(AsiaLIFE cover, February 2016)
Craft beer has been ruffling the feathers of the big corporations for some years, and now the seeds for a showdown have been planted in Vietnam. Lorcan Lovett talks to the pioneering brewers leading the campaign for better tasting tipples. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Until two years ago, beer drinkers in Vietnam searching for an alternative to the gassy, mainstream brands had little choice.
In the two biggest cities, a sprinkling of Czech or German style brewpubs served ‘yellow’ and ‘black’ tipples and the famous people’s beer, bia hoi, dutifully continued its thirst-quenching odyssey.
These are both very much in demand today, but the other option, those two fantastical words – ‘craft beer’ – existed only in the nostalgic gabbling of Viet Kieu and expats over fizzy cans of 333.
Then the boozy exchanges turned into sober ambition; hops and grains were imported, tanks were filled and a group of pioneers raised their glasses to the daunting challenge of influencing the taste of a nation.
“The Vietnamese consumers are, for the most part, still in the mode of ‘beer as status’,” says Michael Comerton, 45, the first craft brewer in Saigon outside of the Czech-German pubs and second in the country after Louisiane Brewhouse in Nha Trang.
“Therefore they drink brands that they feel will make them look successful, which usually defaults to international brands.”
Comerton’s Platinum pale ale began selling in June 2014, and with its hoppy, moderately bitter taste masking a citrus undertone, it was fervently welcomed by the foreign community without scaring off the Vietnamese.
At the start of 2015, Pasteur Street Brewing Company joined the party, offering a mix of experimental beers at its home in District 1. The bar is already close to becoming an institution among all the city dwellers; its Jasmine IPA might even be one by itself, yet independent brewers have a long way to go before they can make claim to the biggest beer drinking country in Southeast Asia.
The Other Revolution
The US raised craft beer to the world stage during the early 80s when a group of brewers shunned the cheaper mainstream offerings for more traditional recipes, much like the budding scene in Vietnam now.
At first the numbers must have seemed feeble to Big Beer, and then the trend rose, like a bloated belly, until the boardrooms took notice: a new generation was falling out of love with the supermarket six-packs.
The corporations began promoting their established brands more in the developing markets of Asia and South America where they could gain the high ground in anticipation of similar battles.
Back in their strongest market, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser ran a curiously defensive advert mocking craft beer at last year’s Super Bowl despite buying out a series of craft brewers and releasing its own faux-independent ‘crafty’ beers.
Further panic could be interpreted from InBev’s recent purchase of its closest rival SABMiller in a deal worth nearly $106 billion, creating an industry giant that will be responsible for nearly 30 percent of all beer sales worldwide.
Vietnam is an attractive market to pursue for the newly formed goliath, helped by its government’s plans to increase domestic and export beer from 3.4 billion litres in 2015 to 4.25 billion litres by 2020, according to the Vietnam Beer Alcohol Beverage Association.
Judging on the country’s staggeringly high rate of beer consumption, not one litre will go unsold.
The country drinks the most beer in Asia behind China and Japan, and has a growing middle class and an abundance of susceptible young professionals ready to spend money.
The Vietnam Growth Report 2015 indicated that 85 percent of the country’s 90-million strong population is aged under 40. With that figure in mind, InBev opened its first factory in the nation last May, located only 40 kilometres from Saigon.
It produces up to 100 million litres of Beck’s and Budweiser a year and is backed by a multinational’s marketing budget targeted at beer clubs.
Comerton, who is also director of beer and beverages consultancy firm Pomegranate, says that most SABMiller products have previously failed in Vietnam, including Miller High Life, Castle Stout, Gambrinus and Peroni.
Its Vietnamese brewery, which is used primarily for the export of Zorok, will mean that the post-takeover corporation will have two factories in the country.
Comerton believes the company will brew relatively small volumes meaning the development will have a limited clout on Vietnam’s market.
“On the other hand, there will continue to be huge competition for tap space and access to consumers,” he says, “with the global players paying large sums to venues to ensure exclusivity of promotion. This will surely limit the ability of craft beer to thrive.”
