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  • Mark Corbyn

San Miguel Beer: A Story of Filipino Beer, a Story of the Philippines (Part One)

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

1890. A crazy dream. A group of Spaniards have a crazy idea: to open the first brewery in South-East Asia, a place where practically nobody knew about beer. The inauguration day was the Day of San Miguel.

San Miguel Brewery website

Thus starts the origin story of San Miguel beer, at least according to the Spanish brewery’s website. In their account these intrepid Spaniards, motivated by curiosity and non-conformity, travelled the world in search of inspiration and perfection as part of their mission to bring their dream to as many people as possible, eventually returning home to Spain in 1954. In their words:

If we didn’t dream of a bigger beer world, we would never have left the city of Manila, nor would we have made our great variety of beers.

San Miguel Brewery website

But San Miguel never really left Manila. Today 90% of the beer market in the Philippines is dominated by the San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest companies in the Philippines. The corporation has interests in multiple industries, ranging from food and beverage to banking, oil refining, energy production, property development and infrastructure, generating billions of dollars in revenue. Both the company and the beer, with its iconic stubby brown bottle emblazoned with faux-gothic font and a representation of the colonial coat-of-arms of Manila, are dominant fixtures in Filipino society.

Despite claims on the brewery’s website, San Miguel never really ‘went home’ to Spain. The San Miguel brewery required royal approval from the Spanish crown because it was born under Spanish colonial rule but the history of the beer is first and foremost a story of the Philippines, its colonisation and ultimately its independence.

From the author's travels to Cebu City at Tops Lookout: a range of San Miguel beers available today

When the royal grant to brew beer was given to San Miguel founder Enrique María Barretto in 1890 the Philippines was still a Spanish colony but there was rising support on the islands for Filipino independence.

Barretto himself was Manila-born, already wealthy and influential, as were all of his business partners. Their names read like a who’s who of Manila’s rich and powerful families: Róxas, Tuason, Fernández, Goyenechea, Legarda and Buenaventura. The Tuasons, Legardas and Buenaventuras were also mestizos de sangley (a mixed-race distinction for people of Chinese-Spanish-indigenous descent). Whilst they all may have had Spanish blood in varying quantities, Peninsulares (Spaniards from Spain) they were not. It is more likely they would have identified themselves as distinctly Filipino.

La Fábrica de Cerveza San Miguel officially opened on 29th September, the feast day of San Miguel. The name, although saintly, actually stemmed from the district in Manila in which it was built, further proof of its firm Filipino identity.

Contrary to the origin story peddled on the Spanish brewery’s website, the brand was not a venture set up by globe-trotting Spaniards who whimsically decided to hop on a steamer from Spain to the ‘exotic’ Philippines. Instead, it should be seen as part of a trend of locally-driven industrialisation that started in the 1800s.

Up to 1815, the colony of the Philippines was financed primarily by the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. This state-run institution shipped over vast quantities of South American silver to purchase Chinese and other Asian goods, which were then taken back to Mexico and eventually Spain. The Manila galleons, as these trading ships were called, operated for over two and a half centuries but were finally retired in 1815 as the Spanish empire saw a loss of its territories in the Americas.

With its empire falling to colonial revolutions, Spain had to find new ways of making money without the vast trade network. It did this by ending a number of royal trade monopolies and opening up the economy to private investors in its remaining colonies like the Philippines. Local Spanish-descended and mestizo families, many of whom had already acquired wealth from trade and land ownership, were well-positioned to exploit these new opportunities.

Alcohol, in particular, was one industry nurtured by these local magnates. Prior to San Miguel’s establishment, the Philippines was awash with alcohol of the indigenous variety – wines derived from coconut (tuba), sugarcane (basi) and rice (tapuy), and distilled spirits like lambanog. Whilst occupying an important place in indigenous social and religious rituals, many Spanish authority figures railed against their consumption: in the 1580s, the Franciscan Fray Juan de Oliver complained that Tagalogs were relentless in their pursuit of such alcohol, and in the 1660s the Jesuit Francisco Ignacio Alcina commented negatively that “perhaps the [Visayans] have more drinks that cause [drunkenness] than any of the other peoples of the universe”.

The Philippines’ existing alcohol traditions were demonised but European spirits were viewed positively and desirably – a sentiment encouraged by the colonial authorities who got rich from their import. José Rizal, the nationalist author who wrote several scathing satires on colonial society, highlighted this predilection amongst the more pretentious elite in his 1887 novel Noli me Tangere :

The rich, those who have been to Manila before and have seen a bit more than the others, have bought European beer, champagne, brandy, wine, and food from people who hardly ever get to try a bite or take a sip [of what they have sold]

Noli me Tangere, José Rizal (1887)

The end of the royal trade monopolies made for an opportunity to produce these ‘European’ spirits in the Philippines, an opportunity local business families leapt upon.

In 1834, scions of the influential Ayala and Róxas families set up a gin distillery (which still produces Ginebra San Miguel), Destileria Limtuaco was founded by Bonifacio Limtuaco in 1852, producing sioktong Chinese herbal wine and later other spirits and in 1854, the Elizaldes and Ynchaustis established what would become Tanduay rum. It was perhaps only logical that a beer brewery would follow when San Miguel started in 1890 and indeed it was also a Róxas who invested alongside Barretto and eventually bought him out in 1896 to become the main stakeholder in the company.

