Peter Cornish talks to the new wave of craft beer brewers taking the city by storm, and provides a brief history of craft beer’s journey in Vietnam. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Vietnam holds the arguably auspicious title of most beer drunk per capita in the region. Which on the face of it sounds like something to be proud of. The country is awash with beer, it’s everywhere, you can’t escape it, they even named a city after one particular brand of local brew.
Those who have visited the country will be all too familiar with the flavourless pish that is passed off as beer, served with a lump of ice and guzzled with the ubiquitous, “mot, hai, ba, dzo!” We’ve all been there, done that, and wished for something with a little more flavour, or at least something that doesn’t resemble a puddle left by the cat on the kitchen floor.
Some years before moving to Vietnam, I made a pilgrimage to the Czech Republic to climb Mount Raghost, in the Moravian-Silesian Beskids mountain range. You might wonder the relevance of this, but at the top of this mountain stands an enormous statue of Radegast, the God of Beer. I went to pay my respects and for a blessing.
I didn’t ask for much, just to be blessed with good beer for as long as I am able to clasp a glass in my hand. On arrival in Vietnam I thought he had forsaken me, but in 2013, rumours of real beer started to surface around the city and my reverence for him was restored.
Tight-Knit and On the Map
The first wave of Saigon’s burgeoning craft brew scene, or second if we are to count the original Czech brewers, is now well established, despite still being in its infancy. The choice and quality of locally brewed beer has entrenched the city firmly on the map of regional craft brewers, with admiration and recognition coming in from more established markets such as Singapore, Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.
Testament to this is the decision to host the third annual Southeast Asia Brewers Conference (SEA Brew) in the city next year, promising to draw the region’s top brewers, and giving yet more credibility to the beers being brewed here, and the folks brewing them.
Among the first to enter the market in 2013 were Platinum and Fuzzy Logic, each with a unique style of beer appealing to different palates and offering exciting new tastes to compete with the comparatively bland local offerings. Credited with really getting the scene going is Pasteur Street Brewing Company, who have gifted over 90 unique brews to local beer lovers. Included in this is their Imperial Chocolate Stout, which brought Vietnam its ﬁrst ever gold medal at the World Beer Cup, the largest global beer competition.
“Our goal was to get people drinking better beer,” explained Mischa Smith, the most recognisable face of PSBC. “We wanted to make Vietnamese craft beer using local ingredients, not just an American-style beer. Our flavours and ingredients are unique, exotic, and have a broad appeal to a range of people – locals and expats, male and female”.
The movement got an additional boost with the opening of Bia Craft in August 2015. “Bia Craft was a tipping point for local brewers” explained Mark Gustafson, grand daddy of the Saigon craft brew community. “Most of the brewers around at the time were self-funded and brewing for the love of good beer, rather than the potential for financial reward” he continued. “Bia Craft gave them an opportunity to find their feet.”
This spirit of collaboration is something that marks the Saigon craft brew community from those in other parts of the region. There’s something special here. “We always support anyone who wants to make and sell beer” Gustafson tells me. “If the beer is good, the customers will decide.”
Lucas Jans, of LAC Brewing Co. on Nguyen Duc Canh, confirms this sense of camaraderie: “Most of us are driven by a passion to make good beer and have fun doing it.The market is new, and together we are helping to develop it. When the tide comes in, all the boats will rise” he confides. “We are thrilled to see the evolution of craft beer here in Vietnam, we would like people to say that Vietnam produces good craft beer, and that certainly seems to be happening.”
Catching Up Quickly
As the scene establishes itself, it’s attracting the next wave of brewers eager to get in at these earlier stages. With them they are bringing bigger budgets and ambitious plans. “What the guys who have lead the way are doing is like what was happening in America in the 80s,” explained Loc Truong, General Manager of one of the new entrants, East West Brewing Company, soon to open on Ly Tu Trong.
One of the newest breweries set to make their entrance, Winking Seal, will open on Dang Thi Nu Street, and they are all about the aforementioned ambition, but for reasons that should plug in perfectly with the Saigonese startup mindset.
“Winking Seal is more than a beer. It’s a kind of collective of people coming together to elevate and introduce new ideas. From co-creation experiences, to community of craft,” says Mark Nerney, cofounder and operations manager.
“We’re really excited to join the community here,” says brian kaekich, cofounder and head brewer at Winking Seal. We’ve been welcomed with open arms, and it’s similar to the culture that exists amongst American craft brewers. We want our taproom to be a place where people come to enjoy each other’s company. If you don’t come with friends, you’ll make some while you’re there.”
Loc Truong continues,“East West’s aspirations are to really change the market, and to grab [the] attention you need to go big, or really big. Vietnam is ready for something like this. When the beer clubs came, they kept coming. The name itself is what got people’s attention”.
“Everyone’s got taps now. There’s a possibility of saturation,” warned Guthier Lagasse of Belgo, the newly opened Belgian tap room on Nguyen Van Thu. “But demand is increasing quickly. At the moment, it’s mainly expats drinking craft beer, but the future is the local market. If you want to target the locals you need to educate their palates, and with the growing choice of beers, this is certainly happening.”
“Pasteur Street played a lead role in opening up the market and creating interest,” John Pemberton of the newly-opened Heart of Darkness tap room on Ly Tu Trong said. “Bia Craft is leading the move from expats to locals, as well as opening up craft beer to females. We aim to follow their lead.”
With more newcomers set to arrive in 2017, including established breweries from overseas eager to be part of the growing scene, we are only just starting to get a taste of what’s to come.
“What we have now in Saigon is extremely special, the relationship between brewers is excellent and there’s an energy around them that can only lead to better beers” Pemberton emphasises.
“At the end of the day,” Smith tells me, “I’d rather see someone drinking the competition than a 333.”
It seems that Radegast, the God of Beer, has certainly blessed his disciples well in Vietnam.