Opposite this corporate call to arms is a tight-knit community of micro-brewers whose approach to business involves sharing with your competitors and, most importantly, drinking their beer.
They often visit District 2’s go-to watering hole BiaCraft, where patrons can feel the excitement; sociable, quality beer is taking off. For those who want in, there’s even ABV Brewery Shop in District 3 which sells home brew kits.
BiaCraft manager Mark Gustafson, who also runs hit American barbecue and independent beer champion Quan Ut Ut, is one of the aficionados ensuring this moment belongs to the micro-brewers.
They want it etched into Vietnam’s history of suds with the same dent left by France’s introduction of the drink in the 1890s, or the ascent of bia hoi in the 1960s.
One side of the boozy standoff is an established elite brewed in sprawling industrial estates, while the other traces its origins to laundry rooms and small kitchens. Here are the people behind three of the most refreshing trailblazers:
A stack of kegs is the first sight to greet visitors in a small, narrow warehouse just over the Saigon Bridge.
A sign of a brooding chimpanzee hangs from the wall opposite the barrels, and polystyrene traps in the cold in a partitioned room at the back.
It’s Fuzzy Logic’s new base, a place they want to adorn with posters of friends’ bands and turn into somewhere they can hangout as well as conduct business.
Colin O’Keefe, 33, one of the pale ale’s two founders, pulls up two kegs for seats next to a children’s plastic table.
“Everybody (in Vietnam) drinks beer and nobody is making craft beer,” he says. “It is crazy. Nobody has any idea about what craft beer is.”
Like O’Keefe, the other founder, Max Crawford, worked as a teacher in the city while brewing the slightly fruity, slightly roasted flavoured ale after craving a drink similar to what they’d find at home in the US.
Crawford came up with the idea in 2012 but the first pint wasn’t sold until a year and a half ago, revealing how challenging the journey has been.
The beer regularly sold out when it became available at Saigon Outcast and now they make the stuff in another company’s brewery on the outskirts of the city.
“This was Max’s dream and his skill in brewing,” says O’Keefe. “He showed me how to make a good beer.”
O’Keefe modestly says his initial contribution was “speaking a little Vietnamese”, but he recognises that the practical skills and problem-solving approach of both men has taken them this far.
As if to emphasise the point, the electricity cuts out in the cold room. O’Keefe sees to the problem before pouring two more glasses.
“We just wanted to make a good ale,” he says. “Nothing too fancy or extreme; just a good pale ale.”
The brand is stretching beyond beer lovers and to the casual drinkers of Saigon, attracting potential investors along the way. The owners have turned them all down and are concentrating on brewing more varieties.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says O’Keefe. “We are very serious about our work and what we do but we want this to be a labour of love.”
To show the affable rapport between the beer makers, O’Keefe grabs his phone and reads out a freshly sent email. The message bats away an offer from another brewer to reimburse the cost of plastic cups at Mui Ne Arts and Musical festival, which they shared a bus to.
“If our companies could own one percent of the Vietnamese market that would be great,” he adds. For now, the small team is taking it one keg at a time, delivered on O’Keefe’s trusty Honda Dream.
Jeremy Willes, 41, stands proudly next to his new freezer-converted keezer at his restaurant, Chipotle Mexican Grill, in backpacker hub Bui Vien Street.
Trudging past with a keg in hand is Joshua Puckett, 24, a young, informed brewer whose bearded, almost lumber-jack appearance fits nicely with his craft.
The Americans joined fellow compatriot and Phat Rooster founder Michael Sakkers, 43, in his quest to bring quality tipples to the market. So far they have amber, blonde and pale ale, an IPA, and a much-praised English porter.
“The best way I can explain craft beer to someone is like it’s eating mum’s home cooking compared to a family eating out in a restaurant,” says Willes.
“It is important for us to find a beer that is pale but also an introduction into craft beer. We have to be careful with the hops because it is a very distinct taste.”
Willes believes the trend for craft beer is spreading across the whole of Southeast Asia.
“We are hoping it will spill over to the locals,” he says.
“I’m confident it will,” replies Puckett, before pondering how global brands have been received in Vietnam.
