Frequent Flyer Guy Reports: Craft Beer in Vietnam!

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.

 Just two years ago, this was the extent of my Vietnamese beer experience.

Just two years ago, this was the extent of my Vietnamese beer experience.

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.)

 Just a few years ago, none of these beers were being made.

Just a few years ago, none of these beers were being made.

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.

 BiaCraft's patrons on a busy Thursday night included many locals.

BiaCraft's patrons on a busy Thursday night included many locals.

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.

 BiaCraft's extensive menu of draft beers

BiaCraft's extensive menu of draft beers

 Our first tasting flight: Tê Tê Belgian Wheat, BiaCraft’s Xao Ba Co India Summer Ale, BiaCraft's Xau Ma Chanh IPA, Lac Brewing Co.'s Devil's Lake IPA

Our first tasting flight: Tê Tê Belgian Wheat, BiaCraft’s Xao Ba Co India Summer Ale, BiaCraft's Xau Ma Chanh IPA, Lac Brewing Co.'s Devil's Lake IPA

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.

Resources:

https://beervn.com

http://biacraft.com

http://www.tetebeer.com

http://www.forbes.com/sites/davisbrett/2016/04/13/on-the-frontier-of-beer-in-vietnam/2/#38cd48ab6455

Frequent Flyer Guy finds a Bangkok Beer Oasis.

Our own Frequent Flyer Guy, Steve Smith, reports in from one of his favorite cities in the world:

Bangkok Beer Oasis:

In a city known for many pursuits besides brewing, great craft beer is on tap if you know where to look:

 Bangkok, Thailand.

Bangkok, Thailand.

I love Bangkok. It is one of my favorite international destinations. For me it has nearly everything a great city should have: Great restaurants, delicious street food, friendly locals, a large international community, and of course the bustling nightlife for which it is famous. But Bangkok, like many Asian cities, is not known for a thriving craft beer scene. While I have encountered craft beer on occasion in Bangkok, it has often been disappointing. Most craft beer I have come across in Thailand is imported, which unfortunately can mean a steep price tag (due to Thailand's high tax on imports), and unreliable quality (due to improper product handling during shipping, storage, and distribution).

 Mikkeller Bangkok!

Mikkeller Bangkok!

Just this year, however, a brand new player emerged on the Bangkok beer scene, and has brought world-class craft beer to the city. In January, 2014, nontraditional Danish brewer Mikkeller opened just its second international beer bar in Bangkok. (Its first was opened in San Francisco in 2013.)

Located well off the beaten path on a sleepy, residential side street in Bangkok’s upscale Ekkamai neighborhood, Mikkeller Bangkok is a destination bar to be certain. It is located far away from many of the tourist and ex-pat neighborhoods like Khaosan Road and Sukhumvit, and receives zero benefit from foot traffic. Yet on my visit on a Saturday evening, the bar was full, loaded with tourists and ex-pats who managed to navigate the sois of Ekkamai for great beer. “This is the best craft beer bar in Asia,” I was told by a IPA-loving British ex-pat from Hong Kong, who said he now makes a point to visit Mikkeller every time he comes to Bangkok. And its easy to see why.

 Don't waste time. Just get there.

Don't waste time. Just get there.

The first things you notice when you enter Mikkeller are the taps: 30 of them. This might not be surprising in Europe or the USA, but in Asia a tap arsenal of that size is almost unheard of. And the selection is excellent. Mikkeller, being a “collaborative” brewer, features not only its own creations in its bars, but also a fantastic rotating selection of offerings from other brewers around the world. In addition to its own labels, at the time of our visit Mikkeller Bangkok offered beers from Brewfist (Italy), To Øl (Denmark), Siren (England, UK), Rogue (Oregon, USA), Boon (Belgium), and 8Wired (New Zealand) among others. Stouts, IPAs, lambics, brown ales, pilsners, porters, pales, Belgian ales, as well as ciders, meads, and craft spirits are offered... and our thirsty group sampled many. We even tried a chipotle- and coffee-infused stout, which was admittedly a bit challenging for many of our palates. By and large, however, the selections we tried were excellent and ran the gamut of varieties offered.

