Our own FREQUENT FLYER GUY, (a.k.a. Steve Smith), returns with another update from Southeast Asia. Great to have you back in the fold, Steve! (and oh, MAN, do we want to join you.) Check it out:
What's Hot in Vietnam: Cold Craft Beer
- How Vietnam is rapidly becoming an unlikely craft beer mecca
What are first things that come to mind when one thinks of Vietnam? Rice paddies? Motorbikes? Phở, Vietnam’s iconic noodle soup? Ha Long Bay? Floating markets on the Mekong Delta? Probably not craft beer.
Traditionally, beer in Vietnam has meant a macro-brewed lager like 333 or Bia Saigon poured over ice in local watering holes, or an imported Tiger or Heineken in more upscale pubs and clubs. Up until very recently, you could have any style of beer you wanted--as long as it was lager. But as I learned on my recent trip to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City’s BiaCraft Artisan Ales, that is changing in a big way.
According to beervn.com, there were no craft breweries in Vietnam in 2013. And for good reason. Brewing craft beer in Southeast Asia can be extremely challenging. Most equipment needs to be imported or made locally from spec—a daunting proposition. Ingredients can be impossible to find locally, and difficult to import (imagine getting a large batch of green, skunk-smelling hops through customs without being arrested as a drug trafficker). In nearby Thailand, archaic liquor laws that protect large breweries force craft brewers to brew their beer in neighboring countries, and then import their beer (subject to a 60% customs duty and a 48% excise tax). And finally there is the challenge of educating a market whose expectation of beer is a clear, simple-tasting lager. When Vietnamese craft brewer Platinum Beverages first released an unfiltered golden ale, many of the kegs got returned by distributors who thought the cloudy ale was defective. And Pasteur Street Brewing probably should have thought twice about producing a durian-flavored beer. Not only is the pungent fruit a challenging choice as a beer ingredient, it also faced having to overcome the urban legend of durian and alcohol being a lethal combination. (It was not a commercial success.)
But the overwhelming appeal of craft beer is overcoming these obstacles. Today there are several dozen Vietnamese craft brewers from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, and the number is growing rapidly. And while foreigners are behind the brewing, and much of the consumption of Vietnamese craft beer, Vietnamese locals are also starting to embrace it. Led by the young, well-traveled, middle- and upper-class urban Vietnamese, they are attracted to the quality and variety offered by craft beer, as well as the cachet of consuming a premium Western product. The manager we spoke with at BiaCraft estimated that roughly half of his customers were Vietnamese. And on our visit, the busy Thursday night crowd appeared to be at least half local.
I visited BiaCraft’s District 3 location (1 Lê Ngô Cát, phường 7, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam) with two friends—an American craft beer lover, and a local Vietnamese to whom we were just introducing craft beer. We sampled several selections from BiaCraft’s menu of 30 drafts (all but one brewed in Vietnam). They included a Belgian-style wit beer, two IPAs, an India summer ale, and one beer inspired by the spicy flavor of phở. Predictably, our Vietnamese craft beer novice was much more receptive to the wit beer (Tê Tê Belgian Wheat) and India Summer Ale (BiaCraft’s top-selling "Xao Ba Co"; Vietnamese slang meaning “f***ing liar”), with the hoppy bitterness of the IPAs being a bit much on the first try. My American friend and I both enjoyed the IPAs however. And while all three of us love a good bowl of phở, we weren’t 100% sure that making a beer try to taste like phở was such a good idea. It did grow on us as we drank it however, and we're fairly confident it was a better idea than making beer taste like durian.
Larger cities and tourist destinations like Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh City have a rapidly growing number of craft beer bars, and now many smaller cities are seeing their first craft taprooms open. If you enjoy craft beer and plan on visiting Vietnam, you will be pleasantly surprised (as we were) at the availability of good, local craft beer.