By EMMA N. HURT
A selection of craft beers offered by Bia Craft. PHOTO: TIM SCOTT
“The Vietnamese love their beer, there’s no doubt about it. They’ve got an amazing beer culture,” says Sean Symons, a 42-year-old Australian and one of the first, if not the first, expat brewers to make craft beer here commercially.
They do indeed love their beer, consuming roughly 3.4 billion liters (nearly 900 million gallons) of it in 2015; it makes up about 98% of the country’s alcoholic drinks industry. Per capita consumption doubled between 2005 and 2011, thanks to Vietnam’s booming economy.
Something new is filtering into this powerhouse market though: craft beer.
The vast majority of beer in Vietnam is cheap (the famous homemade bia hoi or fresh beer costs 22 American cents); it’s easy to drink in a hot climate (often served over ice); and it’s possible to drink a lot of it (3-5% alcohol content). “The Vietnamese have lived for so many decades with just lagers,” says Vietnam-based, Belgian native, beer-ingredient importer Gert Keersmaekers, 44. “This new middle class wants new things.”
Enter Western-style craft beer, with alcohol content sometimes past 10%, a rainbow of flavors and a price point to match its premium ingredients.
“When they first tried our beer, people would say, ‘This doesn’t taste like beer,’ ” says Alex Violette, the brewmaster at Saigon’s Pasteur Street Brewing Company. “I would respond, ‘No, what you’ve been drinking doesn’t taste like beer. It tastes like water. This is beer.’ ”
Scenes from the Pasteur Street Tasting Room. PHOTO: EMMA N. HURT
Pasteur Street’s founder, 32-year-old John Reid, recruited fellow American Violette, 30, from Colorado’s Upslope Brewing Company. Since opening just over a year ago, Pasteur Street has produced more than 30 flavors and now distributes to 50 outlets nationwide, with an international outlet coming soon. But, as Mr. Reid says: “We have had to create a craft beer culture [in Vietnam].”
“There are so many homogeneous beers out there. They all have the same message, the same flavor, the same approach to production. Our goal is to get more interesting, more craft-like product to as many people as possible, so they can enjoy variety, enjoy different stories and ideas, and a different way to experience beer,” says Tobias Briffa, a 28-year-old Maltese expat and one of the four behind Tê Tê Craft Beer.
The team at Tê Tê Craft Beer: from left, Michael John Rowland, Tobias Briffa, Luis Martínez López and Ruben Martínez López. All with their first brewing setup. PHOTO: EMMA N. HURT
Mr. Symons started brewing at Louisiane Brewhouse in Nha Trang in 2006 but remained an outlier until recently when a flurry of expat brewers such as Fuzzy Logic, Platinum, Phat Rooster, Pasteur Street, Tê Tê, Gauden, and Royal Eagle started selling in Saigon. In August 2015, the country’s first dedicated craft beer bar, Bia Craft, opened with six local brews on draft, to the relief of many Ho Chi Minh City expats.
“Bia Craft has provided a nest for craft beer in Saigon,” says Spaniard Ruben Martínez López, 32, also with Tê Tê. Chicago-native Mark Gustafson, one of Bia Craft’s three owners, brews and sells his own beer alongside the others. In the 42-year-old’s opinion, “We welcome anyone who is professionally making beer in Vietnam. There’s no way we can hurt each other.”
However, Bia Craft and most other outlets offering craft beer in the country currently remain more popular with expats. Just as other countries before it, Vietnam’s general public needs some more time and information to adjust to a new approach to beer.
“The whole concept of choice in the beer market here is brand new. It’s only since Sapporo entered the market four years ago that the consumer even had a choice [other than Tiger and Heineken],” explains Michael Comerton, 45, the founder of Platinum. “There’s very little knowledge about beer in this market. Here they drink brands. They don’t really drink beer for the sake of beer.” A native of Ireland, Mr. Comerton has more than two decades of experience in craft and mainstream beer in Europe, Australia and Asia.
He continues: “The market is changing though. Even if you go to a bia hoi, there are more and more people drinking packaged beer. That’s a fundamental shift. Everyone’s trading up.”
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Mr. Keersmaekers points to several Vietnamese clients who make bia hoi but are investing in upgrades to craft beer production, “because they see where the market is heading.”
While working for a supplier to many of Vietnam’s mainstream breweries, 28-year-old Vũ Quang Văn traveled the world and developed a love for foreign craft beer. After opening joint venture homebrew shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the summer of 2015 (the only ones in the region) his family recently debuted a commercial craft brewery in Hanoi: Barett Craft Beer.
“We want to share the drinking culture, teach people about craft beer, and encourage other people to open their own breweries,” Mr. Văn says. “Craft beer is an unstoppable trend,” he adds, pointing to the booming industry in places like Japan and Thailand. “But we have just introduced this idea to the market. It will take time for other Vietnamese people to think seriously about it.”
Pasteur Street’s John Reid, left, and Alex Violette, with their first brewing setup. PHOTO: EMMA N. HURT
Challenges beyond the customer base remain for craft brewers. “What [big breweries] are selling can be bought for 45 cents. We can’t even make our product for 45 cents,” says Lucas Jans, 36, of the emerging Lạc Brewing Company. Brewers also face an opaque Vietnamese legal bureaucracy, as well as an absence of the distribution and serving infrastructure needed to keep craft beer cold. However, these challenges are not stopping the beer from pouring.
“There’s a huge amount of opportunity here. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world in terms of craft beer, in my opinion,” says Mr. Keersmaekers. “For brewers, it’s heaven—if you have seen what’s happened in one year, you can imagine what will happen in five.”
WHERE CAN I FIND CRAFT BEER IN VIETNAM?
Ho Chi Minh City
BIA CRAFT | Arguably the heart of Vietnam’s craft beer scene, head over if you want the most possible variety of local and imported craft beer, along with a short food menu—90 Xuân Thủy, District 2. biacraft.com
PASTEUR STREET TASTING ROOM | Pasteur only distributes its Jasmine IPA and Saigon Saison to other outlets, but they’ve made more than 30 recipes in the past year. The only place to catch the latest flavor (until they run out) is down an alley and up a staircase on, you guessed it, Pasteur Street—144 Pasteur, District 1. pasteurstreet.com
QUAN UT UT | The original business of Bia Craft’s owners and the place to find delicious American BBQ and many of the same brews from Bia Craft. Their newer location in Binh Thanh has 16 tappers—168 Võ Văn Kiệt, District 1; 60 Truong Sa, Binh Thanh District. quanutut.com
LOUISIANE BREWHOUSE | Go see where it all began on the beach in Nha Trang. The restaurant only pours their own beers, and brewery tours are available—29 Trần Phú. louisianebrewhouse.com.vn
CHOPS | Their slogan? “Hops, Wheat, Meat.” The tiny restaurant is one of Pasteur Street’s bestselling locations with delicious food to match—4 Quảng An, Tây Hồ. chopsvietnam.com
HANG VUI CRAFT BEER RESTAURANT | The only place you can currently try Barett Craft Beer, whose brewery is right next door. Peek through the glass and check out the brewing equipment at work—Nhà ở 2, Bán đảo Linh Đàm, Hoàng Mai.
Emma N. Hurt is a native of Washington, D.C. and is a freelance journalist. She has also lived and worked in Houston, London and Paris, and has just returned from time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. You can follow her on @Emma_Hurt.