For a country that consumes so much beer, there have been few choices for drinkers in terms of variations in style and flavour of beers. Brett Davis talks to one craft brewer who is aiming to change all that. Photo by Vinh Dao.
The offices of Platinum Beverages, the outfit set to release their eponymous pale ale into the Saigon market this month, reflect their status as a new enterprise and one whose focus is solely on the quality of their product.
This is most apparent through the current lack of furniture, a detail that can wait until the huge task of releasing their new brew into selected outlets around town is accomplished. So a handy windowsill is pressed into service as the man behind Platinum, 44-year-old Irishman Michael Comerton, leads me through a session of beer tasting.
And when it comes to beer, Comerton certainly knows his stuff. Originally trained in the law, he later studied brewing in Scotland before working for Guinness and then spending 10 years in Australia with brewing giants Lion Nathan and Fosters. “I tell people I never got past the bar,” he jokes.
It seems a little odd at first to be taking in the nose and sipping on Heineken and Tiger to ascertain their different characteristics, but it proved very instructive. The mass-produced lagers are not something automatically associated with this kind of treatment. But under Comerton’s guidance it was possible to set a benchmark for the full-malt style of the beer, and similarly for the mixed grain Sapporo and the lightly hopped Biere Larue.
Platinum pale ale will be distributed in draught form, so the samples for tasting on this particular stormy afternoon are in clear, unmarked plastic bottles. It is straight from the tank, so it still has a touch more of the trademark cloudiness you get with pale ales.
After pouring the beer into a glass the first step is to deeply breathe in the aroma, and that is when it happens. The fragrant, citrus-like notes hit you and it smells like memories, it smells like summer and long afternoons at the beach, like something you never knew you missed so much until you were reminded of what you had given up.
Craft beer of this style is hugely popular in many parts of the world (especially in my native Australia), but they are almost nonexistent here in Vietnam. They derive their unique flavour from the liberal use of hops throughout the brewing process, again not something found in other locally made beers. In this case, the hops are imported from the US and Australia.
The Platinum pale ale is produced under contract at a brewery just outside the city at Cu Chi, and the recipe was something that initially caused some consternation. “When we first went to the brewery they said no to us because they thought all the hops would block up their equipment,” Comerton says.
Happily that hurdle was overcome and the brew is about to make it to market. However the story goes back some way further and the journey to make Platinum has not been without its ups and downs.
Comerton explains that he first came to Vietnam in 2008 with the aim of establishing a brewery. After finalising the plans he went in search of financing for the project. “That was in April 2009, and if you recall that was not really the best time to be trying to raise money,” he says, referring to the then unfolding global financial crisis. There was also the failed entry of Miller Highlife around this time, and all considered it did not look like the best time to launch another brewery.
Fast forward a couple of years with the entry of Sapporo into the market and the exploding popularity of beer clubs in Vietnam, and it looked like a more opportune moment. “The idea of having a choice is now in consumers’ minds,” Comerton says.
“We don’t want to scare people, so we have kept the same pale colour and the same bitterness, but what we have done is added a lot of hops to give it a completely different flavour profile.”
As Comerton says, the local market is ready for something different. If it’s a departure from the ubiquitous Asian lagers currently available, then it is a difference long overdue. And it could, possibly, mark the beginning of a viable craft brewing industry in Vietnam.