Peter Cornish gets a science lesson from a leading lady in the Saigon brew scene. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Although brewing beer was traditionally the work of women and monks, the craft brew scene now tends to be dominated by men, frequently big bellied and bearded. That’s certainly the case in Vietnam, where all the brews are made by boys. Except for one. Phat Rooster. They let a girl do the magic.
Allison Higi was the first full-time female brewer in the state of Iowa. She is now the first full-time Brewstress in Vietnam’s burgeoning craft beer scene. And is much happier in her role here than she was back in the States.
Allison is a scientist. She never brewed at home. With a degree in biology and chemistry, she started her career working in hospital labs. She hated it, was miserable, and when a friend suggested she came to work in a local brewery she jumped at the opportunity for change. She quit her job and started work as a server. But when the company’s brewer got fired following drunken escapades at a Christmas party, she found herself on the beer making side for the first time. She hasn’t looked back.
Higi stayed with the company until 2014, and due to her science background was promoted to the role of Quality Manager, lab testing for a staggering 30 breweries. “As Quality Manager, I had to give people bad news, nobody likes you. If I came to talk to you it was probably not a good thing” Allison told me. She wanted to brew herself, and it was time to move on.
Allison bounced around a few breweries but never really found the fit she was looking for. It was either an excellent job but bad money, or a bad job with excellent money. A combination of job satisfaction and good pay seemed hard to find. Then, whilst working at a brewery in Colorado her Dad became sick, so she interviewed for a job back in her home state of Indiana and prepared for a move to be closer to her Father.
The job kept getting delayed so she started interviewing for positions elsewhere, and was eventually offered a role in Hawaii. Excited by the prospect of a new job and decent pay she sold all her possessions and prepared for her move, but on the day of her flight, she was called to say the company had been sold and the position was no longer available.
Her search for the right job started again, and this time her eye caught a posting by a start-up brewery in Vietnam, Phat Rooster. She sent her resume and was hired on the spot. Three weeks later she was on a plane, bound for HCMC and a new life as Vietnam’s first Brewstress.
“It was all a whirlwind and I didn’t have much time to think about it. I had culture shock when I first arrived, but approached it all with an open mind.” Allison explained. Her first night in Vietnam was a late one, spent drinking Phat Rooster beer till the early hours. “I was really impressed and grateful they were already creating a decent product. They knew what they were doing and I realised my role would be refining things and putting the detail in the process.”
She was also impressed by the setup of the brewery which would have ranked highly among American counterparts. “Michael Sakkers, the owner, has engineered everything as you’d expect, such as the fermenters and chilling systems. A part I love is the structure of the brewery. It’s very Vietnamese in design and blends right in. You could drive by and never know it was there.” Allison told me.
As a scientist, Allison approaches her role as Phat Rooster’s Brewstress methodically. She explained that the judge of a brewer is their Pilsner, a delicate beer where it’s hard to hide mistakes. “I believe the measure of any brewer is how close you get to what you’re trying to achieve, and being able to achieve it consistently. I don’t see myself in competition with other brewers, but rather with myself. How close did I get to what I wanted, and am I able to repeat that with each batch I make?” she explained.
Beer is a very delicate product and slight changes in the brewing process can have a significant impact on the end production. All parts of the brewing process need to be monitored and controlled if you are to achieve consistency in the taste and quality of your beer. Home brewers and those who are less experienced often fiddle with the brewing process. The secret, Allison explained, is to combine the right ingredients then sit back and let the beer do its stuff.
As we continue our chat, Allison opened up about her experiences making beer in America. When she first started brewing, it didn’t cross her mind there were gender inequalities in the industry. It wasn’t until she had worked in a couple of places that she started to notice she was being left out, not invited to events, not have her opinion asked or being on the receiving end of negative comments. “I realised this is actually the norm and considered leaving the industry.” Allison told me.
In Vietnam, it seems her gender is an asset, if anything. “I’ve been really impressed by the city’s craft brew scene and the excellent beers being produced. But more than that, I feel welcomed as a woman, my opinions and beers respected. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, we collaborate and support each other.” Allison explained.
As Phat Rooster establishes itself as a market leader, Allison is starting to feel comfortable with her new life in Vietnam. She enjoys making beer that’s accessible and affordable for those who want to drink it, and believes the beer she is creating for Phat Rooster ticks the boxes. “I like to make beer for everyday people, not an elitist product.” She told me.
It also makes good business sense. You need to brew beer and move it. You can’t sit on kegs in storage or the product spoils. Phat Rooster make an above average beer, for a below average price, and it moves quickly. With less than one brewery per million people, there is plenty of room for growth.
“I’m truly excited about how Phat Rooster has grown in the six months I’ve been here. We started small and have grown within our means, debt free. We are now brewing contract beer for Bia Craft and are getting asked to brew house beers all the time. My role is to ensure we consistently brew high quality beer, and that each keg leaving the brewery is up to expected standard.”
Cheers to that.