While traveling through Myanmar, it’s not uncommon to see advertisements for Mandalay Brewery’s Spirulina Beer. But, unlike other beer ads you might be familiar with, Spirulina Beer has the slogan “young forever” alongside claims that it’s an “anti-aging beer.” It’s much harder to find the beer than it is to spot the ads, but the search is worth it. We’ve tasted almost every lager in Southeast Asia, and of every brew we’ve tried, the most memorable beer we’ve found in the region is Mandalay Brewery’s elusive Spirulina Beer.
Mandalay Brewery’s purported health ingredient is right there in the beer’s name: spirulina. Spirulina is a blue-green algae that grows in ponds and lakes, and it’s abundant in Myanmar. NASA uses spirulina as a dietary supplement for astronauts, and studies have shown it can boost energy, lower cholesterol, and is both an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. Today, the algae can be found in beauty products and food around the world. Finding it in the beer we kept seeing in the ads was a little harder, though.
After much searching, the only bar we could find with the beer on tap was in the old British hill-station town of Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo). The country’s bus drivers were on strike, so we hitched a 65-kilometer ride up the hill on the bed of a farm truck. Along the way, several villagers came and went, sitting beside us on bags of onions and handing the driver a few kyat for the lift.
Stepping off the onion truck in a daze, we killed time at Pyin Oo Lwin’s sprawling botanical garden and zoological park before the town’s bars opened. Then we headed to Win Thu Zar, a local watering hole.
The Win Thu Zar “beer hall” was, like most in Myanmar, a spartan den with a static-filled TV and some refrigerators full of barely chilled beer. Unlike many other bars, this place had beer on draft. Most importantly for us, the kegs were full of the Mandalay Spirulina Beer we’d crossed the country to taste. Maybe it was the spirulina, maybe it was an especially active day, but this little room had more energy than the other bars we visited in the country. It was lively with locals coming for a pint of youth-giving beer.
We ordered pints of our own and received two lagers that were a familiar yellow color. While spirulina naturally turns whatever it touches blue-green, this beer isn’t tinted because Myanmar Brewery uses spirulina extract rather than the raw algae powder that’s used in smoothies. The beer had a nice carbonation and better head retention than most lagers we’d tried in Southeast Asia. It smelled a bit mossy, but mostly had the aroma of honeyed malts. It tasted a lot like other tropical lagers with a subtle savoriness. The spirulina didn’t add any lake funk, but did leave a lingering bitterness and slightly heavier body — both of which were improvements to the often watery local lagers.
Initially, we were disappointed by the lack of algae flavor, but after a few pints we noticed some notes of forest floor. When tasted alongside the flagship blue-label Mandalay Beer, the Spirulina Beer won on both complexity and drinkability.
Some American breweries like Dogfish Head and Freetail Brewing Company have experimented with spirulina, but Mandalay Brewery is the only consistent producer — and the only one with “anti-aging” on the label. For now, it appears things will stay that way. Japanese brewing giant Kirin bought Mandalay in 2017, and Kirin has reported that they’ll continue brewing it.
Today, the beer remains tough to find, but it’s worth the search. The beer cafes around the U Bein Bridge just outside of Mandalay are a good bet, or Win Thu Zar, the charming beer joint in Pyin Oo Lwin. Several rounds of beer anywhere can relax the aches and worries that come with age, but we’re convinced that it’s travel, not spirulina, that’ll keep us young.