porn:
Even though I was in full vacation mode, I found that Indonesian culture, and particularly the beauty of Hinduism, permeated absolutely everything. I started to notice the small offerings of flowers, food, and incense that would appear as if by magic at temples, public places, and even in our bedrooms. It was impossible to miss the incredibly intricate carvings and handwork on everything from local temples and statues to the silver jewelry native to Bali. We’d see locals walking down the street in white, red, or gold ceremonial dress on religious days unique to each village. Several times per day Indonesians would also pay respect to their ancestors at the beautiful temples adjacent to their homes and workplaces. As one local put it, “religion is life”.
Given the importance of religion, Indonesia has a complicated relationship with alcohol (had to make the transition somehow). While the island of Bali has a Hindu majority, Indonesia is majority Muslim. The government is secular, but heavily influenced by the Muslim majority. Bali is the main tourist destination of Indonesia, and compared to the other islands disproportionally relies on being able to sell alcohol to tourists, who are boozehounds like me. The government has been tightening liquor laws at the same time that tourism has been taking off in Bali, which has created some problems.
Local restaurants, warungs, and small shops were banned last year from carrying alcohol, and imported alcohol is taxed at 200-300% in Indonesia. I repeat, imported alcohol is taxed at 200-300%! That means that buying a fifth of Jose Cuervo (as I unfortunately now know from experience) will cost $75 at the grocery store. That’s insane by U.S. prices, and especially by SE Asia prices. Even worse, local bars and clubs, especially in tourist “party” areas like Kuta, Seminyak, and Gili Trawangan cut corners due to the high price of and high demand for imported alcohol. At best drinks are watered down, and at worst spirits are cut with arrack, a homebrewed liquor, or even rubbing alcohol. When amateurs and jabronis try to make liquor, methanol is often an unintended byproduct. Methanol poisoning is a huge problem in Bali, and dozens of tourists and locals die every year from it. If you plan on visiting Indonesia and want to go out, know that you get what you pay for. Don’t buy liquor at dive bars, and keep in mind a cocktail should be fairly expensive, or it likely does not have imported spirits in it. Better yet, stock up on duty free before you arrive, or save a few bucks and check out some of the other local beverages of Bali.
Luwok & Balinese Coffee:
While not an adult beverage, Balinese coffee is unique enough to be worth a mention. Bali coffee is made by mixing very fine coffee grounds in hot water, no milk added. The texture of the grounds can be a bit off-putting, but it's strong and cheap. My kind of beverage.
Luwok or "cat poop coffee" is another beverage marketed as the most expensive coffee in the world, though we had a small taste for a few bucks. A cat-like Indonesian animal called a civet eats the coffee beans and proceeds to do its thing. Some poor soul collects the cat feces with the partially digested beans, and then cleans, finishes, and makes coffee from them. COME ON, who thought of that. The Luwok coffee plantation we visited seemed to be kind of a tourist trap. They had like a 9 foot bat that tourists were taking photos of and the whole thing felt a bit like a Disneyland ride. I didn't meet a single a local that had actually tried Luwok coffee, so I started to think it was just a big practical joke. "We can make tourists drink cat shit and charge then 10x for it!"
Good old Bintang, my beverage of choice in Bali. It’s solidly up there with the cheap commercial beers of Asia, and costs about 30k Rupiah, or a little over two bucks.
Stark and 1945 beer:
There IS craft beer in Indonesia. Stark brewery (stark means “strong” in German and Valyrian, probably), claims to be Indonesia’s only craft brewery, with “Brewed in Bali” proudly stamped across each bottle. The brewery was started by Bona Budhisurya and Jacob Suryanata, both long-time residents of Indonesia with a history of international travel and experience in the hospitality industry. It seems as though the brewery has just gone through a rebranding and has started to step up their local marketing. After becoming familiar with their beer I saw billboards and signs for the brews all over Bali. While the beer is brewed in North Bali, Stark does not yet have a dedicated tasting room. I messaged the brewery on Facebook and they promptly replied with information about where I could find their beers. They have 6 “Stark” branded beers, as well as 1945 beer, a pilsner made with Balinese rice, and named after the year that Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch empire (they had an empire, apparently). I bought all 7 from a grocery store for 33k Rupiah each (not much more than a Bintang) and set up a mini tasting and embarrassing beer photo sesh for myself by the pool.