“Heineken here is absolutely terrible but it’s also the most popular because there’s an association that it’s European beer and high class, so if you drink it you’re high class and if you drink Vietnamese beer you’re low class.”
Sakkers, who has, interestingly, written several books on dating advice (the synonym behind Phat Rooster is not so courtly) has a factory due for expansion near his house in Can Gio.
They import their hops from New Zealand, the US and Germany, and have been selling Phat Rooster for eight months.
Bureaucracy often stalls their production process, such as waiting for permission to take their ingredients from the airport. Scaling the volume of their recipe has also brought problems.
“We’ve watched 1,000 litres of beer go down the drain,” Puckett painfully reflects. “That was a sad time.”
But their knowledge and blind taste tests have helped them perfect their formula. Now they joke about getting Phat Rooster girls to hand out their product in the beer clubs. That may just come true.
“I think it is time,” adds Willes. “Vietnam is ready for craft beer. They’re starting to embrace some flavours.”
Spanish brothers Luis Martinez, 29, and Ruben Martinez, 32, sit on a worn sofa, sipping bottles of their refreshing Belgian wheat beer in a stifling room next to events space Cargo in District 4.
In front of them, workmen put the finishing touches to a 300-litre tank installation, a step up from the laundry room in An Phu where Te Te was first produced.
The drink has arguably the best shot at attracting a Vietnamese audience; it’s sweet, counting orange peel among its ingredients, crisp, light and most definitely a session beer.
“They like their sweet drinks, they’re not bitter people,” says Luis. “The more bitter you make your beer, the farther step they have to take.”
Luis studied biochemistry at university and then worked for a perfume company, perfecting his sense of smell while gaining contacts for people capable of building brewing equipment.
He first came to Vietnam in 2013 for just over a year and then returned to Spain to work in a brewery.
“You need the art, the genius inside you that understands everything, and a little bit of science and you create something out of that,” he says.
His brother encouraged him to return to Vietnam, this time with a clear mission in mind. Days after the flight landed in March 2015 they began ordering grains and hops from Belgium for the first of 12 test batches.
After that, the only element missing was a name and logo, so they recruited some artistic assistance.
The result was a drawing of the most trafficked animal in the world, an armadillo-like creature called a pangolin (te te in Vietnamese), chasing its own scaly tail that transforms into the flakes of a hop.
“Te Te also means like a high moment,” says Ruben. “An electric shock to an orgasm; a moment of euphoria.”
Their previously bottle-only product became available on draught at Bia Craft and Quan Ut Ut last month and, combined with the efforts of the other brewers, they’re confident they’ll make inroads into the Vietnamese market.
“With the work of every craft brewer in Vietnam there will always be someone who will like your beer,” says Luis. “If we keep doing the good job we are doing and make a really nice experience of craft beer it will be popular very soon, faster than the US to really catch on.”
A Rising Tide
Vietnam’s foreign community has unsurprisingly embraced the elevated choice of beers but the independent brewers have to attract the Vietnamese and ward off the corporates to reach more prosperous sustainability.
With his Platinum beer and the teamwork of other independent brands, Comerton believes progress can be made.
“Our objective needs to be greater consumer interest in craft beer,” he says. “After all, a rising tide floats all boats.”
Brewing companies SABECO, AB InBev, Heineken Asia Pacific (Tiger) and SAB Miller were approached to comment for this article. SAB Miller declined and the rest were unavailable.
Vietnam’s beer history in decades
1890s French colonialists launch Hommel Brewery, selling expensive beer to wealthy people.
1950s The French leave Vietnam, Hommel Brewery is renamed Habeco Brewery, and ‘bia hoi’ or ‘fresh beer’ (or, literally translated, ‘gas beer’) hits the streets in all its unpasteurised glory.
1960s Bia hoi’s popularity soars after the government restricts home production of rice wine to salvage rice for the war effort.
1970s American troops knock back Tiger beer and 33 adds an extra 3 upon reunification to become the recognisable drink it is today.
1990s Beer exports and imports increase as the big brands establish themselves.
2000s Czech and German styled pubs brew their own beverages in Ho Chi Minh City.
Now A group of craft beer pioneers work to spread a global trend to the Southeast Asian nation.