Peter Cornish sheds some light on the lesser-known side of the craft beverage scene in the city. Photo by Vinh Dao.
With the flood of media attention it’s been getting of late, you’d be forgiven for thinking that beer is the only craft beverage being made in Saigon. It’s not. And it wasn’t the first either. There’s a distinctly British tipple being made here, with a wonderfully Vietnamese twist.
There seems no shortage of brew masters in the city at present, but there’s only one ferment master. And she’s female. Arguably the first to start production in this recent wave of craft beverage production, she is also the country’s only foreign female founder of a craft beverage company. We think that’s a respectable claim to fame.
Hannah Jefferys landed in Vietnam some 6 years ago with a completely different remit. A trained architect from England’s West Country, her first two and a half years in Vietnam were spent designing high profile resorts on the island of Phu Quoc. Thrown in at the deep end, she enjoyed the experience tremendously but it came to an abrupt end when the company decided to shut its Vietnam operations.
“I had the choice between leaving Vietnam to continue architecture elsewhere, or to stay and try something new”, Hannah explained. She had always been excited about doing something for herself so the decision was easy. “I’d been making cider on a small scale as a hobby for some time. It sold well on market stalls, in fact it kept selling out! People liked the flavours, which incorporated Vietnamese tastes and ingredients” she continued.
With great feedback from customers, and a product that was already proving popular, she decided to turn her hobby into a business, scaling her small operation into something bigger. The path has not been all easy, especially as this was before the current craft brew scene had begun.
“When I started you couldn’t get any of the home brew stuff, it was really difficult to reach suppliers for essential equipment so I had a very basic setup to begin with. After a year or so, more brewers appeared on the scene with larger investment and suppliers became easier to find. It’s a lot easier to get the equipment I need now.” Hannah explained.
One of the biggest challenges she faced initially was getting information on how to move forward. As a pioneer in the foreign-lead craft beverage movement, there was no precedence set. It was either huge scale brewing operations, or low quality, low cost home production, and not a lot in between. “Formidable costs prevented me from following in the footsteps of giants, but I didn’t want to be at the lower end of the scale. Finding a way in the middle was really tough.”
Hannah comes from Somerset, the home of cider where it’s traditionally made from fermented apple juice. There is no brewing involved. What can be done with apples can also be done with other fruits. Her creations are contextual, with a Vietnamese twist that remains true to the traditional apple whilst using fruit and other ingredients grown locally.
Her ingredients are seasonal and sourced through her local network of suppliers, except for the apples which are brought in from Australia. Fragrant Tien Giang queen pineapples play with gently bitter Long An guava, finishing in a spicy twist, hinting at black pepper and turmeric. Tart apples combine with Long Khanh ginger, Lam Dong chillies or Quang Ngai cinnamon. Spicy kicks and sweet, hearty flavours. If you like a little bit extra with your cider, they’re pretty darn good.
The importance of sustainability in her business is a key theme when I talk to Hannah. Whilst learning about the ingredients of her cider, she tells me of a recipe that includes cashew apples, typically discarded by the farmer. “It’s such a waste, these great ingredients are underutilised. They rot so quickly that you tend not to see them at markets. We went to the farm, picked them, transported them back to Saigon and juiced them immediately. Fresh and delicious, the result was fantastic!”
Vietnam is starting to move towards sustainability and there are systems in place to recycle, so Hannah decided she would incorporate as much as possible in her production and operations.
“We try to go for zero waste, composting parts of the fruits we don’t use in our fermentation process. All our bottles are reused and we deliver in second hand crates. In the future, we intend using wooden crates. It’s more work for us, but as the systems already exist, it’d be a waste not to use them.”
Saigon Cider is distinguishing itself as an all-inclusive beverage, somewhat different from the craft beer that tends to be drunk by expat males more than others, although this is starting to change. “We probably have a 50/50 split of male and female drinkers, and it’s as popular with Vietnamese as it is with foreigners.” Hannah tells me.
“People are eager to embrace something new and love to try my drinks. The uptake of new products is really fast, the craft beverage movement is snowballing.” While Hannah remains the sole producer of craft cider in Saigon, she tells me that the current movement has helped her drinks’ popularity grow.
“These bia craft type places wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a variety of people all making their own drinks. Four or Five started shortly after us, and others came in more recently with bigger investment behind them. We all feed off each other in different ways – all helping to reach new communities that as a collective we can.”
The future looks bright for Hannah and her ciders. In fact opportunity seems to be kicking the door down. She tells me that she is the only foreigner in the top 100 candidates for Shark Tank, Vietnam’s equivalent of The Dragon’s Den.
It’s a tremendous achievement and has opened all sorts of doors for her. The show will air in April this year and has already brought her more media attention.
Hannah also works with the University of Food and Technology who consider her production process the perfect pilot system for micro fermentation. Helping the university set up their own system, she gives regular lectures and workshops and has supported the students in production of their own wines.
2017 will be a busy year for Hannah as she expands her production to meet local and international demand. “A lot of demand we haven’t been able to meet, but the intention has always been to start small and scale up. We have to keep production running as we move forward and can’t take action until we know what needs to be done. But I have the support now to move forward with confidence.” What started as peace, love and apples has grown into a successful business.