Beer review: I thought the wheat beer was really nice, and the lychee and mango ales were incredibly crushable and refreshing for a 90 degree plus day by the pool. They were very consumer friendly, almost radler-like, but still above 5% and not overly sweet. I didn’t love the IPA, but to be fair it had accidentally been frozen and re-thawed by the time I got around to drinking it, so take that with a grain of salt. I asked a fair amount of locals about Stark beer and no one seemed to have heard of them. 1945 beer was, however, available in lots of places, including surfer bars in Bali and Lombok. It seems Stark is just getting started, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the next few years, and whether more breweries follow in their tracks.
Arrack is homebrewed palm or rice liquor found in India, the Phillipines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia among other countries. Indonesian "arak" is distilled from cane sugar, and is akin to a rum. There are different grades and quality of the beverage. Homebrewed "moonshine" arak might be mixed casually with coke or redbull, while some arak is used strictly for ceremony purposes. After my questionable rice wine in Vietnam, and due to the aforementioned methanol issue, I decided to stay clear of any homebrewed liquors, but it's nonetheless an important part of Bali beverage culture.
Indonesia Booze Bucket List
Below are all the spots that carry Stark beer or just have an epic sunset view to sip on a brew. I’ve found that typically restaurants that carry craft beer have excellent food because they care about high quality ingredients and supporting local merchants, and Bali is no exception. That being said, don’t just hit up hipster craft beer and cocktail spots, the best (and cheapest) food I had in Indonesia was from locally recommended warungs on the side of the road that sell dishes like Nasi Goreng that will run you a few bucks. And grab some late night corn post rager: it's the new victory dog, you heard it here first.
Bali - Kuta, Seminyak, Canguu
1. Bintang Supermarket Seminyak: Carries Stark and 1945 Craft Beer
2. Beer & Co. Kuta: Retail shop that carries Stark and 1945 Craft Beer
3. Potato Head Beach Club: Stark is the house beer at Potato Head Beach Club, an outdoor amphitheater/club complete with swim-up bars and party pools.
4. Old Man's (especially on Wednesday's) - Becomes a big sweaty dance party on Wednesday nights, with a pre and after party at the sand bar.
5. Pretty Poison: Cool skate park bar with a buzzing weeknight scene.
Bali - Jimbaran, Uluwatu
6. Rock Bar: Four seasons prices with a view to match (see cover photo). Stupidly gorgeous sunset, worth a stop just for a drink here in Jimbaran.
7. Single Fin (especially on Sundays): Single Fin may be my favorite night of the trip so far. Come around 5 pm to get a good seat to watch the surfers and for the stunning sunset show. After sundown, Sunday Sessions begins, with a live DJ and dance party. Drinks here aren't cheap, coming buzzed is highly encouraged.
Unedited sunset shots from Single Fin:
Bali - Ubud
8. Bintang Supermarket Ubud: Carries Stark and 1945 Craft Beer
9. Night Rooster: My favorite spot for bougie cocktails (they also carry Stark Beer). Try the
10. Kismet: Another fancy cocktail spot in Ubud, their bloody mary hit the spot.
11. The Exile: Probably the most 'gramed spot in Gili T. Guilty.
12. Casa Vintage: Yummy Mediterranean food with an unbeatable sunset view. I came here for dinner two nights in a row. It was also the first time in a long time that I was able to get relatively decent wine.
Note: This doesn't include the Gili T rager spots. Each night a different bar hosts the whole island to party, just follow the stream of people.
13. Surfer's Bar: A dive bar with a nice laid-back vibe, and the only bar I made it to before I took a tumble and had to curtail exploring. They served 1945 pilsner, a refreshing change from weeks of Bintang.
Been to Indonesia? Any I missed? Let me know :)
- Sarah, 2.14.17