 Yes please.

Yes please.

The last thing that impressed us about Mikkeller Bangkok was that the staff are sticklers about quality. We spoke with one of the managers about the issue of maintaining quality with imported beer, and he talked at length about their relationship with their importer and the standards they have for handling the product properly, to ensure quality during shipping and storage. And on our visit, we found the imports to be spot on, as if their journey around the globe had been just a short trip around the block.

Before visiting Mikkeller, I wouldn’t have considered Bangkok to be much of a destination for anyone serious about craft beer. But like in so many other cities around the world, beer drinkers in Bangkok are seeking out more options in flavor and in brewers, and Mikkeller is delivering, putting Bangkok on the craft beer map in Asia.

For more information, visit Mikkeller Bangkok's web site: http://www.mikkellerbangkok.com

Asia travelers? What Craft Beer gems have you found out there? Leave them in the comments section.

Cheers!

New Adjunct Faculty, and #CraftBeer in Panama!

Steve Smith, an old friend of Jimmy's, reached out recently with an exciting proposition: He travels worldwide constantly for work and wanted to contribute to THHG! After much thought (2 or 3 seconds) we heartily agreed. Please welcome our newest contributor, the Frequent Flyer Guy, with a report from Panama!

Something's Brewing in Panama: Craft Beer

Like in many countries, beer options in Panama have been historically limited to large established domestic and international brands. SABMiller, for example, presently holds 66% market share in Panama, both through its indirect ownership of Panama's Cerveceria National (Atlas and Balboa brands), and as a result of its recent introduction of international brands like Miller Lite. But a fledgling craft beer movement is taking root and gaining momentum in Panama, and the prospects are looking bright for the nation's beer lovers.

The origins of the Panamanian craft beer movement can be traced to 2005, when the Istmo Brew Pub opened in the El Congrejo neighborhood of Panama City. After nearly 9 years in operation, Istmo's business definitely doesn't seem to have gone flat, drawing a large Friday night crowd of locals, ex-pats, and tourists when I visited. This is thanks in large part to its selection of house-made "cerveza artesanal", including the refreshing Istmo Colón (pictured), one of five varieties offered.

 If BrewDog stopped by, these guys must be pretty cool...

If BrewDog stopped by, these guys must be pretty cool...

In the historic and now-trendy Casco Viejo neighborhood, the La Rana Dorada brewery has burst onto the craft beer scene. It currently features four diverse selections: a Belgian blanche, a German-style pils, an English-style pale ale, and a classic English porter. La Rana Dorada enjoyed a brisk business comprised mostly of locals when I visited, so much so that two of the four beer selections had sold out by the time I arrived later in the evening.

 La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City.

La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City.

Adding to craft beer's momentum, Panama hosted its inaugural Micro Brew Fest in 2013, with Istmo Brew Pub and La Rana Dorada as two of the four domestic craft breweries participating, Also participating were Oregon's Rogue Ales and Scotland's BrewDog. 2013's success brought an expanded roster of 10 breweries in 2014, more evidence of growing interest in craft beers in Panama.

As I have traveled this past year and a half, the discovery of craft beers and breweries in unexpected places around the world has been surprising. Panama City, Bangkok, and even Shanghai are now home to thriving craft breweries, bringing to mind an image of Chairman Mao cheerfully sipping a hoppy IPA. No longer just a North American or European phenomenon, the craft beer movement has gone global, bringing choice and flavor to beer lovers everywhere.


 Steve Smith, the Frequent Flyer Guy

Steve Smith, the Frequent Flyer Guy

Steve Smith is a software developer and former technology entrepreneur who is presently on a multi-year adventure exploring the food, drink, and culture of the world. Born in Detroit, Michigan, and based in San Francisco, California, he currently spends the majority of his time abroad. Steve's favorite international destinations include Paris, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires. His preference in bars tends toward neighborhood pubs, feeling that they offer the best opportunity to interact and meet new people while traveling. Some of Steve's favorite watering holes include San Francisco's R Bar, Finnerty's in New York, Le Galway Irish Pub in Paris, and The Game in Bangkok.