1920s advertisment detailing the quality and breadth of San Miguel Products, including beer and soft drinks.

To further ensure San Miguel’s beer would stand up against its European counterparts, Barretto’s partner Pedro Pablo Róxas hired German brewmaster, Ludwig Kiene, to develop the recipe for the flagship Pale Pilsen which used malts and hops from Bohemia.

Whilst all of these ventures, along with the families that built them, would go on to be household names in the Philippines, it is San Miguel beer that stands out amongst them all as the drink of the masses. Beer, after all, was deemed a good, solid drink that encouraged productivity, a presumption no doubt fueled by the beverage’s association with Europeanness.

Early advertising focused on beer as the fashionable and desirable (yet affordable) drink of Europeans. Its virtues were touted through descriptions of the quality of the imported ingredients and the vitality and strength it gave in the tropical heat. But there was perhaps another factor that helped Pale Pilsen capture the hearts and minds of Filipinos: Barretto built an ice plant alongside his brewery.

Baretto’s ice plant was not the first one in the Philippines, but it was the first owned and managed by a beverage company and that was surely no coincidence. This new beer, healthy and revitalising, favoured by fashionable Europeans, was elevated even further when served over ice that had been produced by exciting modern technology. San Miguel was innovative and eye-catching, and on a hot and balmy day, absolutely refreshing. To this day, most beers in the Philippines are still served over ice. The ice plant and brewery were a sign of modernisation in the Philippines, not just for locals but also for the United States government which took over from Spanish colonial rule in 1898.

A 1978 Playboy ad for San Miguel continues to align the quality of San Miguel beers with the high opinions of colonising forces.

1930. The world as inspiration. Shortly afterwards they wondered whether their beer would be liked in other parts of the world, and so they looked further afield. Because what they were looking for was perfection. They questioned many paths and sought inspiration from their surroundings. And to find an answer they crossed the ocean to the United States.

San Miguel Brewery website

San Miguel’s – and the Philippines’ – association with the United States is rather less innocuous-sounding than the Spanish brewery indicates on their website.

Over the course of a three-year war (1899-1902), the United States conquered the Philippines after having bought it from Spain as an outcome of the Spanish-American war (1898). The US had ostensibly come to support the Filipino people during their war of independence (1896-1898), but it has been estimated that one-eighth of the population died from active fighting, famine, disease, and punitive mass-killings during the conflict. The United States’ involvement only served to ensure that the Philippines continued to be governed as a colony.

A reflection of its political surroundings, the period also marked a turbulent time for the San Miguel brewery. During the war of independence from Spain, Pedro Pablo Róxas fled into exile to avoid a treason charge and his assets were seized by Spanish authorities. Despite the return of his property by the new American colonialists, Róxas’ decision to never return to the Philippines after the conquest may have indicated an unease with the new colonial administration and an unwillingness to compromise on his own nationalist principles.

Still, the San Miguel brewery flourished under the United States’ regime. It was American policy to try and win over and nurture the local elites, in order to ensure their investment in American governance of the colony. In return for their political and economic support, these elites were given favours, investment and monopolies. This form of political patronage, and the cronyism it engendered, would go on to become major and problematic features of Filipino society even to this day.

Thus, in 1902, San Miguel was entrusted with the operation of the Insular Ice Plant, newly-constructed to supply the American appetite for all things icy. In the 1910s, the brewery was allowed to buy out several competing companies, and in the 1920s came to dominate the nascent soft drink (with Royal Soft Drink and later the Coca Cola concession) and ice cream (with Magnolia) industries too. San Miguel became the Philippines' leading beer primarily because it was pretty much the only one on the market.

And the Americans were happy to encourage San Miguel above other local alcohol manufacturers, because it fit into the American narrative and goal of promoting a modern, Western lifestyle to ‘backward’ Filipinos. Beer was familiar, not so potent as hard liquors, its factory production was associated with modern technology and hygienic practices, and it was said to be healthy. To the occupying Americans, beer was unlike all the ‘unsuitable’ or ‘non-nutritive’ local alcohols like basi, tuba and lambanog. American accounts went so far as to claim these traditional spirits encouraged wanton drunkenness and when combined with the hostile tropical climate, were debilitating to the body. San Miguel bought into this messaging in the way it promoted itself, and became a part of the American colonial project.

Undoubtedly, the owners and investors of San Miguel, some of the wealthiest individuals in the Philippines as well as relatives of many leading politicians, saw the benefit of working with the Americans. But it also served the Americans well to allow monopolies like San Miguel to develop. Not only did it give them fewer and more loyal stakeholders to manage, but it also gave them useful tools to fight off other foreign intrusions into the Philippines like those of Japan. San Miguel beer was to play a role in the economic struggles between the two empires.


Mark Corbyn is an English-Filipino Third Culture Kid living in London with his wife, daughter and dog. When not eating or reading and writing about Filipino food, he cooks it at supper clubs and pop-ups as part of The Adobros (@theadobros)

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