Here’s something a bit out of the ordinary. Imagine yourself walking down a cobblestone street at night, slick with rain, the car headlights reflected in the mirror-like pools of water between the uneven pavement. You close your umbrella and shake off the water droplets before putting it in a rack by the heavy double doors.
Inside is a long bar. Diners sit around, glasses in their hands, in a dining room with long tables awaiting warm bodies to slide into their places at the long trestles.
This isn’t Prague, or Amsterdam, or London. Rather, it’s Vigan, a city in the country’s northern province of Ilocos Sur that Filipinos tend to think of as “least like the Philippines.”
But to reconcile the disjunction in the mind, one must expand the idea of the multitudes the Philippines contains, rather than dismiss Vigan as an anomaly in a country that is mostly made of concrete and galvanized iron sheets.
It’s true that much of the historical center of Vigan is created atmosphere. In front of Hotel Luna where we stayed, for instance, they were doing intensive roadwork that turned out not to have anything to do with drains, as we feared. They were instead in the process of tearing up the concrete and putting in new cobblestones.
Rumors have abounded about previous local administrations taking a sledgehammer to the cemented facades of old houses to expose the red brick underneath, thus making them more photo-friendly. There were even whispers of an (fortunately) aborted plan to make it mandatory for everyone in the historic center to wear period clothing.
The current administration seems to be taking a more sensible approach to balancing the needs of Vigan as a working city where people actually live in, while continuing to preserve the heritage that makes it a tourist attraction to begin with.
The Hotel Luna, with its grand wooden staircases and resplendent living room on the second floor, now filled with art, is a good example of working with, rather than against, the structures of the past.
Unfortunately it means that some of the rooms either don’t have windows or have windows that open out onto the corridors that run along the central courtyard. But the alternative would have been to destroy century-old walls.
Even in the brewery, everything took twice as long as it would normally have taken, because you couldn’t drive a nail through a wall without several layers of bureaucracy signing off on it—which is how it should be.
But what a job they’ve done.
The light from the interior spills out onto the courtyard and onto the street. Inside are all clinking glasses and warmth, and beers being pulled into either tall glasses or small, tasting glasses, to be sampled.
Calle Brewery is a craft brewery, run by the same team that serves Joe’s Brew in Poblacion, Makati. However, it isn’t just Joe’s Brew transplanted in the north. Joey Viray, who brews the beer himself, said that inevitably, the spirit of the place emerged in the craft beers that he and younger brother Marco have offered to a growing clientele .
For a small-scale brewery, the place’s location often determines what kind of beer is produced through sheer force of circumstance—places with a certain kind of water, for instance, infuse the beer with a certain taste.
For Belgian breweries, where monks stirring the vats had the remotest idea of what was affecting the fermentation of their beers, the microbes that had been living for years in their rafters, or in the paddles they used to stir the beer, determined the outcome.
Most modern breweries filter their water and standardize the yeasts used for fermentation.
Viray knows, at the outset, what kind of beer will go into the kegs. He doesn’t do gimmicky “Ilocos-inspired beers” —flavored with, say, papaitan, or infused with bagnet.
But the beers we had, from the light (but deceptively strong) to the darker IPAs did not feel out of place in Ilocos, and matched the moody setting of unending rain washing over ancient, crumbling mansions.
It would, likewise, not have been out of place if a body were to be found here, killed in a Satanist manner, and a Spanish missionary out of an Arturo Perez-Reverte novel were to appear in the rain.
The food in the brewery downstairs is heavily hipster —there’s a smoker and a fantastic brontosaurus rib that oozes with creamy fat and unctuous, burnt ends. Alas, we were too drunk to try the seafood gumbo.
Upstairs in the old dining room is a degustation. In Manila, we’re accustomed to tasting menus that go for P3,500 or so, or even more if you’re splurging at Mecha Uma.
But in Vigan, where the sinanglaw by the post office costs only P70 with rice, Hotel Luna has judiciously priced the tasting menu at P1,800 per head—for 13 courses. If you’re familiar with Ilocano cuisine, this is a good way to have an
Ilocano-inflected meal in a civilized setting in the middle of town.
If you’re new to Vigan, you should have your fill of bagnet, pinakbet, empanada, and so on, before coming to the tasting menu. It was designed by Robbie Goco and Chester Velas, who is executive chef of the “upstairs” part of the establishment.
The menu, still in an experimental stage, has spherified balsamic pearls on a deconstructed empanada and 60-day aged beef. This isn’t rough and ready provincial fare.
It’s not hard to get a good meal in Vigan, but there are lots of tourist traps, and the fast food chains are starting to encroach on Calle Crisologo. This is a town where the diet should go quietly out the capiz-pane window. Indulge yourself in the unexpected, astonishing diversity of the Filipino cultural repository.–CONTRIBUTED
Calle Brewery, Casa Lourdes, 11 Calle Encarnacion, Vigan, Ilocos Sur